ST. PETERSBURG — A long-running desire to race burned inside Jason Bell, ever since he tried his hand at it when he was a kid. But as one of six children, Bell ran into the same barrier a lot of aspiring young racers hit. No, not a racetrack wall.
Fast forward to 2009. As a successful business owner in his mid 30s, finances finally allowed Bell to begin racing again. Thus began a long path that led to the downtown streets of St. Petersburg.
Friday, at age 42, the Lithia native took his biggest step in racing with his debut in the GTS class of the Pirelli World Challenge sports car series.
"I don't feel 42," Bell said Friday after his first of two races at this weekend's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. "On the racetrack I'm probably 25."
Bell, a Plant City High and USF graduate who lives in Tampa, landed his ride with Racers Edge Motorsports this year after spending several years in go carts and other open-wheeled series.
"These races are great because you're really only gone Thursday and Friday, or maybe you fly in late Wednesday night," Bell said. "And I'm a very hard worker so I don't miss much. In go-carting (the travel demand) is worse."
He has sponsors, but Bell's business acumen also helps pay for his racing ambitions. Bell owns Highway Systems, which builds structures that go over highways such as those that hold street signs, as well as Gulf Atlantic Powder Coating in Clearwater. The single father to 7-year-old daughter Addison also owns pieces of a couple of other businesses.
On Friday — in his first race on a street course, his first in a car with a roof and his first as part of an IndyCar support series — Bell finished eighth in a race won by Andrew Aquilante. Bell ran as high as seventh despite knocking in both of his mirrors when he brushed the concrete walls.
"But that's just because I was giving it everything I could," said Bell, noting that he got bonus points for the number of cars he passed. He'll start today's second GTS race in fifth place based on his best lap in Friday's event.
Bell has received coaching from former Indy Lights racer Bobby Wilson and raced against IndyCar drivers James Hinchcliffe and Conor Daly in exhibition carting events. Daly, 25, stayed at Bell's home in downtown Tampa a couple of weeks ago when he was in town for a promotional event.
"I've known Jason for a long time, he's a good friend of mine," Daly said. "He's a guy who is a very well-established businessman who wanted to go racing. He's done a great job with it. I think he fits right in to the Pirelli World Challenge. … In the end, you're going racing no matter what (your age). I'm going against guys who are 20 years older than me as well. It doesn't matter. You've just got to go racing."
Bell's teammate at Racers Edge Motorsports, which is based in DeLand, also said age isn't a barrier to Bell's drive for racing success.
"Everybody makes their own way into racing somehow or other," said Jade Buford, 29. "If you're 50 or you're 20, if you're fast, you're fast. You're respected all the same."
Bell said he'll have at least 100, perhaps 150 folks cheering him on today for his second series race.
"I want to do better, I've got to get on the podium," Bell said. "(Friday's race) was intense, for sure. Thirty-five straight laps, no cautions. More than I expected, actually."
Until Friday, Bell hadn't raced for nine months. Yet his best laps came at the end of the race, when he said he was fastest.
"I feel good, I'm ready to race right now," he said about two hours after the race. "… I'll enjoy this as long as I can."
After he waited this long, who can blame him?