My Personal Reflections of Donald Davidson

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Time waits for no one. For someone like me who lives by the mantra that Change is Bad, I find it a very unsettling truth that Father Time waits for no one. We are all getting older. Sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder who that old looking guy is that’s staring back. Every day, we get some harsh reminder that time is moving on at an unrelenting pace.

We got another jolt on Monday, when it was announced that longtime Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian, Donald Davidson, was going to call it a career and retire at the end of this month.

I am very happy for Donald. He has earned his right to retire, and I hope he finds retirement to be everything he hopes it is. His wife passed away a couple of years ago, and he dealt with some health issues himself a few years back that I understand he has completely recovered from. All indications are that his health is good. I know he has children and I believe he has grandchildren (but don’t hold me to that). He deserves this time to spend with his family on his own schedule.

But the rest of us are selfishly feeling just a little bit empty today. I can’t say that I’m totally surprised by Monday’s announcement, but it still caught me off guard just a little bit.

One of the most closely guarded secrets at IMS is Donald Davidson’s age. I know he has a January birthday. Somewhere along the way, I seem to recall reading that Donald was nineteen, when he came over to the US from Great Britain for two weeks in May of 1964. If that is true, the math would make him on the verge of turning seventy-six. But Nathan Brown of The Indianapolis Star says in an article he was twenty-one when he came over. If that’s the case, he would be around seventy-eight. Suffice it to say that he is in his mid-to-late seventies, which makes him beyond most people’s retirement age.

Still, we all selfishly hoped he would go on forever. Since the days of having broadband internet, I have built every weeknight in May around listening to the live-stream of The Talk of Gasoline Alley (TOGA). I have around 350 podcasts on my phone, going as far back as 2000 and up to August of 2020.

While most people listen to music as they drive, walk, run or do yard work – I listen to random episodes of Donald Davidson. If they were bumping up against a Pacers playoff game, an episode may last only twenty minutes or so, once the commercials were edited out. Other episodes may last for two hours, including the second hour that was only broadcast over Network Indiana, instead of WIBC, which later became 1070 The Fan.

There is a familiar calmness found in each episode. Year after year, he may tell the same stories and anecdotes. They will be consistent in content, but every time he tells the story, there might be a little nugget found in one version that wasn’t told the year before. Could he get sidetracked? Absolutely – but that was part of the charm.

Before I started listening to TOGA each night in May, I knew about the sixties and seventies, when I grew up going to the Indianapolis 500. I was also very familiar with the nighties, and everything since then. I had known who Bud Tingelstad was along with Salt Walther and even Philippe Gache; but I had never heard of Cliff Bergere or Leon Duray until I started listening to Donald Davidson wax poetically about them.

The way he talked about them, made me want to learn more about them – so I did.

One of the many things I like about Donald Davidson is how he embraces the little known drivers. While he enjoys stories about Wilbur Shaw and Bill Vukovich, I think he would much rather talk about Henry Kohlert – whose only start came in the 1928 Indianapolis 500, when he qualified twenty-eighth and finished thirteenth. His passion for the lesser known and unheralded drivers made me want to learn more about them too.

As Donald will sometimes say when telling a story, I am going to insert myself into the story and do some shameless name-dropping. I have been a lowly IndyCar blogger for almost twelve years now. I was a passionate fan long before that. In all of those years spending many weekends in May at IMS, I have met more famous or winning drivers than I could possibly name – including all three of the four-time winners. I met Donald briefly in 2009 on Race Weekend. When I say brief, it was just long enough for Susan to snap this picture and to say “Thank you”.

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After Fast Friday during qualifying weekend in 2011, Kevin Lee and Donald were doing TOGA live in the IMS Media Center – about four rows behind me. Kevin could tell I was in awe listening (and watching) a live version of the show I had been listening to for so many years. During a commercial break, Kevin came over and asked me if I wanted to meet Donald during the next break, since he knew how much I listened to him.

As I sat through the next segment listening to Donald talk about items of a nostalgic nature, I felt myself suddenly getting nervous. I had thought about all of those stories you hear about people meeting their childhood idols and how disappointed they were to learn that they were actually jerks. I had a similar experience when I met Roy Rogers as a kid, when he appeared at the opening of one of his roast beef restaurants. I asked him for his autograph and he completely blew me off, in a very unpleasant way. I never looked at him the same way again. What if Donald didn’t live up to my perception of him?

At the next commercial break, I took a deep breath and went over. Kevin took his headset off and introduced me to Donald, telling him that I wrote a blog that often dealt with the historic nature of the race. To my relief, I found Donald Davidson to be the exact same person I had been listening to over the years. He was engaging and treated me like I was the most important person he would talk to that day. He asked where I was from and was surprised that someone from Nashville was more of an IndyCar fan than a NASCAR fan.

I asked him a question that I had been wondering about regarding car-owner Mike Boyle. He elaborated on his answer and seemed generally excited that someone wanted to come over and talk to him. He seemed annoyed when the commercial break was over and he had to put his headphones back on. I went back over to my seat in the Media Center and didn’t even know how to handle myself. I realized I was star-struck. I felt like that eight year-old kid that had been rebuffed by Roy Rogers, except this time – the idol lived up to the perception.

In recent years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have several conversations with Donald. I felt like I had reached a milestone in my life the first time that the one and only Donald Davidson saw me in passing in the IMS Media Center and actually called me by name. You could have knocked me down with a feather. To be such a longtime fan of his, and to have him be a part of my May for so many years – to suddenly be on a first-name basis was just a little hard to believe. Are we best friends? Hardly.

But I can say that I have had enough short conversations with Donald, that I can tell you that the gentle soul you hear on the radio is the genuine article. He is one of the nicest, kindest and most modest individuals I’ve ever met.

Fortunately, it is sounding more like Donald is simply cutting back more than going away completely. On Trackside last night, Kevin Lee said that he spoke with Donald on Tuesday and that the door is open for some sort of TOGA for next May. We don’t know what that might be, because we don’t know what May is going to look like yet. Kevin made it clear last night that whatever Donald wants to do in the future, 1070 The Fan will always have a spot for him.

Curt Cavin may have hit the nail on the head last night, when talking about Donald Davidson’s importance to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He said not many people have been the face and the voice of IMS. Donald Davidson has been both.

For us fans, I am selfishly hoping we can at least get a somewhat scaled down and relaxed version of Donald next May and for the next several years. For Donald, I hope he can slow down and enjoy what life has to offer. I have an idea he will spend much of that time at the place that has brought him his greatest joy – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “My Personal Reflections of Donald Davidson”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    One of the most striking things to me about Donald Davidson is just how truly unique and truly original he and his career are, he came to IMS as a fan and essentially became an IMS institution by being, well, a fan. His passion for and devotion to the 500 and to the sport as a whole is truly remarkable and I’m grateful that he spent so much of his life sharing his knowledge with us.

    I wish him the best in his retirement and I’ll treasure any breaks in that retirement he may take to give us more TOGA.

  2. I love the picture of George with Donald. That embarrassing excuse for a newspaper called the Indianapolis Star did a nice story on Donald yesterday but at one point referred to him as “Donaldson”.

  3. James T Suel Says:

    My feelings mirrors yours on Donald Davidson. I wish him every happiness in retirement, but I can’t imagine a time without him. I admire him and have had few great short conversations with him.

  4. Probably 70+ years ago when my dad worked for Hulman & Co. and was a friend of Tony he asked dad to store the winning car from 1932 in 1 of our garages in Vincennes IN because he didn’t have room for it in Terre Haute at the museum he had in the old bus station. We had the car for a period of tome before it went back to Terre Haute and us kids played on it and had our pictures taken in it. At that time it was un-restored and was displayed in a Local Home Show in Cook’s Beer livery. Fast forward 50 years or so and the car was restored and placed in thw museum. I took the picture of me in the car from way back then with me to the track in hope that I could show it to Donald. Luckily he was in his office at the museum and when he was called up by one of the ladies at the entrance and told the story he came down to the floor and met with me and my brother. I showed him the picture and he talked about Fred Frame and even gave me permission to sit in the car and recreate the picture only now some 50+ years had passed.

    I felt truly gifted to have had this encounter with Donald. How many people would have taken the time to meet with just a fan. He is truly a gentleman and a part of Indy

  5. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I am a high school business teacher and do a week long section on the Indy 500. I had Donald Davidson come and speak to my class one year. He was awesome and the coolest thing was that many of the people who worked at the school were in awe of him and asked for pictures. He was such a caring gentleman. I wish him him nothing but the best in his retirement.

  6. Mark Wick Says:

    Donald immediately caught my attention when I heard him speak for the first time. He was from England and had that accent. I wasn’t all that far removed from living in Scotland and having that accent. I met him several times during my years of covering the 500 and even had one occasion to go to his home in Speedway.
    It is good that so much of his knowledge has been recorded. He will remain a wonderful source of information and great stories as long as records of his knowledge exist.

  7. George, you are the first person I thought about when I read on Racer that Donald was retiring. It truly is the end of an era.

  8. Davis Brewer Says:

    Old beagles never stop chasing rabbits . Donald will be at the #IMS as a fan .

  9. I remember sitting out on our front porch as a teen in the 1970’s listening to Donald on WIBC. I had to carefully adjust the antenna to catch the signal back to Ohio. Donald made a huge impression on me and the love we all share for the 500.

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