Yes, there were Colin Chapman and other British car builders with their revolutionary rear-engine racing machines, driven to victory in the Indianapolis 500 by the likes of Jim Clark and Graham Hill.
But just as significant to the famed Brickyard was the other British invasion in the 1960s, the one that began in 1964 with a skinny 21-year-old who wasn’t a car builder or a driver or even a mechanic, but whose impact on Indy would become, quite literally, historic.
That skinny young Brit was named Donald Davidson, who for whatever reason had grown up in Salisbury, near the site of historic Stonehenge, fascinated not so much by Formula One and other European-dominated forms of racing but by the 500-mile race staged annually in the American heartland.
Davidson learned everything he could about the Indy 500 and its history and he turned his hobby into a career, a career as Indy historian, from which he’ll retire at the end of this year.
I’m among those sad to see him leaving the track, but also wishing him the best as he does. I’ve known Donald at least since the very early 1970s (and now we’re both in our 70s) and I consider him not only a source who can supply a fount of information about Indy car racing and racers, but a friend.
And he’s become a friend not just to those of use in the auto racing media but to anyone interested in the Brickyard. (There are 3,800 members of the Donald Davidson Appreciation Society on Facebook.) Donald frequently travels around Indiana sharing his knowledge, and there’s not much more fascinating than to catch him in the Indy museum exhibits, where he’s gracious and will spend his time sharing stories about the races and the racers.
He is a walking encyclopedia of Indy, and of American and international racing, for that matter. Google should know so much, and isn’t nearly as good at telling the stories.
By 1964, Davidson had saved enough money from his job as a movie theater projectionist to make the trip from England to Indiana, where he astounded the Indy establishment with his knowledge of the track and the history of those who had raced there. That knowledge was so extensive, and so amazing for someone not native to the Hoosier state, that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway radio network and famed announcer Sid Collins offered Davidson some airtime.
Davidson returned to Indy in 1965 and this time he stayed, working for the radio network and as a statistician for the U.S. Auto Club. He had his own radio show, The Talk of Gasoline Alley, is frequently seen on television, been the Indy archivist and since 1998 the official historian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation and its museum on the Brickyard grounds.
“No one has more knowledge or more appreciation of the heritage of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway than Donald Davidson,” Roger Penske, the track’s winningest car owner and now the track’s owner, said at the news of Davidson’s pending retirement.
“His ability to seemingly recall every detail of IMS history is remarkable,” Penske added, “and he is one of the greatest storytellers racing has ever seen.”
I consider myself privileged to have heard many of those stories from Donald, on the telephone and in person. Our last in-person visit was in 2019, when Donald also shared the news of his wife’s death after a long illness, and updated me on their children and their careers.
“There will never be another Donald Davidson – he is like an encyclopedia on racing,” A.J. Foyt told the Indianapolis Star earlier this week. “I bet he knows more about my career than I do.”
“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,” Mario Andretti said of Davidson in the official retirement announcement from the Speedway.
“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.”
So do I, Mario, so do I.