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Dave MacDonald - Corvette Legends

This installment of our story begins shortly after Dave MacDonald’s tragic crash at the 1964 Indy 500.

K. Scott Teeters Feb 21, 2012
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In the period leading up to the 500, the MacDonalds' lives had become almost as fast as the cars Dave drove. In the 17 months between the beginning of 1963 and the 1964 Indy race, he raced in 44 events.

The crash at Indy marked the first time the 500 had ever been stopped because of an accident. While race officials quickly concluded that there was no driver error, the race, its causes, and its repercussions are hotly debated to this day.

"After Indy, I was hurting so. I needed to change my life, so I moved a few miles away, but stayed close to my in-laws," says Sherry MacDonald. "From Indy on, I didn't follow racing. My interest in racing was basically one race driver."

It wouldn't be until the early 1990s, when Corvette fans started recovering and restoring old Corvette race cars, that MacDonald's all-too-short racing career began to get the attention it deserved.

"It's so gratifying to meet people who raced with Dave and hear how much they admired him, not only for his skill as a driver, but for being a really nice guy," Sherry adds. Today she is retired, but as busy as ever with volunteer projects and her large family.

Dave's Biggest Fan: Doug MacDonald

It's not easy growing up in the shadow of a big brother who happens to be a successful race-car driver. When Dave MacDonald started drag racing, Doug was still just an "in-the-way kid." And when he was finally old enough to go to the drags, the experience proved anti-climatic.

"I was too young to get into the pits, so I had to watch from the stands until it was Dave's turn to make a run," he says. "For a little kid, it was really boring. I just wanted to see my brother race."

From Doug's perspective, things were more interesting around the house when Dave was working on one of his cars, or when the guys came over to hang out and talk. "I just hung around on the edges, trying not to stay out of the way and understand what they were talking about."

One day, Dave asked Doug if he'd like to go to the road-race track. "We had to get up at 3 a.m. to load up the car and gear. It was a real adventure! My job was to watch the race car. It was a blast watching people gawk as we went down the road.

"Once, Dave passed a Corvette that was showing off. You should have seen the look on their faces when a Chevy station wagon towing a race car rocketed by them." [The MacDonalds' wagon had a supercharged 283 engine.]

When Doug was finally old enough to get into the pits, he discovered that it was difficult to see much of the racing from ground level. "A track official saw that I was bored and asked if I'd like to come up into the timing tower. It was the perfect place to watch, because I could see the entire course.

"The official said to me, 'I want you to watch your brother's car; he tends to crash in every corner. You tell me if he does, because that will help me watch the other cars.'

"Dave did spin out a lot, but never crashed. Later, I realized later that he was perfecting his drifting technique. Dave always felt that the spectators wanted to see exciting racing, and he loved giving them a good show. He really loved the NASCAR fans, because they went wild over his driving style. Our dad went to see Dave race when he could, but Mom didn't like it. She stayed home and worried."

MacDonald was a Corvette man first, but the offer from Carroll Shelby to drive Cobras was too good an opportunity to pass up. Team owner Jim Simpson remembers the day Shelby came to him and asked if he could hire Dave away.

"I knew it was best for Davey's career, so I let him go. I told Carroll that that kid was going to be the world's greatest racing driver, and you could put that in granite." (As we will see, that's exactly what happened many years later.)

When Dave started working for Shelby, Doug found that there were plenty of crewmen to take care of everything. "I was really in the way then. I met Mr. Shelby a few times, but he always seemed busy and was very gruff."

It was around this time that Dave began planning his future in motorsports. While working for Shelby, he was heavily involved in the design and construction of the King Cobra. That and experiencing the inside of a racing organization helped him envision a way forward, as Doug explains.

"Just before Indy, Dave told me that after the race, he wanted to start his own race-car company and build his own team cars, with me as his main driver." This was not an uncommon career path at the time. Shelby had been a champion driver, as had Roger Penske, Colin Chapman, and numerous others. Race cars were advancing at a feverish pace, and many drivers recognized that it wasn't wise to tempt fate for too long.

After the tragedy at Indy, Doug gathered all of the memorabilia he'd collected from his brother's racing career and burned it. "I wanted nothing to do with cars and didn't even drive for two-and-a-half years," he says. "Finally, my dad said, 'Let's go for a ride.' We drove out into Death Valley to a little place called Scotty's Castle. Dad pulled over and ordered me to drive. It was a very long walk back, so I reluctantly got behind the wheel. By the time we got out of the desert, it all came back to me, and I was feeling good about driving."

Dave had been friends with Bob Bondurant, who in 1968 opened the Bondurant High Performance Driving School. A few years later, Bondurant was surprised to see Doug registered at the school. "Why do you want to do this?" he asked. "Look what it cost your brother."

But Doug was determined, having sold his '69 Z/28 Camaro to pay for the course. "Right away Bondurant told me, 'You drive like your brother. Slow down!' Bob's driving philosophy was 'slower is faster.' He taught students to thread the line and [not] rear-wheel drift. "After I completed the course, Bob was still on me a little about my 'MacDonald driving style.' To prove his point, he took the car out and did a few laps his way. Then I took the car out and did it my way. When I was done, it turned out that I had the better lap time." By this time, things had changed dramatically in racing. The days of just being a good shoe were over, and unless you had a pocketful of money, you were relegated to spectator status.

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A few years later, Doug connected with one of Dave's friends from the Shelby days, Louie Unser, older brother to Al and Bobbie. Although Lou suffered from Multiple Sclerosis, he was a whiz at building race cars. He helped Doug get into a dirt-track car and become "Rookie of the Year." Unfortunately, the car was stolen, and Doug couldn't afford to replace it.

Doug raced a little here and there, but never really got a break. When he developed a debilitating inner-ear disorder, he decided to hang up his helmet for good. "You can't be out on a racetrack not knowing if you might get vertigo," he says. After working for a performance carburetor company for 18 years, he landed a job with Northrop Grumman.

Doug shared with us one of his favorite memories of his brother: "Dave and Sherry were on their way home from St. Louis with the new ['63] Z06 Corvette, and my buddies and I were all anxiously waiting at the house for their arrival. About a hour out, Dave called to let us know they were on their way. I'll never forget seeing that white Sting Ray Coupe coming around the corner. It looked to me like a Buck Rogers spaceship! "Right behind them were about 17 cars that had followed Dave off the freeway. Before we knew it, there were 40 or 50 people gathered around the Corvette asking, 'What kind of car is that?' It was just amazing and made me forever a Corvette man."

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Today Doug is retired and enjoys spending time with his significant other, his speed boat, and his Atomic Orange '07 Z06.

Dave MacDonald's Legacy

At the height of Dave MacDonald's career, race cars were being developed at breathtaking speed. In some classes, a year-old car was completely obsolete. Since drivers and team owners are only interested in winning races, used race cars were usually sold off, then resold into obscurity.

Of the handful of cars MacDonald owned or was personally involved with, only three are accounted for: the Shelby Daytona, the King Cobra, and the Don Steves '63 Z06 Corvette. The Z06 was featured in Legendary Corvettes, by Randy Leffingwell, with stunning photography by Dave Wendt. By contrast, nearly all of MacDonald's race cars are accounted for and restored.

Perhaps the most enduring monument to MacDonald's career can be found more than 2,000 miles from where he made his name in racing, in Augusta, Georgia. On the land that was once home to the Augusta International Racing Complex now stand the Diamond Lakes Regional Park and a housing community. In honor of MacDonald's success at the speedway, the main road that runs through the community is named Dave MacDonald Drive. MacDonald raced at Augusta three times in 1963 and 1964, winning the '64 U.S. Road Racing Championships at the wheel of the Shelby King Cobra and finishing Second in both the USRRC-GT race (in a 289 Cobra Roadster) and the Augusta 510 NASCAR race (in a '63 Ford Galaxy).

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In 2005, Sherry MacDonald; her son, Rich; daughter, Vicki; and granddaughter, Erikka, attended the dedication ceremony for a granite monument honoring the names of the drivers who raced at the eight tracks that were part of the Augusta complex. One can't help but wonder how many of the residents living in the new community know of the thunder that used to roll through the hills, courtesy of those unmuffled racing machines.

In last month's article, we told you about Dave and Sherry's first date in his red '55 Corvette. Today, the car--owned by Scott and Marilyn Davis--could not have a better home: the National Corvette Museum, in Bowling Green, Kentucky. It's been beautifully restored and is part of the Mobil Service Station display.

(Los Angeles) Herald-Examiner staff writer Wilson R. Springer was covering the 1964 Indy 500 and captured MacDonald's last comment to the press about his racing career, just after a day of track testing.

"There are thousands of guys who never do what they want to, and they step off a curb and get killed, or they get so disgusted with their lives that they die with heart trouble or drinking. I am doing what I always wanted to do, and I'm going to qualify for the race." Dave MacDonald is emblematic of a time when an average guy, with average means, could achieve his dreams thanks to hard work, family support, and talent.

Unlike in modern-day racing, where teams carefully document everything, record keeping was spotty back in the early '60s. Nevertheless, Rich MacDonald has closely examined his father's racing career and come up with what the MacDonald family considers to be an accurate tally for Dave's career. Of the 105 races MacDonald entered, he scored 45 First Place victories and finished in the Top 3 in 67 races. Given his formidable record, his distinctive driving style, and his affable personality, it's easy to see why Dave MacDonald ranks so highly among the legends of Corvette racing.

For more information, visit the Dave MacDonald tribute website at Special thanks to the MacDonald family for their support and assistance with this article.



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