James Davison was watching Indianapolis 500 qualifying via web stream from Wisconsin last Saturday when Sebastien Bourdais hurdled into the Turn 2 wall in a horrific crash.
Davison did not waste any time.
"Right away I knew that Sebastien was not going to be in any shape to run the 500," Davison said. "That kind of impact — almost straight into the wall like (Gordon Smiley's fatal crash in 1982) — is not good."
It was a delicate balancing act for the 30-year-old Australian. On the one hand he wanted to be respectful of the situation with Bourdais, who was diagnosed with multiple fractures but no life-threatening injuries. But at the same time, he knew that he would be just one of a multitude of drivers angling to get in good with team owner Dale Coyne as he searched for a replacement.
"You get to know Dale in that if he doesn't respond to your texts, it means he doesn't have an answer," said Davison, who drove for Coyne in the 500 in 2015. "I basically started heading to Indianapolis (right away) knowing I'd be considered to be a replacement."
While names such as Ryan Briscoe, Stefan Wilson and others circulated on who would step in, Davison had several things working in his favor. Three of his four IndyCar starts in his career have been with Coyne, and he was in discussions to run a fourth Dale Coyne Racing entry for this year's 500, but the lack of available Honda engines put an end to that quest.
With Bourdais out, Davison felt good about his chances. When Coyne called him at 9 a.m. last Sunday to offer the seat, he was ready.
"I was obviously really excited to be back in the Indy 500, but under unfortunate circumstances," Davison said.
Bourdais and his driver replacement are no strangers. The duo were teammates in 2015 at Indianapolis when Davison was a rookie and trained together in St. Petersburg, Fla. a few years back when both lived there. To Davison, stepping up for Bourdais on short notice is just one of those things that seems extremely stressful to outsiders, yet is a part of the racing life.
When Davison hit the track for practice on last Monday, it took him less than three laps to get up to speed at 220 mph. After a short refresher alone on the course, he was in the thick of traffic in practice, darting in and out of the draft working to learn as much as he could in Bourdais' backup — now his — car.
"Obviously you are hired to do a job as professional race driver," Davison said. "You have to man up and get on with it."
Just as he did in his first 500 two years ago, Davison will start last in Sunday's race, a byproduct of the lack of a qualifying speed. Not only will he be driving a backup car with little track time, he will be starting the biggest race in the world at the back of the field.
"Obviously there is a huge amount of congestion and turbulence," said Davison about that first lap when starting in the back. "Essentially there are 32 jet fighters on wheels in front of you and all kinds of air going around. You're heavy on fuel and cold on tire temperatures.
"Your race can be over at the start or you can get by a lot of cars."
Davison remembers passing about five cars on the outside on the opening lap of the Indianapolis 500. Whether he does something similar on Sunday remains to be seen.
But to even have the chance to race in the Indianapolis 500 wasn't even on the mind of Davison barely a week ago.
For that, he is grateful.
"On Monday I found myself passing Fernando Alonso in Turn 3 when I didn't even know I'd be driving the morning before," Davison said. "I was hired to get up to speed quickly and do the best job for Dale Coyne."