Patience, perseverance pays off for KVRT’s James Davison ahead of Indy 500 debut

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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.

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Photo: TRG-AMR

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.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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