If you are a
devotee of Indy 500 lore, chances are you're aware that Gordon Johncock ate
dinner at a Burger Chef the night after he won the 1973 race. And that
bandleader Spike Jones sponsored a car in the 1946 classic. And that Frank
Farmer finished 21st in 1930. What you probably do not know is that in 1925
Pete DePaolo took his victory repast at Rosner's Drug Store. Or that the real
name of Leon Duray, who sat on the pole in 1925 and 1928, was George Stewart,
though some history books have it as James Stewart. Or that in the first 500 in
1911, Art Greiner finished last after crashing on the 13th lap—an accident that
snuffed out the life of his riding mechanic.
Of course, you
could look these things up, but if you happened to have been anywhere within 75
miles of Indianapolis this month you didn't really have to, because Donald
Davidson would gladly have told you all of the above wonderfully trivial facts
about the 500, plus several thousand more. A retiring wisp of a fellow,
Davidson, 35, is by day the United States Auto Club statistician. He figures
race results, prepares entry forms, calculates prize moneys and co-edits the
USAC yearbook. By night, at least during the month preceding the 500, Davidson
dispenses his knowledge over Indianapolis radio station WIBC as the featured
guest of one of Indiana's most popular deejays, Chuck Riley.
which runs four hours Mondays through Fridays beginning at 3 p.m., has a
name—The Life of Riley, natch. The Davidson segment, aired live for 50 minutes
beginning at 6:10, does not. In the eight years that Davidson has been
astounding Midwestern audiences with his 500 minutiae—working without notes—he
and Riley have not come up with a suitable handle.
It is equally
difficult to come up with a good reason why Davidson came to acquire his vast
knowledge of the 500, especially considering that he grew up in England and
didn't see the race until he was 21.
A teen-ager in the
late 1950s, Davidson had an English schoolboy's interest in the British racing
heroes of that era—Stirling Moss, Peter Collins, Mike Hawthorn and the like.
Although the 500 was all but ignored by the English press at that time,
Davidson had an even deeper curiosity about the strange and awesome spectacle
held each May in the American heartland. "I think I was especially
fascinated by the names of Indianapolis," he says. "The strange names
of the cars as well as the names of the drivers."
Though he does not
lay claim to a photographic memory, Davidson easily memorized the finishing
positions of the cars and drivers in every 500, and then began committing to
memory more arcane facts. By 1964, his head fairly stuffed with trivia, he came
over to see the great American motor sports show firsthand.
at the Brickyard at 4 p.m. on a Friday, and soon found himself in the Gasoline
Alley garage of mechanic A. J. Watson, where for the next six hours he held
court as a score of drivers walked in to challenge him on long-forgotten facts
about their own Indianapolis careers and those of their absent colleagues.
Davidson had them all shaking their heads in amazement.
Paul Bost? Drove
the Empire State Special in 1931. Finished 31st. Harry McQuinn? He was at the
wheel of the Hollywood Pay Day Special in 1940. Larry Crockett? Drove the
Federal Engineering, Detroit Special in 1954, finished ninth and was named
Rookie of the Year. His mechanic was named Russ Snowberger.
to England after the 1964 race, but came back the next year to stay. Sid
Collins, the late Voice of the 500, picked his brain on the race-day radio
broadcast that May, and USAC hired him on the spot.
appeared on The Life of Riley in 1971. His loosely knit 50 minutes have gone
through several format changes, but the core has remained constant: challenging
questions called in by listeners hoping to catch Davidson in an error. Many try
but few succeed, though sometimes an easy-sounding query such as, "What
drivers have led every 500 they've entered?" or, "Who finished 11th,
27th and 11th in consecutive races?" gives him pause.