Indy 500 historian makes pit stop in Columbus

Dozens of Indianapolis 500 followers in Columbus can now connect a familiar radio voice of the legendary race with that person’s face.

Donald Davidson, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian known for his index-like memory of racing history, appeared in Columbus on Monday as part of an outreach effort to visit each of Indiana’s 92 counties.

Davidson told a lunch meeting of the Columbus Rotary Club that he tries to tie in local connections to the speedway whenever he visits a community — which was more than 70 times last year. While no specific Indy 500 connections exist in some Hoosier communities, there was no shortage of them for Columbus.

“This is unusual because Cummins is so huge and an iconic company that has had connections with the race going back,” said Davidson, who has been a frequent visitor at the Old Timers Reunion for race fans in Columbus.

Davidson mentioned two-time Brickyard 400 winner Tony Stewart, a Columbus resident who competed in five Indianapolis 500 races, and spoke briefly about Larry Crockett, who finished ninth in the 1954 Indy 500 and won Rookie of the Year honors, but died the following spring in a racing accident in Pennsylvania. Crockett is buried in Columbus.

However, Davidson devoted most of his Columbus comments to Cummins Inc.’s unlikely sponsorship of Al Unser Sr.’s car in the 1987 race.

Unser won that Indy 500 race and captured his fourth Indy 500 championship, becoming only the second driver since A.J. Foyt to accomplish the feat, to be joined later by Rick Mears in the exclusive club.

Cummins, which had entries in Indianapolis 500 races in the 1930s and 1950s, was called upon by race team owner Roger Penske to sponsor a car for Unser after his anticipated third driver, Danny Ongais, suffered a concussion and was unable to compete.

Unser agreed to fill in, but Penske had to scramble for a sponsor. During a visit to Cummins, Penske talked with longtime friend and then-Cummins President Jim Henderson. Over dinner they hammered out an agreement for Cummins to sponsor the car.

“Isn’t it amazing that sponsorship can come together that quickly? It’s a case of who knows who. Roger and Jim knew each other from military school,” Davidson said.

Unser benefited from Mario Andretti having mechanical problems and Roberto Guerrero stalling his car in the pits late in the race to take the lead and hold on for victory.

Donaldson said what was amazing was the reception Unser received a month later when he came to Columbus for Cummins-Al Unser Day, an event to celebrate the successful partnership.

“Al was completely overwhelmed by the reception,” Davidson said.

Unser’s winning car was on display at the company headquarters on Jackson Street, Mayor Bob Stewart read a proclamation and then the party moved to Ceraland Park, where Cummins executives dressed as chefs and served free food to thousands of attendees, Davidson said.

Davidson has been telling stories such as these for more than 50 years, since first traveling from his home country of England in 1964 to see the Indianapolis 500 that year.

He grew up learning about Grand Prix racing, but learned gradually about the 500 from afar through racing publications. Davidson got hooked as he learned the names of Indy 500 drivers and cars, and memorized their histories.

After saving money for about six years, he had enough to travel to the race and buy the most expensive ticket — which he never needed.

In advance he had contacted Indianapolis 500 radio broadcaster Sid Collins, and when he arrived astonished them with his vast historical knowledge of the race and the drivers.

“I did that because I wanted to. I never thought that anybody would care,” Davidson said of his memorization of Indianapolis 500 facts. “It was like a dream, because I met all the drivers and almost all of them were extremely interested in what I’d done.”

Track officials gave him credentials that allowed him special access around the track, and he was a radio guest of Collins.

That experience prompted Davidson to emigrate from England to the United States in 1965 and pursue the Indianapolis 500 as a career. He served as part of the radio broadcast team, giving historical updates, and soon after the race landed a job as a statistician with the United States Auto Club (USAC).

Since then he’s been a fixture at the speedway and on radio broadcasts of the legendary race — and in some ways a part of many families.

Davidson said he’s always flattered when people share their favorite stories about the 500, or what they were doing when listening to him during a particular race, or something he said that has stuck in their memories.

“To have so many people care about what I do, that’s amazing,” Davidson said.

Donald Davidson

What: Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian

Place of birth: Salisbury, England

Background:

  • Cinema projectionist in London before coming to the United States
  • First Indianapolis 500 he attended in person was 1964
  • Returned in 1965 and became part of the race broadcast crew
  • Hired by United States Auto Club as statistician in 1965
  • Became historian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1998; serves as only full-time historian of any auto racing track in the world

Radio roles: Voice of “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” during May; member of the IMS Radio Network.

Notable: Member of the Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.