Fifty three years ago, Dave MacDonald passed his rookie test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and qualified 14th for the 1964 500 race. Within two laps of the Memorial Day classic, MacDonald was steadily moving up the field, making a move for ninth place, when it all went wrong.
MacDonald’s Mickey Thompson-built Sears Allstate Special, which was fast but on the edge of control, lost airflow, spun and slammed into the infield barrier. The racer’s 45 gallon fuel tank exploded and the car bounced back into traffic. The resulting six-car collision killing both MacDonald and ’61 Indy 500 runner up, the “Clown Prince of Auto Racing” Eddie Sachs.
The tragedy led to pausing the 500 for the first time in its history. This historical precedent marked the brutal end of what was-up to that point-one of racing’s most prolific careers. Dave MacDonald, by the time he was a rookie at Indy, was an accomplished and lauded drag and road racer — and what most forget is it was Corvette that carried his trajectory to greatness.
According to Rich MacDonald, son and archivist of the great driver, “My father is probably most remembered for running Shelby Cobras back in the early 60s, at the time Carroll’s Cobra movement was really taking off. In fact my father ran all of Carroll’s legendary Cobras to their first-ever wins – the Cobra Roadster, the King Cobra and the Cobra Daytona Coupe. But prior to Shelby he was making his bones in Corvettes, he was a true blue Corvette man and owned nearly a dozen before he was killed at Indy.”
Dave MacDonald began his racing career as a drag racer, running stock Corvettes on the dragstrips of Southern California. Between 1956 and 1959 he had earned nearly 100 trophies and six standing start speed records in ¼ & ½ mile speed trials. MacDonald ran 70 races in Corvettes between 1960 and 1962 with 31 victories and 46 top three finishes. He was hired by Carroll Shelby at the start of the 1963 season.
“The story has been told a million times but even after he started working for Carroll Shelby he couldn’t stop driving his beloved ’63 Split-Window Stingray. He’d hop in it every morning and drive it to work at the Venice speed shop. After he won the 1963 LA Times Grand Prix, Shelby and Ford gave him a sparkling new ‘64 Thunderbird factory loaner to drive hoping he’d start driving it to work – but he gave it to my mother to drive,” said the junior MacDonald.
“In January 1964 though he signed a NASCAR contract with Ford factory member Bill Stroppe and Ford brass drew the line - no one at Ford Works can be seen driving around town in a Chevrolet. They told him to march down to a local dealer and order any car he wanted and he could have it as a second loaner.
He went to Sachs & Sons in Downey and fell in love with the new Park Lane convertible. A couple weeks later a fully optioned red beauty arrived and the minute he picked it up Ford told him to SELL the Sting Ray immediately - he did.”
That did not prevent the Corvette Hall of Fame to rightfully place Dave MacDonald amongst the legends that meant so much to the provenance of the great American marque in 2014. Beyond his drag racing achievements, MacDonald raced a “homebuilt” C1 successfully and was an integral part of the development of the iconic C2.
In September of 1961 MacDonald and sponsor, Jim Simpson, got together with famed “Old Yeller” builder and racer, Max Balchowsky. They set out to build a lightweight custom one-off Corvette. They started with one of Max’s 95-pound tube frame chassis, then made a mold of a stock ’61 Corvette body to use as a template. Then they poured a lightweight razor thin 1/16” fiberglass shell. After cutting the shell in two they went to work shaving and shaping until it was seventeen inches shorter, five inches narrower and four inches shorter in height than a stock Corvette. The entire headlight assembly was also molded into the fiberglass shell for additional weight savings. The finished car weighed just 1750 pounds — 1,200 pounds lighter than a stock Corvette! There are many who believe this Corvette, also known as Old Yeller V, was the inspiration for Zora’s Grand Sport project. “Zora would pick my dad’s brain at races in 61 & 62 and even made a special visit to our house one day to discuss the car,” remembers Rich.
Those discussions led to Duntov enlisting the help of MacDonald in the C2’s development. “While my father had moved to Shelby a bit before the five (Grand Sport) were completed he and fellow Corvette Hall of Famer Dick Thompson did do the shakedown testing for the first C2 Corvette – the 1963 Sting Ray,” reveals Rich MacDonald. “In the summer of ’62 Zora Duntov (known as the father of the Corvette) flew them both out to the General Motors Proving Grounds in Milford Michigan. For three full days they assaulted the course and put the Ray through its initial paces. Chevrolet engineers were on hand and used the testing data and feedback from my father and Dick to make final tweaks before firing up the assembly line.”
For his efforts, MacDonald was handsomely rewarded. “Two months later Zora flew my mother and father along with racers Bob Bondurant and Jerry Grant out to the St Louis plant to present them with the first batch of C2 Sting Rays – GM brass decided to give my father the first one off the line – VIN#684. He and my mom drove it back to LA where he race prepped it and ran it in its debut race two weeks later - the ‘62 Riverside 3 Hour Enduro.”
That 1962 Riverside 3 Hour Enduro was the historic first-ever clash between Corvette and Cobra. MacDonald had raced his Stingray to a half-lap lead over Billy Krause’s Cobra before the coil wire popped loose on Lap 3. MacDonald pulled off the course allowing Krause to take the lead.
Problem seemingly solved, MacDonald reentered the race just behind Krause and commenced a highly anticipated showdown. The two exchanged the lead several times in the first hour and pulled far ahead of the field. However, both ended their days with a DNF due to mechanical issues. Fellow Corvette Hall of Famer, Doug Hooper, driving another Stingray took the race win. Only one Corvette was able to run with the faster Cobra that day. Dave MacDonald was driving it.
No one knows what could have been after that fateful day in May of 1964. Since then, the surviving MacDonald clan stayed away from racing. Rich MacDonald had a “normal upbringing” of stick and ball sports and went into a career in corporate sales. In his adulthood, though, the junior MacDonald began researching his dad and his many accomplishments.
This would not only lead to the re-introduction of the family to a rightful place within the motorsport community, but endear them to new fans. Rich and his mother Sherry returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2016, as part of the festivities surrounding the 100th running of the “greatest spectacle” — and made peace with the place that had meant so much pain for a half-century. Rich’s sister, Vicki MacDonald-Moreno, has also begun to participate in events where her father is honored.
This led Rich to actually change careers, as he accepted a position in January 2017 with famed high performance manufacturer and retailer Hillbank/Superformance, where he is selling bespoke continuations and replicas of the cars his dad made famous. “Having literally grown up around and in C1 and C2 Corvettes, and Shelby Cobras and Daytona Coupes this is exciting to me and I’m really looking forward to being a part of this new frontier,” Rich exclaims. “Superformance also makes a drop dead gorgeous C2 Grand Sport, driving one is literally like traveling in time back to 1963 and getting behind the wheel of one of the original five, they’re spectacular.”
So things have come full circle — and Corvette has rightfully claimed is stake in the legend that is Dave MacDonald. “I’m proud of the fact that my father had a hand in the development of one of America’s most iconic sports cars. The historic #684 survives and has been magnificently restored to its maiden race livery by world renowned car collector Jim Jaeger. Jim graciously had it on display at the Corvette Museum in Kentucky for my father’s 2014 Hall of Fame induction.”