Fifty years ago this month, a young British man, obsessed with every fact of the Indianapolis 500, made his first visit to the Brickyard. The following year, Donald Davidson made Speedway his home.
With an impeccable memory and an unmatched talent for delighting race fans with stories, Davidson’s eyes smile as he recalls his first memories of being at the famed 2½ mile oval. He had memorized every fact from every Indianapolis 500 and was filled with joy and wonder when he arrived in May 1964. Davidson says the chief announcer on the IMS radio network at that time and the man who coined the phrase “the greatest spectacle in racing” welcomed him with open arms.
“The first year I met Sid Collins. In fact, I hadn’t even been here 24 hours and I met him and immediately hit it off. He was so, I mean I owe him a huge deal of gratitude because much of what happened to me would not have happened if it hadn’t have been for Sid.”
Collins was so dazzled by the young man’s encyclopedic knowledge of the 500 that he invited him to be on the air.
“He did have me on as a guest so I was in there for like 2-3 minutes during the ’64 race," Davidson recalled. "And then when I came back to live in ’65 - then he put me on, and I’ve been on it ever since.”
In ’65, Davidson was hired to be a statistician for USAC – the U.S. Auto Club. In 1988, he became the official historian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This year he’s been fondly looking back on that first visit in 1964.
“I kept a diary that year, or at least I made a lot of notes, lets say. So, what I’ve been doing is going through and looking and thinking, oh my goodness me, it was 50 years ago today I met Ray Harroun or it was 50 years ago today that I met Eddie Sachs or whatever it was,” Davidson said.
Ray Harroun won the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911 and Eddie Sachs died in a fiery crash in 1964 - that first year Davidson visited Indy.
Davidson easily accesses the database of his mind find answers and comparisons. This year’s pole sitter is a repeat from last year and a local driver, Ed Carpenter. Has that ever been done before?
“I think there’s like 9 or 10 now. But has there ever been a local? And I would say no. Mario Andretti did it, Rick Mears, Castroneves, Eddie Sachs, Ralph DePalma, Rex Mays and probably missing a couple but none of them were living here," he said.
Though he calls himself an old curmudgeon and says he lives in the past, Davidson admits many of the great moments have happened in the last couple of years.
“Just last year, with 68 lead changes, which is unbelievable – and then the fact that Tony Kanaan – although not an American – was probably as popular a winner as there has ever been,” he said.
Davidson says you couldn’t make up the real drama and emotion after last year’s Kanaan win.
“It was amazing how many drivers – in uniform still – came through the crowd to get to him on the pace car,” he said.
Ryan Hunter-Reay had been leading with two laps remaining and then a crash and Kanaan took the lead.
“So, Hunter-Reay goes from first to third and then a few minutes later he’s going over the hug the guy that took it away from him. It’s just amazing,” Davidson said.
Though last year was amazing - Davidson holds that race 50 years ago most dear.
“My favorite year would be 1964 – although the race had tragedy in it. For me personally, that’s when I walked in the door and everything turned from black and white to color and I just lived a dream,” he said.
In 2013, Davidson was inducted into the Indiana Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame. This year marks his 50th consecutive appearance on the IMS Radio Network. The 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 is Sunday.