Twenty six years ago, on May 28, 1972, a driver with a degree in mechanical engineering from Brown University won the Indianapolis 500. His name was Mark Donohue. It was a time of change, a time when technology was transforming the American racing scene, often with Donohue himself in the vanguard. He was something new, a gunslinger who also happened to have designed the gun. He was admired, feared or emulated, depending on your perspective. You knew, seeing him with his briefcase, his charts and formulas, that racing would never be the same. When you heard he was working so hard that he was sleeping on the floor of the shop, you knew the days of racing as a romantic hobby were over. He made you look at yourself and wonder just how committed you really were.
He was very fast, but he didn’t have true virtuosity to fall back on. In the heat of the battle, when you were so close to him that you and he were doing the same things at the same moment, you could feel him working for every inch. There was nobility in his effort. He showed how a man can be lifted far above himself by the sheer force of his will. People were drawn to him because of that, and few of his rivals begrudged him his victories. You could sense so clearly the strain, you felt he was reaching beyond himself out of some dark duty and it seemed that no matter what he accomplished, he couldn’t rest.
Indy, for example, had been a long cherished goal, but when he won it, he couldn’t savour it because the victory hadn’t come on his own terms. As that May had unfolded he had been unable to find a competitive set up for the chassis of his car, a McLaren-Offy. Having dominated the race in a similar car the year before, until let down by transmission failure, he was bewildered. With time running out, his car owner, Roger Penske, asked that he adopt the chassis settings of Mark’s close rivals, the McLaren factory team. At the same time, Penske’s Offy engines were flawed, and Mark had to go to Parnelli Jones, his bitter adversary in the Trans-Am, to rent an engine. To Mark, he was suddenly the gunslinger who had to borrow his gun and the bullets from his enemies.
Start of the 1972 race
Things got worse. In the race. Mark was left in the dust, first by Bobby Unser’s Eagle, then by his own team-mate, Gary Bettenhausen. It wasn’t until the star-crossed Bettenhausen suffered a pinhole leak in the car’s header tank that Mark inherited the lead just 12 laps from the end.
To him, it was a victory he backed into, and less than an hour after the chequered flag, with the crew beginning to pack up, Mark volunteered to drive the team’s timer, Judy Stropus, to the airport, and on the way barely mentioned the race. He could not have known that his race average of 162.962mph would become an Indy record that would stand for 11 years, or that he had laid the cornerstone for a dynasty (Penske’s team has won, to date, nine more Indy 500s). Clearly he could not have foreseen that this win would be publicly regarded as the high point of his career, bringing him considerable celebrity, or that in little more than three years, on August 19th 1975, he would be dead.
Donohue’s Sunoco McLaren M16B win ’72 Indy at a speed that would not be bettered for over a decade. Yet he was not even remotely satisfied
I knew Mark Donohue and raced with him. But I was seven years younger, and most of the time I thought more in terms of trying to follow in his footsteps than of beating him. In a race at Watkins Glen in 1967, I was behind Mark when Bob Bondurant had the big accident that ended his career. The yellow flags were waving, and Mark slowed. I slowed even more, then got a run on him and passed him for the lead just as we exited the yellow-flag zone. I remember the look of utter disgust on his face as I swept by, and I thought, uh oh, I shouldn’t have done that. The next year I was his team-mate for several Trans-Ams when he won the championship for Chevrolet. And the day he won Indy, I was fifth. To me it was business as usual: Mark winning, me trailing along behind thinking maybe my day would come sometime.
But then he was killed. My wife-to-be, Ellen, and I were watching TV in her apartment in Los Angeles when we heard the news. In those years, a lot of the drivers we knew had been killed, but I always found ways to rationalise it and keep going. This was different. I knew Mark was better than I was, and smarter. Luckier, even. If it could happen to him, it could happen to me. I couldn’t escape that logic. I turned to Ellen, and she looked at me and said, “You’re going to quit, aren’t you?” And I did quit. I continued racing saloons, but I stopped driving open-wheelers. The light at the end of the tunnel had gone out.
The point was often made that Mark didn’t look like a race driver. He had a roundish face and until the last two years of his life, he seemed a bit overweight. Nor did his upbringing hint at his future. His father earned a living as a patent attorney, a very proper Easterner. Mark and his two sisters were reared as good Catholics in Summit, New Jersey. When he was six, Mark contracted polio but recovered fully. After graduating from Brown in 1959, he worked for Raybestos in Passaic and then had a stint selling industrial dust collectors. Neither job held much appeal, and he certainly was not at all ready to settle down in a regular job.
He loved practical jokes. Mark and his friend Berge Hewlett had an arrangement whereby, upon spotting the approach of the other’s car, each would veer into the left lane, thus passing on the wrong side of the road, leaving their passengers breathless. And then there was his interest in cars. His early racing efforts showed he had driving talent. While a senior in college, he entered his first event, a hillclimb, and won it with his two year-old Corvette. In 1961 he bought an Elva and battled with another young Easterner, Peter Revson, for the Sports Car Club of America’s divisional championship. Donohue won, but the success failed to generate momentum.
Unable to raise enough money to continue, he raced very little in 1962 and 1963. In 1964 he was hired by Jack Griffith, a Long Island Ford dealer, as chief engineer for Griffith’s ill-fated car-building venture. Mark was 27, apparently just another guy trying for something that would keep him around cars. And yet, despite his only sporadic successes, certain people were beginning to believe that Mark Donohue was special.
One was the established pro Walt Hansgen, who arranged for Mark to drive with him in John Mecom’s Ferrari 250LM at Sebring in 1965. The same year Malcolm Starr gave Mark rides in a Mustang and a Lotus 20B Formula Junior. When Mark won divisional championships in both cars, Hansgen was able to persuade Ford to hire his young protégé for its team in 1966. Hansgen and Donohue drove their GT40 to third at Daytona and second at Sebring. Yet weeks later, testing for Le Mans, Hansgen was killed. It is a considerable irony that it was at Hansgen’s funeral that Roger Penske broached the subject of Mark’s driving for him. Now Roger recalls, “Mark was known to have a methodical approach, and he was willing to commit to working for me full time, which counted for a lot.”
Penske had ace mechanic Karl Kainhofer installed in a small shop with a Lola T70 he’d bought from Mecom. The Lola was ready to go by midsummer, just in time to take part in the US Road Racing Championship, the precursor to Can-Am, at Watkins Glen. John Hilton, who was managing his father’s team, recalls the moment. “Four of us were battling for the championship, all running McLarens. Then off rolled this Lola, and it was absolutely immaculate; nobody had ever seen anything like it. It was so sleek and clean. And Mark just jumped into the car and smoked us all in qualifying.” In the race, he crested a rise and crashed into another car that was spinning across the track. The Lola was destroyed. Roger persuaded his sponsor, the Sun Oil Company, to advance money against the contract, and a new car was purchased. Just a few weeks after the Watkins Glen crash, the Penske/Donohue combination won the USRRC in Kent, Washington. It was to be the beginning of an era.
Penske Lola was the beginning of an era. Donohue finished third in the ’66 Las Vegas Stardust GP
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My brief stint with the team came in the summer of 1968, four races in a second Camaro to Mark’s. Our opposition was Ford’s team of George Follmer and Parnelli Jones, and I was brought in because Roger thought George and Parnelli might gang up on Mark. I was the team’s insurance policy. In my first race, Bridgehampton, we were headed up the straight on the first lap, with Mark leading and me off to his right, the Mustangs on our bumpers, when I saw Mark reach for his rearview mirror and twist it up sending a signal to George and Parnelli that he didn’t much care what they had in mind.
Those were tough races, three hours long. I would sweat so much my ear-plugs would wash out, and I’d be deafened by half-distance and for two days afterward; when I called home after a race, Mark would have to talk to my Mom for me because I couldn’t hear. The steering was brutally heavy because he used so much caster. It oversteered out of every turn, which I found was very fast until I got tired. But Mark never tired. He might have looked soft, but he was made of iron.
He believed that Dan Gurney, Jones and a few others were faster than he was, but that only meant he had to try harder and plan more elaborately to beat them. Willpower. Duty. And Engineering. He had terrific confidence in his engineering. Cause and effect. Thinking that was linear and sequential. And it was seductive how well it worked. He’d say that out of ten things he’d try, only three would help, but with Roger footing the bills, Mark had the luxury of trying almost everything he could think up.
This was more than commitment and dedication; it was an approach to racing as a condition of war
And he had a very curious nature. Finding loopholes in the rules, the quest for what he and Roger called the ‘unfair advantage,’ became obsessive. One week they sped up refuelling with a 25-foot tall tower. Another week they squeezed more into the tank by cooling the fuel with dry ice. Terms like ‘friction circle’, ‘roll couple’ and ‘centre of pressure’ were now in everyday use.
The team was something entirely new. Partly it was The Look. The gleaming, pinstriped car, elegant in the deep blue hue of Penske’s patrician sponsor, Sunoco, was the centre of the universe. Then add the matching uniforms, the custom slantback trucks (which Mark designed), the racks of spares, the Lear jet. In time, others would emulate The Look; what they could not attain was The Attitude. This was more than commitment and dedication; it was an approach to racing as a condition of war.
From the outset, a synergy existed between Mark and Roger that enabled each to submerge his own ego for The Cause. Life in the team was a hermetic cocoon. Events of the day — Vietnam, Watergate – went virtually unnoticed. Young Al Hobert, who was working as an apprentice mechanic, was so drawn into this world he changed his handwriting, patterning it after Mark’s.
Mark was his own harshest critic. Out-qualified by Jerry Titus at St Jovite in Canada, he went to the hotel bar, ordered a double bourbon, and then another, gulping them both down, and without a word to anyone he headed off for bed. The next day he blew Titus’ doors off.
Mostly, life was good. Practical jokes were in high gear. It was unwise to stop at an intersection with Mark behind; you would be pushed out into traffic. In the races, he would play tricks with his brake lights, which he had wired to a hand-operated switch. A naturally shy person, he had the team, which he could trust, as his extended family. Secrets were the order of the day, and outsiders were made to feel uneasy. When you went to greet Mark, he’d extend his hand, then snatch it away leaving you grasping the air. Thin air was about all the rest of us were left to win with. In 1967 he became the USRRC champion. Winning six out of eight races. In 1968 he was USRRC champion again, winning five of eight, and he was also Trans-Am champion, winning 10 of 13. In ’69 Mark repeated his Trans-Am championship, winning six of 12.
Donohue defended his 1967 USRRC title in a McLaren M6A — here on his way to victory at Laguna Seca in ’68
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And then, about the time he won Indy in 1972, things began to unravel. Basically, Mark was overworked. Other drivers could maintain heavy racing schedules because during the week they could rest, but for Mark the week meant 20-hour workdays at the shop. He wanted it that way but gradually it became too much. The team’s success enabled Roger to make more deals, bigger deals and Mark became crushed by his responsibilities.
He was having to make too many decisions too fast, and he didn’t have time to time to think things through. Often he had to rely on instinct, which is anathema to an engineer. Exhaustion alternated with the adrenalin rushes of the race weekends. He began sleeping on the floor of the shop. His relationship with his wife, Sue, self-destructed, and from now on he would see less than ever of this two young sons, David and Michael. When a friend, George Lysle, persuaded him to let International Management Group handle his personal affairs, Mark brought in two shoe boxes full of unpaid bills to their offices, his personal life in chaos.
In the early years he and Roger had been roped together like mountaineers but now Roger was moving ahead in a world of his own, building an empire and amassing a fortune. Where now Roger was a young corporate executive with an unlimited future, Mark was an ageing driver starting to run out of time. Jody Stropus was very close to Mark during this period, and she recalls that he became terribly insecure, convinced that Roger could replace him with AJ Foyt or anyone else he might want.
Much of this was abstract and might have blown over in time. But five weeks after Indy, on July 3, he was testing his Can-Am Porsche, the 917-10 at Road Atlanta and got airborne at 160mph, executed two cartwheels and wound up in the hospital. His legs were broken, and to control the pain he was kept on drugs, which affected his memory and produced a sense of dislocation.
His return to racing saw him winning again by September, but now he was acutely aware of the price at which his success was achieved.
F1, CanAm, Indy or sports cars… Mark raced each with relish. This is 1973 IROC race at Riverside and he is trying as hard as ever in Porsche RSR
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The winter of 1972-1973 brought frequent trips to Germany to test the Porsche 917/30. Mike Knepper, whose article for Road & Track captured the grimness of this period, quotes Mark as saying “When it snowed in Germany and we couldn’t test, the boredom became intolerable. After I’d read everything I could find in English, I’d just sit in my room and stare.”
Indy approached. Still agonising over having won ‘by default’ the previous year, Mark persuaded Roger to buy him an Eagle. But from the beginning, he was in trouble. To sort out the Eagle his way would take more time than he had. He hit a desperate low. Without telling anyone, he decided to quit racing. He managed to qualify third and was running third at 91 laps when the engine failed. During the delay caused by Swede Savage’s fatal crash, writer Charles Fox approached Mark, noticed that he was ashen, and asked how he was doing. “Just trying to keep my ass in one piece and make a buck,” came the distinctly terse reply.
Porsche’s 917/30 was the most powerful car ever to race. In it, Mark annihilated his rivals in CanAm during the 1975 season, sparking the series’ downfall. In ’75, he set a closed-course speed record of 221.160mph at Talladega
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It must have been bittersweet that the rest of the 1973 season produced two major championships: Can-Am (he won six races,in a row), and the first-ever International Race of Champions series. But despite the success people close to him ceased calling him “Captain Nice” and referred to him instead as “Dark Monohue”.
In retirement, he became president of Penske racing, and his responsibilities were much as before except now the satisfaction of driving belonged to someone else. Brian Redman, who drove for the team in 1974 recalls that Mark was distant and jealous; Mark admitted that “having someone else in the car is like someone sleeping with my wife.”