The 24 hours that followed James Davison’s heavy crash during Fast Friday practice were a whirlwind but culminated in the Australian earning the right take the green flag of the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.
Davison’s three-race history at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been one where being bumped — not making it into the field of 33 — has been a nonissue.
In 2014, he drove for KV Racing Technology and improved 12 positions to finish 16th after starting 28th. That year, there were 33 cars on the entry list, so all drivers who made qualifying attempts also made the field.
In 2015, Davison drove the No. 19 Honda for Dale Coyne Racing, although a prior Pirelli World Challenge commitment at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park kept him from qualifying the car. That task instead went to Tristan Vautier, who was later named to the Coyne’s No. 18 car after Carlos Huertas was not medically cleared to race.
Due to Vautier qualifying the car 19th, it was never in danger of being bumped despite that year’s 34-car entry list. Because of the driver swap, Davison started on the outside of Row 11 where he was joined by teammate Vautier and Ryan Briscoe, who filled in for the injured James Hinchcliffe. He went on to finish six positions ahead of where he started.
Ever the reliable substitute driver, Davison was called on again by Coyne in 2017 following Sebastien Bourdais’ spectacular qualifying crash that broke his pelvis and left him sidelined for months.
With 33 entries in the 2017 race, Davison could start no worse than 33rd, despite the car having not been officially qualified. Behind the wheel of a rebuilt No. 18 Honda, Davison once again started last but made up 13 positions over the 200-lap race to finish 20th.
Davison’s journey to the Indianapolis 500 starting grid this year has been unlike any he’s experienced before, beginning with his encounter with the SAFER Barrier at the exit of Turn 2.
Three hours and 43 minutes into Practice 5, Davison’s No. 33 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet got loose after the apex of Turn 2, experienced a half spin and made subsequent left-side contact with the wall. Davison was able to exit the car without assistance and was later checked and released from the infield care center and cleared to drive.
Despite the clean bill of health, Davison knew he wasn’t operating at 100 percent.
“It was actually very painful,” admitted Davison at the end of Bump Day. “Initially, I got out of the car and I could feel I bumped my leg. Once I got in the safety truck, it was excruciating pain for 10 minutes.
“Overnight, found out where else I hurt myself in various other places. My foot, my ribs, my thigh. I’m a soldier. I kind of tough it out. I was excited to get back in the car.”
Davison did get back in the car on Saturday for qualifying. For the first time, he was tasked with qualifying a car for the Indy 500 in an instance where being bumped was real possibility.
As the 12th driver to qualify and second to make an attempt after a two-hour, 20-minute rain delay, Davison ran a strong 225.545 mph on his first of four laps. However, his speed decreased with each lap and after a 223.945 mph fourth lap, he averaged 224.798 mph.
Once bumping began, Davison fell down the order until he was sitting 33rd out of 35 cars.
“We made some changes to the car to be ready to go if we had to go again,” said Davison. “Obviously, only until the last 10 minutes did we get bumped to the bubble, then we were in kind of a Catch-22 position where we didn’t want to pull the time and find ourselves in a Paul Tracy position, but we also didn’t want to find ourselves being in the hands of everyone else.”
In Bump Day qualifying for the 2010 Indy 500, Tracy’s pace had already secured him a position on the starting grid. Believing he needed to improve his speed in order to prevent himself from being bumped, he withdrew his time. His subsequent attempt was waved off after he had little control of his car and nearly hit the wall multiple times. Without a time, Tracy bumped himself from the field unnecessarily.
Davison avoided a similar fate by sticking with his original speed. At the end of the day, both Hinchcliffe and Pippa Mann were outside of the 33. Had either posted a four-lap average quicker than Davison’s, he would have been bumped.
With time running out, Mann couldn’t exceed Davison’s pace and Hinchcliffe never got a chance to try.
“It’s a life experience, making it into the Indy 500 — actually earning it,” said Davison.
“As stressful as it was, it’s something that I think we’ll all go to our graves with and kind of be pleased in a way that we experienced it.”
Davison’s defiance in the face of adversity — both his crashed car and the real prospect of being bumped out of the biggest race in the world — isn’t a new character trait for the Australian driver.
“I feel it’s been my biggest asset in my career, is having confidence, being a fighter, really wanting to go out there and achieve my goals on and off the track,” he said.
“Obviously with Indianapolis, in black and white, where 33 or 35 grown men and women are strapped to jet fighter planes on wheels, doing 230 miles an hour between concrete walls with massive consequences if it all goes wrong, you got to have confidence.”
Despite his confidence, Davison is realistic about his chances in Group 1 qualifying, which will fix positions 10 through 33 on the grid for the 500-mile race.
“Obviously it’s kind of risk management at this point,” said Davison. “I think it’s fair to say, unless something very unusual happens, our car’s speed is towards the back of the field.”
No matter how Pole Day goes for Davison, he’s definitely in the field and will start no worse than 33rd after matching his car number to end Bump Day there.
Once his starting position is determined, Davison’s next whirlwind will involve battling 32 other cars and drivers for 500 miles. That journey will begin Sunday, May 27 at 12:21 p.m. EDT.