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Indycar Sports Cars 22

The career of Mark Donohue

This week I’m going to explain why I believe Mark Donohue and the remarkable Can-Am turbo Porsche 917/30K deserve places in Motor Sport’s roll call of racing’s greatest drivers and cars.

sports cars indycar  The career of Mark Donohue
Mark Donohue and Roger Penske

It was good to see Donohue featured in the latest issue of the magazine in Guy Allen’s ‘Racing Lives’, but for reasons I find unfathomable both Donohue and the 917/30K were missing from the recent listings of great drivers and cars posted here on the website.

Donohue was Penske Racing’s original number one driver and team leader in the team’s formative days from 1966-75. He studied engineering at the Ivy League Brown University and was a very serious, deeply driven man who served as Penske’s team manager, chief engineer and sometimes truck driver and floor sweeper in addition to his duties as a driver.

Donohue won three Trans-Am championships between 1968-71 when that series was at its historic height, scored Penske’s first Indy 500 victory in 1972 and won the 1973 Can-Am title in Penske’s incredible Porsche 917/30K.

sports cars indycar  The career of Mark Donohue
Donohue in Penske’s Porsche 917/30K. Credit: Dan Boyd

Donohue retired at the end of 1973 but returned a year later to race Penske’s new F1 car at the end of 1974 and into ’75. It turned out to be a tragic decision because he was killed midway through the ’75 season during race day morning warm-up for the Austrian GP. Donohue may not have made his mark on F1 but he defined Penske Racing and is fondly remembered by many of us as one of the most astute and complete racers the sport has ever seen.

The start with Penske

Roger Penske started his race team in 1966 and hired Donohue to drive a Lola T70 in the United States Road Racing Championship and the inaugural Can-Am series. Donohue won three races that year and the following year he won the USRRC title for Penske and also raced in the Can-Am and Trans-Am series.

In 1968 Donohue repeated as USRRC champion, won the Trans-Am title for the first time and finished third in the Can-Am behind the factory McLarens. Penske also made the move into Indycars in ‘68 with Donohue racing an Eagle-Chevy in a pair of USAC road races at Mosport and Riverside.

sports cars indycar  The career of Mark Donohue
Donohue in Penske’s McLaren at the Riverside round of the 1968 Can-Am championship

Donohue started 1969 by winning the Daytona 24 Hours driving a Lola-Chevy T70 coupé with Chuck Parsons. He again won the Trans-Am championship in ‘69 and also made his and Penske’s rookie start at Indianapolis aboard a turbo Offy-powered Lola T152.

In 1970, Penske’s primary effort went into running a pair of AMC Javelins in the Trans-Am series for Donohue and Peter Revson but Donohue raced a 4WD Lola-Ford turbo at Indianapolis, finishing second to Al Unser. He ran three other USAC races that year and also raced a Lola-Chevy in three SCCA Formula 5000 races, winning at Mosport and Sebring.

Donohue’s plate was extremely full in 1971. He won Penske’s third Trans-Am championship, this time for American Motors; co-drove Penske’s Ferrari 512M with David Hobbs at Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans and Watkins Glen; ran the Canadian and United States GPs in a Penske-prepared McLaren M19, finishing third in his F1 debut at Mosport; raced an F5000 Lola in the Questor Grand Prix in California; and ran nine USAC Championship races, Indy 500 included.

sports cars indycar  The career of Mark Donohue
Donohue at the 1972 Indy 500

Indycar success

Penske switched to McLaren’s new wedge-shaped M16 Indycar in ‘71 and Donohue scored Penske’s first Indycar win in the Pocono 500 in July and also won a 200-mile race at Michigan two weeks later. But Donohue was out of luck at Indianapolis after setting the pace through practice and leading the race’s opening 50 laps before top gear broke.

The following year Donohue came through to win the Indy 500 in his and Penske’s fourth try after team-mate Gary Bettenhausen led 138 laps and appeared to have the race in the bag until an ignition rotor broke. But three weeks after winning at Indianapolis Donohue crashed while testing Penske’s new Porsche 917/10 Can-Am car at Road Atlanta when the rear bodywork broke loose while in the fastest section of the track.

The 917/10 hit the bank hard, cartwheeled down the road and comprehensively destroyed itself. Donohue was lucky to escape with nothing worse than a broken left leg, but he was out of action for a couple of months. Penske chose George Follmer to replace Donohue in the Can-Am Porsche and he went on to win the championship beating the factory McLarens of Denny Hulme and Peter Revson. Donohue returned to action for the year’s last four races and won at Edmonton after Follmer had to stop to replace a punctured tyre.

sports cars indycar  The career of Mark Donohue
Follmer in the 1972 917/10 at Watkins Glen

Can-Am domination

In 1973 Donohue concentrated on the Can-Am series with the amazing Porsche 917/30K which was the magnum opus of his career. He spent the winter testing and developing the car working first at Weissach in Germany, then in the United States.

The 917/30K enjoyed a longer wheelbase than the 917/10, much improved aerodynamics and more power – as much as 1100bhp – from the latest 5.4-litre engine. It was substantially quicker by some 15mph on the straightaways than the previous year’s car.

Penske ran just one Can-Am car in 1973 for the fully recovered Donohue who ran away with the championship. He was on the pole for every race and won the last six races in a row with little or no opposition. Knowing they were out-powered by the turbo Porsches the McLaren team quit Can-Am prior to that year and Donohue’s only serious competition came from Follmer driving a 917/10 for Bobby Rinzler and a youthful Jody Scheckter aboard another 917/10 run by Vasek Polak.

sports cars indycar  The career of Mark Donohue
Donohue leads Follmer, Scheckter, Hobbs, Haywood and Kemp

A mark of the 917/30K’s speed was Donohue’s pole lap at Elkhart Lake, more than three seconds quicker than Scheckter and Follmer. I’ll always remember Donohue pushing his 917/30K around Elkhart Lake’s fast, four miles, turbo spooling up, tyres chirping as they broke away under power with each gear change as he became the first man to break the two-minute barrier around the USA’s finest road circuit. Eleven years would pass before Mario Andretti, driving a Lola Indycar, was able to break Donohue’s Elkhart track record.

Donohue was deeply engaged in the preparation, engineering, development and racing operations of his cars like other rare birds from the ‘60s and ‘70s such as Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, John Surtees, Dan Gurney, AJ Foyt and Andretti. Today, there’s nobody in the sport quite like them. Nor are there cars like the 917/30K.

More from Gordon Kirby
American greats: Milton, Murphy and Lockhart
Daytona 24 Hours aftermath
Parnelli’s record run in the Baja 1000

sports cars indycar  The career of Mark Donohue

Add your comments

22 comments on The career of Mark Donohue

  1. Roger, 17 February 2014 11:23

    Sorry, but this is boring. A twelve year old could have rustled this article up as homework.

  2. Ben Johnson, 17 February 2014 11:32


    You ungrateful sod!

  3. Greg Price, 17 February 2014 13:35

    Roger, that is out of order, have you paid to read this article? No, thought not. I’m sure MS would be happy to consider your submissions if you can do better.

  4. Mario Carneiro Neto, 17 February 2014 13:43

    Donohue’s book “The Unfair Advantage” is my favorite book ever written about motor sport. The man was very detail oriented, and had a great way of explaining every nuance that made his cars go faster on the track. Unmissable if you’re a fan of motor sport in general.

  5. David H, 17 February 2014 19:43

    Thank you Mr. Kirby, fine tribute.

  6. JRS, 17 February 2014 21:06

    I’m sorry Roger but the true sign of good journalism is how simple it all looks and reads…But if you look closely at Mr. Kirby’s article, you will notice a wealth of information and detail (correct I might add) within this nice little article which I assure you was limited in length by the publication. For a quick read, this covers a lot of ground and in a very concise and informative manner, giving the reader real insight into this genius of a racing driver and everything else that Mark brought to Penske Racing and the sport of motor racing.

  7. Dick Richards, 17 February 2014 23:48

    The 917/30K photo looks like being taken at Mosport. Donohue did a lot of racing and a lot of winning there, even in the CanAm before Porsche arrived. He was not really too popular with my friends because he was so dominant in all types of equipment.
    That was a mark of a truly great all rounder.

  8. brent nowostawski, 18 February 2014 04:47

    Thank you Gordon Kirby for this article. Mark Donohue is my favorite racer of all time along with Bobby Allison. I was 13 when Mark won Indy. I feel great emotion whenever his name comes up !

  9. Kim Cheney, 18 February 2014 06:43

    The Unfair Advantage. Nothing had changed. It’s to bad Mark is still not with us. He would have made an excellent partner to Roger later in life. Just think Penske-Donohue Racing…

  10. IM, 18 February 2014 09:52

    Seems like a good article to me…

  11. Morgan Freemantle, 18 February 2014 10:51

    Great article, great man. Unfair to critique the article as boring when MD’s achievements speak volumes, the text and pics do justice as far as possible in a tid-bit (read the unfair advantage and never be bored again) and finally an author that has referenced the ‘guns’ who pioneered motorsport as we know it. These guys were all supreme – in awe of their work and abilities (that we’ll never see again – not at the top anyway).

  12. Steve W, 18 February 2014 11:47

    It should be noted that Roger Penske’s only Grand Prix win was at the Austrian GP one year after Donohue’s death in the hands of John Watson in a Penske PC4-Ford Cosworth.

  13. Peter Coffman, 18 February 2014 15:42

    Thank you for this tribute to an underrated driver. I have three particularly memorable recollections of Mark, from my days of regular attendance at Mosport. One was the debut of the 917/30, still the most awe-inspiring car I ever saw. Another is the ’71 GP, in which he finished on the podium in his F1 debut. I recall that he was a bit annoyed after the race – because he hadn’t won! He was not at all arrogant, but he set a very high standard for himself. The third is from the Mac’s Continental FA race in 1970. The Penske team arrived with an immaculate white Lola, which they hadn’t even had time to paint Sunoco blue. They won the race…

    I still have the program from that last race; it has a profile on Mark called “Captain Nice”, written by my father. Incidentally, it also has a piece on Gary Magwood’s racing school, written by a long-haired lad named Gordon Kirby, described as “a 22-year-old English-born Torontonian who is the Canadian Correspondent for the British weekly ‘Autosport’.” Glad to see he’s keeping better company now…

  14. Anthony Jenkins, 20 February 2014 11:17

    I was at Mosport in 1971 when Donohue and Penske showed up almost unexpectedly with a customer McLaren. It was, as all Penske cars are, stunningly turned out. Donohue didn’t look out of place in a F1 pit lane and soon established himself as one of the stars. And in the race, horribly cold and rainy, he proved himself so, leading both the factory McLarens, finishing third and impressing the regulars.
    Other Penske commitments for Donohue prevented him competing in the subsequent US and Mexican GPs but what might he have done with a little chance to settle in? He won in everything he tried.

  15. Joe Machado, 20 February 2014 14:41

    Donahue was in a class of his own, the same way Roger Penske’s teams are and have been. Regrettably cars today are designed with too many constrains. Those who did not see the Can Am races as well F1 early years do not understand and cannot really compare the “scripted ” auto racing of today. Same goes for drivers. So many drivers aids, electronic gizmos that most cars today are point and squirt, with exception of NASCAR where there is nothing to point at or point with.

  16. Peter Coffman, 20 February 2014 15:22

    Anthony, do you reckon that the first photo (of Mark and Roger) is from that event? It’s definitely Mosport, and the weather looks right.

    Yes, Penske cars were always beautifully prepared. Just look at the pinstripes in the third photo… I know they’re just aesthetic, but that kind of attention to quality in detail epitomizes the whole Penske approach. Donohue was an integral part of that approach, as well as perhaps the most underrated great of all time.

    Easily overlooked is his performance in the inaugural IROC. Okay, just ‘fun’ racing perhaps – but ‘fun’ among a fiercely competitive group of drivers. And with everyone at the bottom of a dozen learning curves, guess who won?

    Donohue was not the quickest driver over a lap of his generation, but he was one of the most complete drivers ever. And he was far from slow…

  17. Alex Harmer, 20 February 2014 16:15

    Hi Peter,

    That first photo is indeed from Mosport in ’71.


  18. Peter Coffman, 20 February 2014 17:45

    Thanks Alex!

  19. Gordon Kirby, 20 February 2014 20:41

    I’m delighted to see many of you write warn and incisive memories of Donohue & recognise what a great driver he was. One of the greatest all rounders of all-time to be sure.

    And anyone who hasn’t treated themselves to a read of his excellent book ‘The Unfair Advantage’ should put it at the top of their reading list.

  20. David Grant, 21 February 2014 05:47

    This is a very well told tale. Mark was the greatest roadracing driver in the past 60 years. I have been an avid fan that long. The longer, slipperier 917-30 shape, the latest 5.4 engine, and the Penske team made a big difference, but I would suggest that the 917-10 was the landmark car. Mosport in 1972 was the pivotal race weekend, with an untried car against the best of the V8 CanAm fleet.

    Thank you for sharing this story with us all.

  21. john aston, 24 February 2014 08:13

    I remember seeing MArk Donohue’s black 911Carrera in the paddock at Silverstone Intl Trophy April 1975. When filling up my Hesketh stickered Riley 1300 on the way home I noticed the great man was filling up the 911 at the next pump. Too shy to say anything – wish I’d said hello ..

  22. Anthony Jenkins, 26 March 2014 00:51

    Yes, the photo was definitely from Mosport at the GP in the fall of 71. The Penske’s were immaculate. Back then , anyone devious ( me) could sneak into pit lane during practice. Hours and hours of practice.
    I watched Roger penske personally indicate the spots were each sponsor decal would be placed and his mechanics knew to align them perfectly. Roger checked.
    If memory serves, Donohue was one of the last drivers to retain an open faced helmet.

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