Could there have been a more exciting time and place to be a car buff than in Southern California in the 1950s? Probably not. It was postwar America, rock 'n' roll was in its infancy, and the car culture was just revving up. El Monte was still a semi-rural community in Los Angeles County, the perfect place for young Dave MacDonald and legions of other guys to pour their hearts and souls into their cars.
MacDonald's first car was a '53 Cadillac. But when Chevy dropped its small-block 265 V-8 into the Corvette in 1955, 19-year-old MacDonald had to have one. He saved his money, and a year later bought his first Corvette, a Gypsy Red '55. (Both cars are shown in the facing photo.) While the Caddy was fast enough for some informal street racing, it was the Corvette that got MacDonald into drag- and eventually road-race competition.
"Best Corvette Driver"
In February 1960, MacDonald had his first official "ride" as team driver for Don Steves Chevrolet at Willow Springs Raceway, where he won the Sunday main event. In his first year, MacDonald entered 15 regional races, taking three outright wins, three Second Places, and four Third Places--very impressive for a rookie.
The next year was even better. MacDonald entered 20 races in '61, taking 13 victories and three Second Place finishes. His last win of the year was in his lightweight, tube-frame Corvette Special. But 1962 was the year the spotlight really shined on MacDonald. While he didn't dominate the season, he did finish on the podium in 16 races, including 10 victories.
It's worth noting that MacDonald won every race he entered from early February to June that year—seven wins in a row. The first three wins were with the lightweight Corvette Special. After that, the Special only raced two more times. MacDonald ran one race behind the wheel of another lightweight tube-frame car, a Devin Corvette that provided him with a Second Place finish.
MacDonald was one of sports-car racing's up-and-comers, and two very powerful people were watching him carefully. Zora Arkus-Duntov was a racer at heart and the only GM executive who ever raced at Le Mans. While following MacDonald's career, Duntov became familiar with the lightweight Corvette Special that he and his racing partner, Jim Simpson, had built. Duntov even spent a day with the MacDonalds, dissecting the 1,750-pound racer as he honed his own Grand Sport Corvette project.
Doug MacDonald, Dave's then-15-year-old brother recalls, "Duntov's accent was so thick, I couldn't understand much of what he said. Somehow, Zora and Dave understood each other enough." A bond of racers' respect was forged, and Duntov would later put the elder MacDonald to work on some "field testing."
By the summer of 1962, when preproduction C2 Corvettes were ready for some promotional track testing, MacDonald and Dr. Dick Thompson were invited to a sampling. On August 21, Chevrolet produced a promotional film with MacDonald and Thompson driving a '63 coupe and roadster at the GM test track. After a few laps, Duntov interviews the pair. Today, that film survives on YouTube.
A few weeks later, Duntov flew MacDonald and his wife, Sherry; Jerry Grant; and Bob Bondurant out to St. Louis to pick up the first three of Duntov's latest "racer kit" Z06 Corvettes. (The MacDonalds were given Chassis No. 1.) Grant headed to Washington State, while Bondurant and the MacDonalds pointed their Z06s to California.
Dave didn't mind his lady driving a hot car; in fact, he rather enjoyed it. Sherry recounts, "A lot of times if I was driving one of our Corvettes, Dave was telling me, 'Drive faster, drive faster!'" It's not surprising, then, that the MacDonalds "opened up" the Z06 on the way home from St. Louis: Sherry remembers seeing the speedometer pegged at more than 140 mph. While the Z06 was scheduled to become a race car, the MacDonalds' personal Corvette was a Riverside Red '63 fuelie coupe with 4.11:1 gears, a four-speed, and power windows.
Many years later Sherry recounted meeting Duntov at a Corvette show. At the time his speech was even more inscrutable, the result of a stroke he had suffered in the late '60s. The old racer-engineer told Sherry, simply, "Dave best Corvette driver."
The second powerful man watching MacDonald was Carroll Shelby. A champion racer himself, Shelby was out of the driver seat due to a heart condition. But by 1962, Shelby was up to his neck in snakes-Cobras, that is. He offered MacDonald a driver's job for the 1963 season and the erstwhile Corvette specialist scooped it up.
The 260ci Cobra roadster was a brute, but as soon as the 289 Cobra arrived, it was obvious the car would dominate its class. MacDonald took 13 checkered flags and three Second Place finishes in 23 races with Shelby's sports car. Even the arrival of the Z06 couldn't put the Corvettes ahead of the 1,000-pound-lighter Cobras. The Sting Rays would just have to wait for the big-blocks to arrive.
Of the 32 events MacDonald entered in 1963, he took First Place 15 times, including wins in the two biggest and richest sports-car races in America, the LA Times GP and the Monterey Pacific GP. He also took five Second Place finishes. In 29 of those races, he drove for Shelby in the 289 Cobra or the tube-chassis King Cobra. The other three rides were on the NASCAR circuit, where he earned two Second Places, one for Holman Moody and the other driving the famous Woods Brothers No. 21 car.
Nineteen sixty-four should have been MacDonald's breakout year. In those days, there was a common career path for racing drivers. Often they started in dirt-track and Midget cars, progressing to stock or sports cars. The Indy 500 was the obvious next step. Mickey Thompson asked MacDonald to drive his radical mid-engine, Ford-powered Sears Allstate Special. However, MacDonald was still under contract with Shelby, who had already agreed to "lend" him out Bill Stroppe for three NASCAR races. Shelby signed off on the deal, but only after Thompson agreed that MacDonald's time at the Brickyard wouldn't get in the way of his Cobra commitments.
From January to May, MacDonald racked up four wins and two Seconds, including a win at the 1964 12 Hours of Sebring with co-driver and friend Bob Holbert in the Daytona Cobra. MacDonald also had his first showing at NASCAR's Daytona 500, driving Stroppe's Mercury to 10th place. His last race before Indy was at the U.S. Road Racing Championships in Kent, where he outdueled Jim Hall and his Chevy-backed Chaparral to score his final victory.
Sherry MacDonald has said that Dave's goal was always to drive Indy, and that he accepted Thompson's 1964 offer without hesitation. "Dave never told me about the poor handling of the Thompson car, but it seems he told everyone else. Carroll Shelby said he told Dave not to drive it, and that he'd build him a better Indy car for 1965. But Dave told Carroll and other drivers that he felt obligated to Mickey, and that if he got out of the car, he'd be voted ‘candy-ass of the year.' (Several other drivers reportedly advised MacDonald not to take the ride. Jimmy Clark said, "Get out of that car mate, just walk away!")
"Maybe he thought he could handle it, I don't know. I hadn't planned to attend the race because Dave felt he wouldn't win with this car, but circumstances changed, and I did go."
Head Over Heels
When 19-year-old Dave MacDonald first saw his future wife, Sherry Gravett, in the lead role in an El Monte High School play, he went head-over-heels. He didn't meet her there, but instead got her phone number and called her the next day. It was early December 1955, and the two talked for almost two months before their first date. Since MacDonald had just begun drag racing, their first date was supposed to be at the drags, but since it was raining, the two just drove around in his red '55 Corvette. Cupid's arrow hit Sherry right away, and when she got home she told her Mom that she'd just met the man she was going to marry.
For their second date, the weather cooperated, so it was off to the drags, where MacDonald won his class and presented Sherry with her first trophy. He was so taken, he even let Sherry drive his Corvette to school the next day. It seems the thought of his sweetheart driving a '50 Ford to school was just too much.
Six weeks after their first date, MacDonald asked Sherry to be his wife. She accepted, and less than three months after she graduated from high school, on September 8, 1956, the two were married.
The newlyweds were off to a good start. Dave's parents had a large, subdivided lot with two additional houses on it; Dave and Sherry moved into one of them. It wasn't long before a family began, with Richie arriving in September 1957 and Vicki in June 1959. But Dave was a family man, so Sherry and the children almost always went to the races with him.
Dave had a good job at the local Chevrolet dealership and was such a Corvette fan that he got a new one every year. "I thought the car payments would never end," Sherry recounts. Dave drag-raced whatever Corvette he had at the time and quickly acquired a large collection of trophies, as well as a reputation as the go-to guy for fellow racers looking for a competitive setup.
One day, Dave brought home a new yellow '58 C1 for Sherry to see before he bought it. Unfortunately, a brick wall had been in the wrong location when Dave was testing the Vette's cornering capability. Sherry was greeted with a slightly banged up, but new, Corvette. "Yes, we had to buy that one," she says.
Racing schools were still about 10 years in the future in the late '50s. While drag racing was Dave's first love in motorsports, driving a Corvette, with its built-in cornering capability, inspired him to explore the joys of fast cornering. So Dave made a natural transition from drag racing to road racing, where he showed an immediate talent for the sport. While he was on track to become the youngest service manager at Don Steves Chevrolet, racing took him on a different course.
When Dave decided to make a go at road racing, he bought a wrecked '57 Corvette and did the prep work himself. With a little help from his employer, Don Steves, he soon became a serious road racer. To help out with income, Sherry got a temporary job in the office of a major grocery, where she stayed until her retirement in 2005.
Through 1962, the MacDonald family watched Dave get better and better at road racing. Cars came and went, and there was a steady stream of local racing aspirants coming to him for advice. Sherry recalls, "It was amazing, because you never knew who was going to be at the house—locals and even a few celebrities."
Dave was one of the young lions of racing, yet he remained soft spoken and self-effacing. Once, Sherry's boss asked her if Dave would be willing to speak about auto racing at a church function. Afterwards, he told Sherry that everyone had been quite taken with this slightly built, soft spoken, articulate young man who confidently answered all of their questions. Perhaps they were expecting a swaggering daredevil type. Instead, they got a family man and devoted husband.
In the next month's issue, we’ll talk more about Dave MacDonald’s biggest fan--his brother, Doug--and the legacy Dave left behind.