A skinny kid from England with a photographic memory, a pleasing personality and a passion for the Indianapolis 500 parlayed those attributes into a 56-year career that is coming to an end.
Donald Davidson, the foremost historian on the Indy 500 and a man who has entertained thousands of people on the radio and in speaking engagements, is retiring Dec. 31.
“I never imagined this magic ride would last as long as it did,” said Davidson, who grew up in Salisbury, England and came to IMS in 1964 as a guest and wound up staying in the Capitol of Auto Racing for a lifetime. “I’ve met do many great people and have so many amazing memories.
“I have enjoyed an unbelievable rapport over the decades with the participants and their families, the media, my colleagues and superiors at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the United States Auto Club, the Speedway’s magnificent Museum and the Radio Network, and, especially, that incredibly devoted legion of the most passionate fans in the world. But I want to kick back now and do other things, and I’ve been thinking about this for the past three years.”
It’s hard to imagine all the race fans that Davidson has touched during his six decades. He won over the drivers and mechanics in Gasoline Alley in 1964 with his ability to recite their accomplishments, and that got him a quick spot on the IMS Radio Network with Sid Collins. A year later he moved to Indianapolis permanently and began working on the IMS Network, as well as the United States Auto Club, where he was the statistician for 32 years. He became the historian for the IMS Foundation in 1998 in addition to hosting the popular radio show “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” during May from 1971-2020. He was also in demand as a public speaker, and co-authored a history book on Indianapolis.
“No one has more knowledge or more appreciation of the heritage of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway than Donald Davidson,” said IMS owner Roger Penske. “I have always admired Donald’s passion and dedication to the Speedway and ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’ His ability to seemingly recall every detail of IMS history is remarkable, and he is one of the greatest storytellers racing has ever seen. I want to thank Donald for all he has done for our sport and for helping to bring the personalities and the legends of IMS to life for more than 50 years. Donald will always have a place at the Speedway, and we wish him all the best in this next chapter of his life.”
Two of Indy’s biggest names befriended Davidson in ’64 and always cherished their friendship.
“There is something very special about Donald Davidson,” said Mario Andretti. “I noticed it from almost the minute I met him. When we first met, we gravitated to each other immediately. I think that was because we were both relatively fresh immigrants from Europe, so we had something in common. But very quickly I realized how remarkable this man was – a walking encyclopedia of everything Indianapolis. He immediately started educating me about the 500. I was so impressed; the furthest thing I expected from a Brit.
“He and I personally engaged and remained connected over the years. 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. 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.”
Four-time winner A.J. Foyt echoed Andretti’s thoughts.
“There will never be another Donald Davidson – he is like an encyclopedia on racing,” said the 85-year-old legend. “I bet he knows more about my career than I do. And I don’t think he should be allowed to retire before me. All joking aside, I wish him the best.”
In honor of his accomplishments and significant contributions to Indiana culture, Davidson was presented with the state’s highest civilian honor, the Sagamore of the Wabash, in 2016.
Davidson’s remarkable career and personality also have been recognized with induction into the IMS Hall of Fame in 2010, the Indiana Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2013 and the USAC Hall of Fame in 2017.
Davidson says he has no plans to write another book, or do much of anything for a while.
“I hope that everyone will understand and respect that this a basically private individual, who would really prefer to quietly take a little step back into the shadows without fanfare,” he said.