Speaker stirs memories of historic race


I’ve never put together a bucket list.

I don’t want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, hike the Appalachian Trail or climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. In fact, I’m still recovering from the trip my wife and I took a few years ago to the Pinnacle in the Jackson-Washington State Forestry.

My idea of a bucket list is doing something and then saying “Oh yeah. That was on my bucket list” and then checking it off.

On Monday afternoon, I had the chance to do that when the man who knows as much about the Indianapolis 500 as anyone on the face of the planet — or at least Indiana — spoke to the Seymour Rotary Club at Girls Inc.

That man is the Speedway’s only official full-time historian Donald Davidson, who along with former Greencastle Mayor Mike Harmless — plan nearly 50 speaking engagements to promote the 101st running on the 500 on May 28.

The two did the same thing a year ago in months leading up to the 100th running of the race.

Davidson, who is from southwest England, saved up his money to come to Indianapolis to see the 1964 race. He has since become the authority on all 500-related history.

Not only does he have the ability to talk about every race and driver, qualifying runs, radio broadcasters and anyone else with a connection to the famed oval and even the neighborhoods around the track, but he can also tell you what happened to them after they quit racing.

And don’t think you can outdo Davidson as a I learned when I asked him about Phillip “Phil” Krueger of Freetown, who started the Indianapolis 500 in 1986 and 1988.

Krueger’s best showing was in 1988 when he finished eighth on a shoestring budget. Krueger received the Clint Brawner Mechanical Excellence Award that year, an honor given to the crew chief who exemplifies “mechanical and scientific creativity, ingenuity, perseverance, dedication, enthusiasm and expertise.”

That’s right, Krueger was his own crew chief, something that was rare then and never happens now.

Donaldson also said Krueger lived in southern Brown County and knew about the two times he had crashed his experimental World War I replica biplane near Freeman Field.

The first crash occurred June 23, 2008, when the home-built, single-engine SE-5A crashed on takeoff into a cornfield south of County Road 300N between State Road 11 and O’Brien Street. Krueger told investigators he was trying to fly the two-seater for 40 hours to prove it was airworthy when the engine failed to develop enough power on takeoff.

The second time was July 27, 2010, when the engine again failed to develop power on takeoff. Krueger sustained minor injuries in both crashes.

Davidson also talked about the five most iconic people tied to the Speedway. The first were Carl Allison and James Fisher, two of the four men who created the speedway; and then there was World War I flying ace Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, who was the owner of title of the track from 1927 to 1945; and Tony Hulman who purchased the track in 1945 after World War II.

“That probably would not have happened if not for Wilbur Shaw,” Davidson said of Hulman’s purchase of the track. Shaw, Davidson’s fifth iconic person tied to the track, was the second three-time winner of the race, (1937 and 1939-40). Louie Meyer was the first (1928, 1933 and 1936).

“He came from very humble beginnings to become this dynamic leader of people,” Davidson said of Shaw.

He said Shaw pretty much ran a one-man campaign to save the track, which had set unused from 1942 to 1945.

“It was in a terrible state of disrepair,” Davidson said of the track after the war. But Hulman stepped in bought the famed oval for $750,000, the same price Rickenbacker and his associates had paid in 1927.

Shaw would become president and general manager of the track until his death in a plane crash in November of 1954 near Decatur. The Shelbyville native was buried in Vernon Cemetery in Jennings County.

Davidson also talked about North Vernon sprint car driver Pat O’Connor, the 1957 Indianapolis 500 pole sitter, who also spent a lot of time driving at the Salem Speedway.

“He did drive in five 500s and never had a decent finish there,” Davidson said of O’Connor.

Davidson said O’Connor was running second in the 1955 500 with eight laps to go and had a fuel-feed problem. O’Conner would died in a 15-car pileup in the May 28, 1958, 500 and was buried at the Vernon Cemetery just yards from Shaw.

One of questions Davidson is fond of asking others is related to the last names of the men and women who have driven in the 500.

In 100 runnings of the Indianapolis 500, there have been 763 drivers we at least start, Davidson said.

“How many with the surname Smith,” he said.

The answer.

“None,” he said.

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