Back row drivers thrilled for Indy 500 opportunity

When the 33-car field roars down the most iconic speedway in auto racing Sunday, Bryan Clauson and James Davison could be the last two drivers to take the green flag.

But if you could flip up their visors as they crossed the Yard of Bricks to start the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, their smiles might suggest they’d just won it. When it comes to the Indy 500, being on the grid is victory in itself. That’s the power of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“Just to make the 500 is a massive achievement for any kid with a dream,” Davison said during a media tour through Dayton on Tuesday. “If I was to die tomorrow I’d be happy to say I drove in the Indy 500.”

Sunday’s race is the second for both drivers. Davison finished 16th after starting 28th in 2014. Clauson finished 30th after starting 31st before mechanical problems forced him to the garage after 46 laps in 2012.

Both find themselves again starting in the back of the grid. Davison, who mainly runs in sports car series, had another racing obligation to fulfill during Sunday’s qualifying, and fill-in driver Tristan Vautier qualified the No. 19 Always Evolving Dale Coyne Honda in 21st. Davison, 28, starts last, though, since the team made a driver change.

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Clauson held off Buddy Lazier — who won the 1996 Indy 500 driving for Dayton’s Ron Hemmelgarn — for the final qualifying position in his KVSH/Jonathan Byrd’s/Cancer Treatment Centers of America Chevrolet.

“For me one of the coolest moments of my career was walking out for driver intros on race day (in 2012),” said Clauson, a 25-year-old sprint car driver who is well known in this area racing at Eldora Speedway and Lawrenceburg Speedway, among others. “For me, somebody who grew up around the speedway, there’s probably nothing that will ever top that.”

The history of the Indianapolis 500 brings to mind names like Foyt, Mears, Unser, Castroneves and Andretti. Davison and Clauson would rather focus on Harroun and Meyer.

Ray Harroun (1911) and Louis Meyer (1936) hold the record for winning the Indy 500 from the deepest starting spot in the field. Both started 28th.

“Just to make this race is a huge achievement,” Davison said. “I can’t think of any other race where everyone is celebrating for just making the race. … Can you imagine coming out of the last turn on the last lap knowing you’re going to win the Indianapolis 500?”

Clauson might have imagined that as a kid. His family moved from California to Indiana when he was 9, putting him in the shadows of historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He watched practice sessions from the viewing mounds near turns 1 and 2. And he hanged on the fence that separates the fans from pit road asking for autographs.

“Anybody that was in a firesuit at that point was a hero. … It was cool looking back on it,” Clauson said. “It’s kind of surreal. You kind of realize how cool it is after the fact that I used to be the kid on the other side of the fence.”

While Clauson was getting a hands-on experience, Davison was reading about it. His legendary racing family kept an Indianapolis 500 history book on the coffee table.

Now his name is in it. Davison’s oldest memories of the Indy 500 are when Kenny Brack won in 1999.

“Twenty years later and that I’m racing against him in the Indy 500 is pretty crazy,” Davison said.

Davison said a top-10 finish Sunday would make it a good day. Clauson said top-15 would do. The first step, though, is surviving the first turn. Anything can happen when the field rushes into the first turn battling for track position.

“It’s 500 miles — 800 corners as we like to put it — and the first one is about getting through it clean,” Clauson said. “Back there you don’t want to be three wide going through there. It’s a lot about being patient.”

Added Davison: “You can’t win the race on the first corner, but you can lose it.”

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