You don’t hear too often anymore of the rookie at Indianapolis who’s been out of the game full-time for four or five years, who plied their trade seemingly in another era but has fought tooth and nail to stay in the game in any way possible to make it back to a present day opportunity.
That makes James Davison’s story for this year’s Indianapolis 500 all the more appealing, because that’s his narrative.
A talented 27-year-old Australian, rated highly by his countryman Will Power, never quite seemed in the right place at the right time from his move to America in the mid-2000s. He raced in Formula BMW in 2005, Formula Atlantics in 2006 – then as teammate to Simon Pagenaud – driving for Derrick Walker, and Star Mazda in 2007. That last year he finished second to rising sports car star Dane Cameron in the points standings.
In 2008 and 2009 he raced in Indy Lights, the first year with the powerhouse Sam Schmidt Motorsports operation and the second with Vision Racing. That latter year, Davison was best of the rest behind series champion JR Hildebrand in what was Lights’ deepest field in the last 10 years, with car counts 27 or more at most races.
“Runner-up was our best possible result that year, and we achieved it,” Davison said, noting several of the 13 other drivers from that 2009 season who had previously or eventually would race in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
But since 2010, it’s been a struggle. Without sponsorship, Davison has not had a full-time ride since, and has largely stayed in the game with coaching opportunities and a handful of one-off races in sports cars.
His star was back on the rise in 2013 when Dale Coyne Racing provided him his first two IndyCar starts, where he overachieved despite limited testing time at the Mid-Ohio and Sonoma road races.
Now, timing and opportunity added up to become the 33rd entry for this year’s race, in a KV Racing Technology Chevrolet with support from Always Evolving Racing.
“It won’t 100 percent set in until I’m out on track and the actual operation begins,” he admitted in an interview with MotorSportsTalk. “I worked from a very young age to get to this point and had to work a lot harder than some of my colleagues due to circumstances outside of my control with the financial side. But it’s better late than never. Hopefully those five years from my early to mid-to-late 20s pay off in terms of using my head, with the many tricky situations the race no doubt will present.”
Compared to some of his rookie counterparts, Davison can at least say he’s somewhat experienced on ovals.
Mikhail Aleshin and Carlos Huertas will be making their first oval starts; Kurt Busch is adapting from NASCAR to race here in an IndyCar.
Meanwhile Davison is part of a quartet of he, Sage Karam, Jack Hawksworth and Martin Plowman who all have experience from ovals in Indy Lights. But for Davison, it’s been five years since his last oval race, and he doesn’t think that knowledge will be all that transferrable.
“My experience on ovals will certainly count for something, but this will be a larger step,” he explained. “Indy Lights around here is pretty straightforward and an IndyCar is so much more on edge. The elements of the track and the marbles are something the Freedom (100) just doesn’t throw out. Perfect example is that the last lap of the Freedom last year had cars go 4-wide, and Hildebrand went 2-wide (in 2011) and ends up in the wall.”
Davison’s run this year is with the defending Indianapolis 500 champion team of KVRT, albeit on a short engine program that he begins today with his Rookie Orientation Program. It’s an open-wheel dovetail to his full-season commitments in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship with TRG-AMR North America and its Aston Martin Vantage.
He’ll also introduce the Pirelli World Challenge Always Evolving Racing team into IndyCar, as the No. 33 Chevrolet takes on that brand’s unique corporate colors of teal, black and white.
“They were the biggest element of sponsorship and I couldn’t have done it without them,” Davison aid. “It’s fantastic to see them moving up in their marketing programs, from the World Challenge series, which I have tremendous amount of respect for and would certainly like to be a part of at some point, to see them here at the Indy 500 reflects the naming of their brand.”
But ultimately, the story of perseverance of Davison’s career matches that of his branding – it’s been “always evolving” and is now the culmination of years of hard work to get to this stage.
“Regardless of how positive you can be, after four years, you worry it’s fading away,” he admitted. “You feel so helpless because you’re always trying, but often restricted financially in motorsport. By persevering and turning stones over, I finally found some gold, then combined with being in the right place, right time as ever that’s required to succeed, I found myself in an IndyCar last year. And now, this at the Indianapolis 500.”