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Corvette Legends – The Great, Dave MacDonald – Part 1

Dateline: 2.25.12

Dave MacDonald:  Corvette Racer… Corvette Man… Family Man

Here’s Dave MacDonald next to his purpose-built MacDonald/Simpson 1961 Corvette Special, looking a lot like Johnny Unitas, the pro football quarterback great.

Could there have been a more exciting time and place to be into cars than Southern California in the 1950s? Probably not. It was postwar America, California only had about 1/3 its current population, Rock’n Roll was in its infancy, and the car culture was revving up. El Monte was just 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 cars. What’a time!

MacDonald’s Professional Racing Career

Dave’s first car was a fast 1953 Cadillac. But when Chevy put the small-block 265 into the ‘55 Corvette, 19-year old MacDonald had to have one. He saved his money and a year later, bought his first Corvette, a Gypsy Red ‘55 Corvette. The Caddy was fast and Dave did some street racing with the car, but it was the Corvette that got him into drag racing and eventually road racing. In February 1960, MacDonald had his first official “ride” as team driver for Don Steves Chevrolet at Willow Springs Raceway, and won the Sunday main event. In his first year, Dave entered 15 regional races, taking 1st place in three events, three second place wins, and 4 third place wins. Very impressive for his rookie year.

MacDonald’s ‘53 Cadillac Sixty-Two Coupe de Ville hardtop. This was Dave’s first car, bought in ‘54.

1961, was even better. MacDonald entered 20 races, won 13 victories, and three second place finishes.  Dave’s last win of the year was in his purpose-built, tube frame, lightweight Corvette Special. This car is a story unto itself. 1962 was the year the spotlight really shown on MacDonald. While he didn’t totally dominate the year, he did finish on the podium in 16 races, including 10 victories.  It’s also worth noting that MacDonald won every race entered from early February to June – seven wins in a row. The first three wins were with the lightweight Corvette Special. After that, the lightweight car only raced two more times. MacDonald had one race behind the wheel of another lightweight tube frame car, a Devin Corvette that provided Dave with a second place win.

Here’s Dave MacDonald & Joe Freitas again on August 18, 1962. Dave won again and Joe finished 3rd just behind Doug Hooper. By this time in his career, MacDonald had perfected his rear wheel drift technique. – Dave Friedman photo.

MacDonald was one of sports car racing’s upcoming lions. Two very powerful people were watching Dave very carefully. Zora Arkus-Duntov was a racer at heart and the only GM executive that ever raced at Le Mans. While following MacDonald’s career, Zora became familiar with the lightweight Corvette Special that Dave and partner, Jim Simpson built. Duntov even spent a day with the MacDonalds discussing the 1,750 pound racer for his 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 racer’s respect was forged and Duntov would later put Dave to work for some “field testing.”

Dave and Zora discussing the finner points of the new Sting Ray. Zora sounded a lot like Bela Lugosi.

By the Summer of ‘62 when preproduction Corvettes were ready for some promotional track testing, MacDonald and Dr. Dick Thompson were invited to a sampling. On August 21, 1962 Chevrolet produced a promotional film with MacDonald and Thomson driving a ‘63 Coupe and Roadster at the GM test track. After a few laps, Duntov interviews the drivers. Fortunately, that film is now on YouTube.

 

Dave MacDonald, Bob Bondurant & Jerry Grant pick up their new 1963 split-window Corvette Stingrays in St Louis! Chevrolet flew the drivers out to the factory for an in-person pick up, and they drove them back to the west coast. First-ever! Chevrolet brass decided Dave would receive the historic first-ever 1963 Corvette StingRay.

A few weeks later, and Duntov flew Dave and Sherry, Jerry Grant, and Bob Bondurant out to St. Louis to pick up the first three of Duntov’s latest “racer kit” Z06 Corvettes. Chevrolet brass decided to give Dave Z06 #1! Jerry drove his Sting Ray out to Washington while Dave and Bob drove their cars to California.  Dave and Sherry loaded their suit cases in the back to the Sting Ray and headed west. Dave didn’t mind his lady driving a hot car, he actually liked it! Sherry recounts, “A lot of times if I was driving one of our Corvettes, Dave was always telling me, “Drive faster, drive faster!” Do you think the MacDonalds opened up the Z06 on the way home from St. Louis? Sherry remembers seeing the speedometer pegged at over 140-mph! But the Z06 wasn’t their personal car, it was scheduled to become a race car. The MacDonald’s personal car was a Riverside Red ‘63 Fuel Injected Sting Ray Coupe with 4.11:1 gears, 4-speed, and power windows. Yes, it was very quick.

Sherry MacDonald and Zora Duntov get together and reminisce about the good ole days. “Dave best Corvette driver” is what Zora told Sherry.

Many years later Sherry recounted meeting Duntov at a Corvette show. When Zora came to America he had a very thick accent. In the late ‘60s he suffered a stroke that left his speech even more challenging. The old racer/engineer told Sherry, “Dave, best Corvette driver.”

The second powerful man watching MacDonald was Carroll Shelby. A champion driver himself, Shelby was out of the driver’s seat due to a heart condition. By ‘62, Shelby was up to his neck in snakes – Cobras, that is. Carroll Shelby offered MacDonald a driver’s job for the ‘63 season and Dave scooped it up! The 260 Cobra Roadster was a brute, but as soon as the 289 Cobras arrived, it was obvious that they would dominate their class. MacDonald took 13 checkered flags in 23 races and three second place wins with the Cobra. In spite of the arrival of the Z06, how could any car compete against another car weighing 1,000 pounds less. The Sting Rays would just have to wait for the big-blocks to arrive.

MacDonald loved driving NASCAR cars. Seen here charging into turn 6 at the NASCAR 1963 Motor Trend 500 at Riverside International Raceway. Dave only raced in six NASCAR events. This would be the only Chevy MacDonald would race in NASCAR, and finished in 12th place. In the other two NASCAR races, MacDonald drove a Ford Galaxy 500 with the Woods Brothers and Holman & Moody.

Of the 32 races MacDonald entered in ’63, he took first place 15 times, including wins in the two biggest & richest sports car races in America, the LA Times GP and Monterey Pacific GP – he also finished 2nd five times. In 29 of those races, Dave chauffeured for Shelby in the 289 Cobra Roadster and the purpose-built tube chassis King Cobra. The other three rides were on the NASCAR circuit where Dave scored two 2nd place finishes; one for Holman & Moody and the other driving the famous Woods Brothers #21 car.

1964 should have been MacDonald’s breakout year. In those days, there was a common career path for many drivers. Often they started in dirt track and midget cars, progressing to stock cars or sports cars. The Indy 500 was the obvious next step for MacDonald. Mickey Thompson asked Dave to drive his radical mid-engine, Ford-powered Sears Allstate Special. However, MacDonald was still under contract with Shelby, who had already agreed to loan MacDonald out to Bill Stroppe for three NASCAR races. Shelby signed off on the deal but only after Thompson agreed that Dave’s time at the Brickyard wouldn’t get in the way of his Cobra commitments.

Dave & 1960’s trophy queen Marilyn Fox in the finished King Cobra Cooper Monaco for a 1963 Shelby American photo op.

From January to May, MacDonald racked up four wins, and two second place finishes, including a win at the ’64 12 hours of Sebring with co-driver and friend, Bob Holbert in the Daytona Cobra. MacDonald also had his first showing at the  NASCAR Daytona 500 driving Bill Stroppe’s Mercury to 10th place. Dave’s last race before Indy was at the US Road Racing Championships in Kent where he out dueled Jim Hall and his Chevy backdoor-assisted Chaparral to score his final victory.

 

Dave and Mickey Thompson pose in the Ford powered Sears Allstate Special in California. The car was built to run on 12-inch diameter tires to lower the center of gravity and had a full body for an aerodynamic advantage. After the car was built, Indy officials made Thompson switch to 15-inch diameter wheels and cut openings in the tops of the fenders to make the car a quasi-roadster. Raising the height of the car ruined any built-in advantages with the design and made the car unweildly. All of the name drivers of the day passed of driving the car and several advised MacDonald to do so as well.

Sherry said that Dave’s goal was always to drive Indy some day and he accepted Mickey Thompson’s 1964 offer without hesitation. Sherry explains, “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 the Thompson car, 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 if he got out of the car, he’d be voted candy-ass of the year.”  (Several other drivers 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.”

Dave’s Rock – Sherry MacDonald

When 19-year old Dave MacDonald first saw his future wife, Sherry Gravett in the lead role in her El Monte High School play, he went head-over-heals. He didn’t meet Sherry at the play, but got her phone number and called her the next day. It was early December ‘55 and the two talked for almost two months before their first date. Since Dave 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 Dave’s 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 Dave won his class and presented Sherry with her first trophy. Dave was so taken, he let Sherry drive his Corvette to school the following day! The thought of his sweetheart driving a ‘50 Ford to school was just too much. Love will do that to a man sometimes. Six weeks after their first date, Dave asked Sherry to be his wife. Of course, she said, “YES!” Less than three months after Sherry graduated from high school, on September 8, 1956, Dave and Sherry were married.

Not long after Dave and Sherry were married, they had the red ‘55 Corvette repaited green.

The newly weds were off to a nice start. Dave’s parents had a large lot that they subdivided so that two other houses could be built – a two-bedroom and a three-bedroom house. Dave and Sherry moved into the two-bedroom house. 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 Dave.

Dave had a good job at the local Chevrolet dealership and was so into Corvettes that he got a new one every year. “I thought the car payments would never end.” Sherry recounts. Whatever Corvette the couple had, Dave drag raced 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 ‘58 yellow Corvette for Sherry to see before he bought the car. Unfortunately, a brick wall was in the wrong location when Dave was testing the new Vette’s cornering capability. Sherry was greeted with a slightly banged up, new, Corvette. “Yes, we had to buy that one.” explained Sherry.

This is the ‘58 Vette Dave had an unfortunate encounter with a brick wall that was too close to the road.

Racing schools were about ten years in the future by the late ‘50s. While drag racing was Dave’s first love (besides Sherry), driving a Corvette, with its built-in cornering capability, just inspires many drivers to explore the joys of fast cornering. So, Dave made a natural transition from drag racing to road racing and showed an immediate talent for the sport. While working at Don Steves Chevrolet, Dave was on track to become their youngest service manager, but racing and driving took him on a different course.

Drag racing your street car on weekends is one thing and a competitive road racing car is another. 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, MacDonald was now a serious road racer. To help out with the income, Sherry got a temporary job in the office of a major grocery that lasted until she retired in ‘05.

Through to the end of ‘62, the entire MacDonald family saw their man get better and better. Race cars came and went, and there was a steady stream of locals coming to Dave 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.”

In 1963, cars didn’t get any more futuristic that the new Corvette Sting Ray. While Dave and Sherry got to drive the very first ‘63 Z06 home to California for Don Steves Chevrolet, this Riverside Red Coupe was their personal car. Every young couple should have a new, red Corvete to go out to dinner in, right? Sherry says that she still has the coat!

Life was extraordinary for the young family. Dave was one of the young lions or racing, yet he remained soft spoken and down to earth. Once, Sherry’s boss asked her if Dave would be willing to speak at a church function about auto racing. Afterwards her boss told Sherry that everyone was quite taken with this slight built, soft spoken, articulate young man who confidently answered all of their questions. Perhaps they were expecting a ham-fisted, daredevil type. Instead, they got family man and devoted husband, Dave MacDonald.

This is the end of Part 1. We will be running Part 2 in a few weeks. – Scott

PS – Special thanks to the MacDonald family for their support and assistance with this article. You can visit the Dave MacDonald tribute website here… www.DaveMacDonald.net. Except where noted, all photos are from the MacDonald Family Archive.


 

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