He shies away from comparisons in popularity to some of the track’s legends, but Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson received a welcome reminder Thursday evening of the esteem with which he’s held by so many.
More than 100 eager fans attended a special question-and-answer session featuring Davidson at the IMS Museum. Appropriately, he was seated on a riser adjacent to the museum’s exhibit honoring another Brickyard legend, A.J. Foyt, that celebrates the 40th anniversary of Foyt’s fourth Indianapolis 500 victory.
One questioner thanked Davidson for his devotion and said he belonged alongside the great drivers on the “Mt. Rushmore of the speedway … as much as A.J. Foyt or any of the rest of ‘em.”
Topics throughout the 90-minute give-and-take included the familiar, such as Davidson’s favorite Foyt stories or how he developed his unparalleled recall of IMS statistics and history. They also ranged to the obscure, including what he knew of four-time Indy 500 starter Dempsey Wilson to how the term “Special” became attached to so many car names back in the day.
Davidson, as he has done for years on his Indianapolis-based radio show each May, answered each question with equal passion and aplomb. He also provided insight into what led him to venture from his native England to Indianapolis in 1964 to step foot on that holy grail of racing that is Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Davidson had become smitten with the Indy 500 by the time he was a teenager, reading books of results and putting them to memory.
“The passion – what caused it, where that comes from, I don’t know,” he admitted to the crowd. “By the time I was in my mid-teens, I thought I want to know more about this thing. And I’d like to someday go.”
With that, Davidson put together a concerted plan to save for the first airplane flight of his life from London to New York. He then made it to Chicago, where he had relatives, and then by bus to Indianapolis. His goal was to meet as many people, make as many connections as possible, to find a way to stay here.
“It wasn’t a casual visit,” Davidson said. “It was an effort to get here. From the time that I walked in the door, I knew that I’d done the right thing. It was like magic from the time I came in the place.”
Dave France of Greenfield, Indiana, has been to every Indianapolis 500 since his first in 1946 at the age of 3 and was among those who attended Thursday night’s session. Though he had never seen Davidson speak in person before, he remembered seeing the Brit that very first year.
“I was here the first day he came to the track in ’64,” France said. “Even then, he was spouting off things. A guy would ask him a question and, like that, he knew the answer.”
Davidson said he was easy to spot. “I stood out because everybody’s wearing racing jackets and I’m in a suit and tie,” he said with a laugh.
Legendary IMS Radio Network anchor Sid Collins was amazed with Davidson’s factual recall and put him to work that year. Davidson remains part of the Indy 500 race day broadcast today on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, more than five decades later.
After all these years, Davidson isn’t sure why he was blessed with the ability to recall so much history and lore about the Indianapolis 500 and the speedway itself. He is certain of one thing, however.
“I’ve been given credit for having a photographic memory, which I do not have,” he said, “because a photographic memory is sort of an involuntary thing where you can retain everything. I can’t do that. It has to be something that I’m interested in. What I’m told I have is selective retentive easy access.”
Whatever it is, Indianapolis 500 fans and history buffs are grateful he has it. The 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is set for May 27, 2018. Tickets are available at IMS.com.