Longtime Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson makes his reputation and living discussing the past.
With 99 Indianapolis 500s in the books, Davidson can’t possibly run out of material.
Suspected to be in his early- or mid-70s based solely on nearly a half-century of marriage (Davidson won’t reveal his age), he continues to be a much-sought-after speaker and IMS tour guide throughout the year.
Particularly in May.
Davidson’s phenomenal recall regarding previous ‘500’ races, time trials, crashes, car models and countless traditions is nothing short of astounding.
Throughout May, his radio show, “The Talk of Gasoline Alley,” is aired weekdays from 8 to 9 p.m. on 1070 AM The Fan in Indianapolis.
It’s a platform perfectly suited for Davidson, whose love of the race, its ardent supporters and a quality ‘500’-related anecdote make his familiar English accent must-hear radio.
Davidson recently took time for a Q&A with the Daily Journal:
Q: Growing up in England, why was the Indianapolis 500 so fascinating to you?
A: It was pretty unusual because most of my friends at the time didn’t know what the Indianapolis 500 was. This was before the period where the Europeans were coming over. When Jim Clark and Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart started coming in, people started learning more about it.
Why I became fascinated I have no idea. Probably the first time I was aware of it was when I got interested in Grand Prix racing, and this was the very early days of the World Championship. They included the Indianapolis 500. Although it wasn’t a Grand Prix, the World Championship was started in 1950, and they were sort of making it up as they went along. Upon reflection, it doesn’t make any sense, but at the time they awarded points. You would see all the Grand Prix drivers were appearing in the grand prix races, and then there was this one event where it was different people. (Laughing) Who on earth are they? I think that was the first time I became aware of it. When I saw photographs of what the cars looked like, I thought, ‘Boy, I like those.’
Q: Your first race here was in 1964. That race for obvious reasons (the horrific crash that took the lives of drivers Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald) might have turned you away from the Indianapolis 500 for good. Why didn’t it?
A: That’s a very good question because I remember all of it vividly. I showed up, I had saved for years to get to the point where I could come here, and then when I did it was like magic because I met all these people. I did not expect the drivers to be so friendly and everything. And then the accident happened, I remember thinking, ‘Golly, could this be it?’ because I thought there might be a bill to outlaw motor racing. That had happened in Europe whenever there was a bad accident. There would be a big outcry.
I actually was walking down the main straightaway in Turn 1 not knowing what happened, but obviously something very serious. Everybody was running down the straightaway, and I went, too. I was thinking, ‘I made it here, I met all these people for the last three weeks, and now it’s over’. But … and I don’t know how to put this and have it come across right, but there was a different mindset then. If you liked motor racing and you had a favorite driver, he was probably going to get hurt because that was the way of it then.
Q: Every major sporting event claims to have a glory era. What is the Indianapolis 500’s in your opinion?
A: For me personally, it’s the 1950s. But, and I’ve talked to a number of people about this, your favorite era whether you realize it or not, was probably when you first got interested in it. I liked the ’50s. I liked the roadsters, but maybe that’s because it’s when I first discovered it.
Q: Since attending your first race 52 years ago, do you have a favorite era?
A: No. Nothing really stands out. My perspective is maybe a little bit different. I’m interested in the people. I’m not a gearhead. Just as long as it makes a lot of noise, but I don’t care what’s under the hood. I’ve always enjoyed the people. But my favorite era since I’ve been here, no. I don’t know if I’ve ever really thought of that.
Q: Even with your amazing knowledge of Indy 500 races and qualifying, is there a particular trivia category that gives you trouble?
A: The recent years do run together, but I think that’s natural. All the stuff that I memorized when I was a kid seems to be carved in granite. I can leave it for months and months and months and it’s still there. I don’t know how it works.
Q: When was the last time you forgot where you left your glasses or car keys?
A: (Laughing) Oh, that happens all the time. All the time. My wife kids me about it all the time.
Q: People coming up to you and trying to test your knowledge. Does it ever get old?
A: It doesn’t happen that much anymore. It used to. When I first started to do what has become “The Talk of Gasoline Alley,” it was a quiz show, so the whole idea was to try to stump me on certain categories so they could win a prize. That did get a little tiring. In fact, I even sort of managed to manipulate the program a little bit. There are so many neat stories and anecdotes that I would like to be able to tell. Over a period of a couple of years I was able to turn it around so that all I did was anecdotes. If anybody does it, it’s usually somebody that has something that’s very silly.
Q: So if I asked you who placed seventh in the 1933 Indy 500, you’re OK with that?
A: Oh, seventh in ’33 was (slight pause) Tony Gulotta in a Studebaker Special.
Q: What do you attribute your memory to?
A: They tell me that I have a photographic memory, but that’s not what I have. I’ve been told it’s selective retentive easy access. I was not a good student. I struggled in school. But anything that interested me I could latch onto.
Q: Have you basically memorized places 1 through 33 in all 99 races so far?
A: Oh, yes. Again, I’m hazy on more recent times. I used to brush up every spring, and I haven’t done that for a while.
Q: Do you have a favorite Indianapolis 500? If so, why?
A: My answer to that one is 1964 because of my personal experience of showing up and having it be so fabulous. Showing up at the front gate, getting a credential and going in the garage area and meeting the people. Troy Ruttman, Sam Hanks, Eddie Sachs, Ray Harroun, Louis Meyer, Lloyd Ruby … What a great guy Ruby was. He should’ve won two or three.
Q: Do you have a least-favorite month of May?
A: I don’t know . . . ’66 was a disappointing race, but 1973 would have to be it. That was just awful because of accidents and rain just the whole month. Salt Walther got hurt, Art Pollard lost his life in practice.
Q: Are you comfortable with the celebrity status you have built locally because of your tremendous knowledge of all things Indianapolis 500?
A: When people come up and want to talk to me, and I never take this for granted, I’m so flattered. Look at the millions of people around the world, and they go through their entire life and they never get a compliment. Not one. And I get them all the time. I don’t take it for granted. I’m flattered that people care about what I do because I love to tell the stories now, and it’s so cool that I’ve got a radio program that’s still going and doesn’t show any signs of wearing out. These people just love to hear the stories. It’s so gratifying.
Q: You’re a man of thousands of Indianapolis 500 anecdotes. Is there a favorite one you can share for a family newspaper?
A: My favorite piece of trivia is that at the moment there have been 758 drivers start in a ‘500’. The total number of Smiths is zero. There have been nine Jones and several Halls and Hills, Johnsons and Crawfords. But there’s never been a Smith. That is general interest trivia because if I speak to a group and they’re from out of state or out of the country even, and if they could care less about racing, it’s still a great trivia question. That’s just amazing. There have been Smiths that have tried to qualify, but they never started.