Donald Davidson: A Living Treasure
There are many living legends to be found milling about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month. Iconic driver AJ Foyt and long-time track announcer Tom Carnegie are among them. There are others as well, but one name near the top of the list is that of Donald Davidson. As we enter the Centennial Era of the Speedway, when discussing names that have made an impact on the Speedway—you must include Donald Davidson.
Donald’s official title is Track Historian, but he is more of an institution — a walking museum. One of the most closely held secrets at the track is Davidson’s age. I’m not sure exactly, but I would guess his age to be around 66 to 68. He has been at the Indianapolis 500 every year since 1964.
Donald Davidson was a relatively poor student in school while growing up in England. He was always daydreaming about racecars. He had become fascinated with Grand Prix racing as a young boy. His mother bought him a book of facts and records on Grand Prix racing. Without even trying, Davidson discovered that he had the ability to memorize each winner, along with the second and third place driver of every race. He then began reading all he could find that involved Grand Prix racing.
It’s a little known fact that during the 1950’s, the Indianapolis 500 actually counted towards the Formula One World Championship. Few F1 drivers actually ran the 500 in those days, but it counted nevertheless. While perusing through his reading material, Davidson noticed a track layout that was rectangular in shape, was in a city he couldn’t pronounce and had drivers he had never heard of. As Davidson learned more about this race in the US, he became fascinated with it. Donald became a sponge and soaked in as much as he could about the Indianapolis 500 mile race.
If you’ve ever heard Davidson on the IMS Radio Network or his nightly call-in show during the Month of May, you know he can recall facts, figures and stories of every driver, car owner, chief mechanic, announcer, flagman, etc, that has ever been associated with the Indianapolis 500; right off the top of his head –all without the use of a computer. I heard Davidson interviewed recently where the person speaking with him tried to stump him with several offbeat questions.
He purposely interrupted Donald’s speaking with “Who finished eighth in 1955?” Davidson calmly replied, “Pat O’Connor”.
“Who finished last in 1990?” was the next question fired. Without thinking, Donald simply stated “Stan Fox”. You get the idea.
It has been said that Davidson has a photographic memory. Instead, he has what is known as “Selective Retentive Easy Access” which, as Donald puts it, means he can only remember things he is interested in.
His obsession with the Indianapolis 500 would not go away. He saved money for years so that he could attend the race. Prior to going, he began correspondence with Speedway personnel. They helped him with living arrangements through the Month of May and got him the needed credentials. He also began corresponding with Sid Collins, the “Voice of the 500”, to see if there was any way he could get on the radio broadcast. Collins assured him there was no room on the broadcast, but to look him up when he got there and he would show him around.
Donald finally saved enough and came to America in May 1964. His first day at the track was Fast Friday—the day before Pole Day. One of the first people he sought out was Sid Collins. Davidson was an instant hit in the garage area. He was almost a novelty act as each driver wanted to come up and see what Donald knew about them. It was quite obvious that this wasn’t just a quick memorization trick. This was Davidson’s life-long passion. During one of the lulls during qualifying, he managed to be interviewed over the track PA system. By race day, Sid Collins had asked Donald to be a guest on the radio network broadcast. It was only a couple of minutes but he made an impression on the audience. As he was leaving to go home, he was assured he was welcomed back at any time.
On his return to England, Donald realized that this was his calling. He returned to Indianapolis before the 1965 race on a one-way ticket. He was on the broadcast team in 1965 and has been there since. Soon after the 1965 race, Davidson went to work at USAC as the official statistician – a career that lasted over thirty years. In the late sixties, Donald also did various radio shows about the 500, where prizes were given if the caller could “stump Donald”. Very few prizes were earned.
The flagship station for the IMS Radio network, WIBC, began a show with Davidson in 1971 called “The Talk Of Gasoline Alley”. It ran every night in the Month of May. Instead of Donald sitting in the line of fire of bizarre questioning, callers were encouraged to call in with questions "of a nostalgic nature" about a particular driver or situation in past 500’s — the earlier the better.
The show still runs today in pretty much the same format. Callers range in age from six to ninety-five. Donald doesn’t care for controversial topics like the CART-IRL split, or the Bobby Unser-Mario Andretti controversy of 1981. Nor does he like to talk about times when drivers have lost their lives. He’ll discuss these topics on an as-needed basis, but prefers to avoid them. Donald would rather profile drivers of the past with interesting anecdotes.
Donald is very adept as a story-teller and his pronounced British accent only adds to the lore. He can instantly recall a story whether it involves Danica Patrick or Ralph de Palma. The show is a nightly two-hour journey into another time. And one little tidbit…Donald detests the term “Indy” used in any form; whether it is used to describe the city, the track, race or type of cars that run there. Out of respect for Donald, I have refrained from using the term throughout this article.
The show can be heard live over the Internet from 6-8 (EDT) on most nights up through the race, and they archive the shows (without commercials) for download. The direct link is provided in our list of links labeled “The Talk Of Gasoline Alley”. Most people listen to music through their i-Pods when they walk or run. I listen to Donald Davidson whether I’m driving, walking or working in the yard.
We are losing too many of our heroes too quickly these days. Rodger Ward passed away a few years ago. We lost Lloyd Ruby a couple of months ago. We still have some of our idols that we can cherish a little while longer. Donald Davidson is still relatively young. His mind is as sharp as ever and he remains very active in teaching a college class about the 500, giving talks about the 500 and of course, his daily duties at the Speedway. Hopefully, we will be able to enjoy Donald Davidson for many more years to come. He is an Indianapolis 500 treasure.