Indy Historian To Become History Himself

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, December 8 2020

Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson is retiring.

Acknowledged and admired as a master of auto racing minutiae, Donald Davidson announced his impending retirement as Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Monday with this trivia teaser.

“We are now up to the total number of drivers that have driven in the Indianapolis 500 is 782,” Davidson said during a ZOOM conference from Indianapolis with national media. “It’s right at that. I think it was 777. Now it would be 782 have driven in the Indianapolis 500. How many with the surname of Smith?

“None. There’s never been a Smith driving the Indianapolis 500. How can that be? I just love stuff like that!”

Davidson punctuated that answer with his signature laugh, another bow to his encyclopedic knowledge of IMS and 104 editions of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Davidson officially will relinquish his day-to-day duties as IMS historian on Dec. 31, 2020. Davidson has amazed, entertained and delighted millions since first crossing the Atlantic to visit IMS in May 1964, fulfilling a fascination with the Speedway that began during his teenage years in Salisbury, England.

Davidson today is globally synonymous with the preservation and promotion of the history of IMS and the Indy 500. His passion, knowledge and genial personality have remained his calling card, whether interacting with fans at the IMS Museum or at the track, answering historical queries from fans and car collectors or during countless public speaking engagements and television and radio appearances.

“The years have flown by at an alarming rate and never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that this magical ride would last as long as it has,” said Davidson, adding this was hardly an overnight decision. “As far as to where we are now, I lived the dream. There were some sad times with all of it. But, I mean, basically I was just living the dream. Had this ability to memorize stuff, which is kind of a mystery because I was terrible at schoolwork, but I was able to memorize 500 facts.

“Anyway, as I sort of became a senior citizen, I began to think about a lot of other things I would like to do really locally just around the house. I don’t want to go to every baseball park or any Formula 1 Grand Prix, anything like that. There’s just a lot of ‘stuff.’

“I bought a lot of books I never read, movies that I’ve never watched. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. Especially in the last several months, when we had to work from home _ that’s OK for me except I’m technically challenged. As my friends will tell you, I’m not really computer savvy. I also did a lot of phone interviews, talking with fans and people with questions.

“I’ve just been thinking that I don’t want to stop but I just thought I would like to be able to do what I want to do…straighten the place up, sort of take care of things around the house, sort my stuff. I like to do silly little statistical projects just for myself. Nothing really special. But still do some of the things that I’d done, but not have the obligation, if you like, of working every day because just a lot of things have changed.

“This year, of course, it’s been challenging for everybody. As I tell people, I’m outgoing, I’m good with people but I’m actually a private individual. We’re a private family. I shake hands with everybody. I hug people. I get hugs. Drivers’ wives, even the drivers themselves, I get hugs. We can’t do that anymore. It’s just changed a lot of things. I don’t know how long we will have to do this. I thought that maybe this is a sign to me that being at home is OK.

“Really that’s it. There’s nothing to read between the lines. It is my decision. I would like to still come around. I hope they let me in.”

Davidson has served as IMS historian since January 1998 and is believed to be the only person in the world to hold that role fulltime for a motorsports facility.

“No one has more knowledge or more appreciation of the heritage of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway than Donald Davidson,” said Roger Penske, who is completing his first season as IMS owner as well as NTT IndyCar Series owner. “I have always admired Donald’s passion and dedication to the Speedway and ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’ His ability to seemingly recall every detail of IMS history is remarkable, and he is one of the greatest storytellers racing has ever seen.

“I want to thank Donald for all he has done for our sport and for helping to bring the personalities and the legends of IMS to life for more than 50 years. Donald will always have a place at the Speedway, and we wish him all the best in this next chapter of his life.”

As noted, Davidson’s passion for auto racing began in his native England, where Formula One was the prevalent form of motorsport. But Davidson said “a whole new world opened up for me” with a Christmas gift of the 1956 Indy 500 Yearbook from his mother.

“The pictures of the cars, they were so beautifully done, so shiny. The car names, all of this,” Davidson said. “In 1957 and ’58, Monza in Italy had a high-speed section for record-breaking. The Americans went over there to race the Europeans. When they showed up there, I mean, these amazing cars that were just so beautiful _ paint jobs, pinstriping, everything like that _ I just hooked onto that and started memorizing results.

“Over a period of the next few years, I saved up the money. I mean, I didn’t know about charge cards and all this other stuff. I actually saved up the money from zero to enough to be able to come. I bought a ticket, which was like a week’s salary for the ticket. I stayed with a family right outside of Turn 3.”

During that visit Davidson dazzled IMS officials, including track-owner Tony Hulman, with his ability to recite year-by-year accounts of participants’ careers. Davidson also was first introduced to international audiences via a brief appearance on the IMS Radio Network, courtesy of legendary anchor Sid Collins.

“I came back the next year (1965) and I’ve been on the network ever since,” said Davidson, who was hired by Henry Banks to work for the United States Auto Club (USAC) as a statistician _ a job he fulfilled with pride and detail for nearly 32 years.

“I think Sid Collins and Henry Banks are the two that I would probably put above everybody because Sid put me on Broadway and Henry Banks was like an uncle to me,” Davidson said. “He hired me at USAC so I actually had a job, working for USAC. The drivers were coming in there all the time _ (Johnny) Rutherford, Mario (Andretti) in a T-shirt, Roger McCluskey. I just was living the dream.”

Davidson then briefly joined TelX (now IMS Productions) as an historical archivist in 1997 before moving to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation as historian in January 1998.

Rutherford, a three-time Indy 500 champion, said he was not surprised by Davidson’s decision.

I was with him at a gathering in August at the 500 _ it’s hard for me to say the 500 in August _ and I noticed then that he was quieter and he had something he was thinking about,” Rutherford said during a phone interview with RacinToday.com from his home in the River Oaks section of Fort Worth, Texas. “So I’m sure he’s given this a great deal of thought. He came there in what, 1964, and it comes time for people to say, ‘Hey, that’s it.’

“And times have changed at the 500 so much. It’s so different than it’s ever been. What Roger Penske has done there is amazing. The place looks like a brand new facility. Everything is painted and polished and paved. It is amazing to see it.”

Rutherford qualified for the first of his 24 Indy 500 starts in 1963, en route to victories in 1974, 1976 and 1980. “Lone Star J.R.” said he and his late wife, Betty, were privvy to Davidson’s passion for the Speedway and his engaging personality during countless Month of May business and social occasions.

“His knowledge of the Speedway…he could tell you things back to the beginning and that is a special treat for anybody that gets to stick around him,” said Rutherford, who made his final Indy 500 start in 1988. “He just doesn’t forget anything and he’s a really nice guy to be around. I’ve spent a lot of time with him in May and gone to programs with him where’s he’s been the emcee. He’s just Donald, you know?” 

Guarded about his age, Davidson has mentioned during radio programs that he shares a birthday with Indy 500 winners Jimmy Bryan and Takuma Sato _ January 28. 

Davidson’s painstaking attention to detail and friendly, polished manner led him to numerous media roles across many platforms. He has served in various on- and off-air roles for the IMS Radio Network broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 since 1965, and also was part of the broadcast team for selected NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400s and other open-wheel events. From 1971-2020, Davidson was host of the popular The Talk of Gasoline Alley call-in program on Indianapolis radio station 1070 AM.

Davidson also is a prodigious and skilled writer whose colorful anecdotes have brought IMS and racing history to life. His writing credits include scores of historical articles and columns for various print and digital outlets and Indianapolis 500 Yearbooks in 1974 and 1975. He also co-wrote with Rick Shaffer the acclaimed Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500, published in 2006 and updated in 2013.

Davidson has made numerous appearances on Indianapolis-area TV broadcasts and has been featured on national and international TV segments.

Over the years, Davidson also has participated in speaking tours throughout the Midwest during the late winter and early spring to promote the Indianapolis 500 and its history. He has spoken at venues ranging from large auditoriums to small-town public libraries, as enthusiastic about presentations before a crowd of 12 as he was to a gathering of 1,200.

Davidson has fashioned lasting friendships with most “Legends of the Brickyard,” including A.J. Foyt Jr. and Andretti, as well as many lesser-known drivers.

“There will never be another Donald Davidson _ he is like an encyclopedia on racing,” said Foyt, first-four-time winner of the Indy 500. “I bet he knows more about my career than I do. And I don’t think he should be allowed to retire before me. All joking aside, I wish him the best.” Foyt participated in a record 35 Indy 500s between 1958 and 1992, scoring victories in 1961, 1964, 1967 and 1977.

Davidson recalled a post-race moment from the historic 1977 race as truly iconic.

“I tell you what, Foyt winning for the fourth time and taking the (Oldsmobile Delta 88 convertible) Pace Car ride with Tony Hulman sitting up on the back,” Davidson said. “That wasn’t about 200-something miles an hour. Tony would often get into the Pace Car, but Foyt said, ‘No, up on the back with me.’

“The fact that we finally had a four-time winner, then Tony Hulman, they took that post-race victory lap, if you like. Must have taken about 20, 25 minutes because the fans were running out on the track, not to disrupt the thing, but just to show their appreciation and admiration. Just the two of them, two of the most iconic figures in the history of the track. Then, of course, it was melancholy because Tony Hulman passed away later that year. But that stands out to me as an amazing moment.”

Andretti made 29 Indy 500 starts during his star-crossed IMS career between 1965 and 1994, highlighted by his lone victory in 1969 for Andy Granatelli.

“There is something very special about Donald Davidson, and I noticed it from almost the minute I met him,” Andretti said. “When we first met, we gravitated to each other immediately. I think that was because we were both relatively fresh immigrants from Europe, so we had something in common. But very quickly I realized how remarkable this man was _ a walking encyclopedia of everything Indianapolis. He immediately started educating me about the 500. I was so impressed; the furthest thing I expected from a Brit.

“He and I personally engaged and remained connected over the years. I could ask him where I was on Lap 32 in 1971 or what the track temperature was on Race Day 1984, and he would answer me without the blink of an eye. I thought it was almost miraculous. He’s everyone’s go-to guy for information on anything of historical significance, and he can talk about it in the most compelling way, which has earned him tremendous respect.

“And aside from his job at the Museum, he’s a well-liked gentleman who is genuinely kind and so enjoyable to be around. I can honestly say that I looked forward to seeing him every time I returned to Indy. I have so much respect for Donald. I’m very happy that I was able to enjoy and learn from his wisdom. And what I cherish most is that we became friends. I look forward to our paths crossing again.”

In honor of his accomplishments and significant contributions to Indiana culture, Davidson was presented with the state’s highest civilian honor, the Sagamore of the Wabash, in 2016.

Davidson’s remarkable career and personality also have been recognized via induction into the IMS Hall of Fame in 2010, the Indiana Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2013 and the USAC Hall of Fame in 2017.

“Donald always has been one of a kind _ a true gem,” said Tony George, board chair, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum board of directors. “He has parlayed his love and knowledge of the Indianapolis 500 into a unique style of storytelling, one that captivates audiences and deepens their experience of the sport they love.

“He was invaluable in creating the architecture that became the Indy Racing League and was deeply involved in plans leading up to the inaugural event at Walt Disney World Speedway. We thank him for his many contributions throughout his entire career and wish him well as he spends more time pursuing his passions, including racing and its rich history.”

Davidson reiterated that he is not going to totally disappear from IMS and activities surrounding the big track at the corners of 16th Street and Georgetown Road.

“Thank you to everybody,” Davidson said. “Thank you to all of the management and the superiors that I’ve had. But the participants, what they shared with me, the individuals and the families, the relationships, the rapport with the media, the fans. Golly, just the greatest, most loyal fans you could have anywhere. I’m just very, very grateful to everybody.

“Again, I’m not stopping. I’m not going away. I’m just going to sit back and put my feet up and not work so hard, or hopefully not.”

Fans are encouraged to share their tributes to Davidson on social media with the hashtag #DonaldDavidson.


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, December 8 2020
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