INDYCAR continues our celebration of the 12 days of Christmas with 12 of the most memorable storylines from the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
Seven rookies made their start in the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500, and as a whole, the class of 2014 made their presence felt throughout the month of May.
2004 NASCAR champion Kurt Busch was the highest profile rookie, joining forces with Andretti Autosport to drive the No. 26 Honda. 2013 Indy Lights champion and Ganassi Racing development driver Sage Karam was placed in the No. 22 Chevy run by Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, former Indy Lights race winner James Davison was added to the KV Racing roster in the No. 33 Chevy, and Martin Plowman made his IndyCar return after a three-year hiatus to make his first start at the “500”in A.J. Foyt Racing’s No. 41 Honda.
Verizon IndyCar Series regulars Carlos Huertas (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda), Jack Hawksworth (No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda), and Mikhail Aleshin (No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda) also made their debuts at Indianapolis, and most made an impact from the early stages of practice.
Busch was enrolled in Andretti University from the outset, working on drafting and running in big packs behind his teammates. By the third practice session, his No. 26 was second on the speed charts, and despite a crash later in the week, the eager Nevada native looked ready to go for 500 miles of open-wheel competition after qualifying 12th.
Hawksworth also made contact during practice, but recovered to qualify 13th, the second-fastest rookie. Aleshin was a rocket late in the week, posting the fastest lap of the month in a draft at 232.917mph, before qualifying 15th.
Huertas, who was new to oval racing, earned respect on his way to qualifying 21st; Davison, who was on a short program and climbed into his car for the first time two days prior to qualifying, was especially impressive on his way to taking 28th on the grid. Plowman followed in 29th, and if there was a surprise among the rookies during time trials, it was Karam’s last-row run to 31st.
With seven drivers sewing their own stories, Davison’s path to making the field and racing his way to 16th was just one of many remarkable tales.
“My first Indy 500 was an incredible experience,” he said. “All the traditions and festivities leading up to the race truly make it ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’ My KV Racing entry was one of the only ‘half programs in the field.
“Due to budget restrictions, we had a single engine and limited sets of tires to work with. In the end, all of this meant that we had limited time and mileage to fully maximize our package as a whole. My goals were to keep the car straight and finish the race in the top half of the field. We achieved that.”
Busch would use his decades of oval experience to immediately adapt to the rigors of racing in the Indy 500, and was rewarded with sixth place and Rookie of the Year honors. Huertas showed smarts and great aptitude on his way home to 17th. Hawksworth and Aleshin would gain invaluable experience on the way to 20th and 21st, respectively, and Plowman persevered to 23th—the lowest position among the seven.
Davison improved 12 positions in the teal No. 33, and says he could have easily ended up 33rd.
“My worst nightmare nearly came true on the opening lap of the race when Ryan Briscoe and Jacques Villeneuve got together,” he explained. “Ryan half-spun into me, but I saw it coming and managed to minimize the damage when we made contact. From there, the next 140 or so laps were green which gave me a good opportunity to learn how to time passes and improve my car after each stop. It's incredible how easy it is to come unstuck in that race when you're driving on the limit at those speeds for more than three hours.
“I'm guessing nearly everyone has a number of close calls at some point in their race. On the last restart I was sitting 14th, two spots behind Sage Karam. He got a great jump and I pretty much got the opposite. I got checked up behind the pack into Turn 1 and got passed by Alex Tagliani, Villeneuve and Sebastian Saavedra. That was a little disappointing but in the end the goal was to run strong, maximize what we had, and just finish. 16th wasn’t bad for my first time.”
Karam’s drive from 31st to ninth was one of the great performances at Indy, and despite missing out on the Rookie of the Year award, the teenager from Pennsylvania marked himself as a rising star across those 200 memorable laps.
For Davison, who grew up in Australia and dreamt about the Indy 500, being part of the show in 2014 was better than anything he imagined in his youth.
“I will say I was quite emotional after the Victory Banquet when the realization had set in that the entire event was over,” he noted. “A ton a work had gone into being 1 of the 33, and the experience was certainly worth all the blood, sweat and tears getting there.”