Mark Donohue's 1972 Indy 500 win: why success was bittersweet for McLaren

Indycar Racing News

McLaren goes into this year's Indy 500 with hopes of a fourth win at The Brickyard — 51 years after a first victory by Mark Donohue that was tinged with frustration

Mark Donohue poses next to his 1972 Indy 500-winning car

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


Arrow McLaren didn’t quite earn pole for the Indy 500, but the team came close, and it certainly has strength in numbers heading into this Sunday’s race.

Felix Rosenqvist starts from the outside of the third row, while his team-mates Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Tony Kanaan are all in the top nine on the grid.

If one of the four drivers does lift the trophy and drink the milk it will come 51 years after McLaren’s maiden success at the Brickyard, the first of three wins achieved by the marque in the space of five seasons.

From the archive

However, that first Indy victory was also tinged with some frustration for McLaren team boss Teddy Mayer and his crew, as it was not achieved by a works car, but by a customer. In fact that 1972 win for Mark Donohue has a special place in the history books as it was also the first 500 victory for his entrant Roger Penske, whose team has been synonymous with the event ever since.

McLaren’s Indy 500 adventure had begun with the M15 in 1970, and the debut appearance was a huge disappointment. Chris Amon decided not to compete and Denny Hulme was injured in practice, and in the race their replacements Peter Revson and Carl Williams were out of luck, although the latter finished ninth.

“We didn’t really understand the place a lot to begin with,” recalled former McLaren Indy team boss Tyler Alexander. “And it was a huge struggle. We relied on some information from some people who were there, who were involved with us. They certainly helped, but it all came a little bit at a time.

“We needed to prove ourselves, and then they’d offer us some information, which didn’t help for a while. But after the first year there we felt amongst ourselves that if we could get the goddamn thing to finish, we could win the race.”


Carl Williams pictured with the McLaren M15 which so spooked Amon and co – he finished ninth


For 1971 the team embarked on a new design, the M16, which featured a state-of-the-art wedge shape.

As the project was getting underway Penske and his longtime driver and close friend Donohue came to England. The pair had been partners for some time, and Donohue had contested the 500 for the previous two years with Penske’s Sunoco-backed Lolas. However, he was still best known for road racing.

The UK visit was ostensibly to check out cars that the team could field in the ’71 Can-Am and F5000 series. Lola was the main port of call, but as Penske had strong McLaren links, having run a Can-Am M6B in 1968, he also decided to visit the factory at Colnbrook.

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However, Mayer wasn’t interested in selling a current sports car to a crack outfit like Penske – why risk being beaten when the works CanAm team could so easily pick up the prize money?

Then the discussion came around to the subject of Indy. In this arena McLaren was still a newcomer, and Mayer realised that having a decent customer team out there would accelerate development, and at the same time help make the project financially viable. Penske duly ordered an M16 for Donohue’s use.

“I believe we asked them to make sure that it had McLaren written on it,” Alexander recalled. “Because he was always very keen to have only Penske written on it!

“But he helped us pay for the project by buying one of the cars. At Indy we were still bloody foreigners, and because he had one of our cars that put him in the same barrel as us.

“He certainly knew the Indy people better than we did, because he’d been going to Indianapolis and looking at the place for a long time, whereas we hadn’t really done that. And Mark was very good at Indianapolis, I would have said. He was very methodical, and very good at setting the car up. He was the thinking man’s racing driver.”

McLaren shows promise in 1971 Indy 500

Months later the decision paid off when Revson put the works car on pole for the 1971 Indy 500, just ousting Donohue, who made the mistake of offering last minute set-up advice – only to see his main rival go faster.

1971 Indy 500 front row

Peter Revson and his orange McLaren on pole, joined by Mark Donohue with the Penske McLaren and Bobby Unser’s Olsonite Eagle


“They were actually semi-celebrating when Revson went out,” said Alexander. “That was quite good, actually!”

Inevitably this added a little needle to a long-standing rivalry between Revson and Donohue, whose careers had followed similar paths.

Alexander recalls: “They had been racing each other from when they raced Elva sports cars in SCCA races. They’d been beating each other on and off through the whole of motor racing in America.”

On that 1971 Indy race day Donohue retired, while Revson looked strong, before fading to second.

“We should have won the race,” noted Alexander. “Because we were fast enough to, but there were some things that happened during the race that didn’t help, with the officials and other things. And Revson did a good job of driving the car, but he was hanging on, and petrified that he would make a mistake. He was worried that they would black flag him for speeding up under the yellow.”

McLaren clearly benefitted from having a second team running its products. However there were no immediate plans to swamp the market with customer cars, and it was decided that two outfits were enough for the 1972 race.

McLaren back on the front row for 1972 Indy 500

The works team duly entered Revson and Gordon Johncock, while Penske added the experienced Gary Bettenhausen to his line-up.

Qualifying was a stop-start affair, spoiled by heavy rain, while Donohue had a series of seven engine failures before qualifying – and when the last one went Penske had to pay $35,000 cash to get a spare Offenhauser from a rival team.

The outcome of Pole Day was almost the same as the previous year. Two of the new M16Bs were on the front row, with Revson again ahead of Donohue, although both men were pipped to pole by the works AAR Eagle of Bobby Unser. Bettenhausen was fourth in the second Penske entry, so things looked good for the race.

From the archive

After the weeks of practice, qualifying and preliminary ceremonies had finally been completed, the start was a bit of a shambles, with the green flag flying at a point when the drivers were expecting they still had more pace laps to run. Revson was caught out, and dropped back.

Worse was to come, for after just 23 laps a transmission problem forced him to slow and park up. With Johncock not really on the pace in the other works entry, it was now up to Penske to uphold McLaren honour.

The team did it in some style, and Donohue and Bettenhausen both ran at the sharp end. After pole man Unser retired, his AAR team mate Jerry Grant emerged as their main rival.

Then Penske’s hopes suffered a big setback when Donohue made his second stop 205 miles into the race. Not enough fuel went into the car, and it was obvious that he would now need to make an unwanted extra stop.

Meanwhile Bettenhausen had the legs of Grant, leading for 138 laps until he began to suffer engine problems, and Grant nipped past.

Eventually Bettenhausen pulled off in a cloud of steam, and with Johncock also long out, Donohue was the only McLaren driver left in the race. And thanks to his extra stop, he was out of contention. Or was he? His focus turned to catching Grant.

Donohue puts the hammer down

“At that point, for the first time in the entire month at Indy, I really got enthused,” wrote Donohue in The Unfair Advantage. “I started driving as hard and as fast as I possibly could. Not that I wasn’t driving hard before – but then I really started taking chances. I was driving way down on the shoulders and taking unusual lines to get round slower cars.”

Luck rolled Donohue’s way when he was able to make his last two stops under yellow flags, and was thus able to make up a lot of time on Grant. In addition, the latter’s AAR team lost track of how far behind he was, and initially did not realise that he had got back on the lead lap.

Grant never received a message to speed up, and he even pitted late on, complaining of a tyre vibration. Donohue duly swept into the lead with 10 laps to go, and the number 66 car stayed there for the last crucial 25 miles. For the watching McLaren folk, it was a day of mixed emotions.

“They won the race in a car we built, but it wasn’t us,” said Tyler. “I think we were so tired and pissed off with all the dramas that we had with the engines and stuff, we were just glad it was over. But there was no personal satisfaction out of it all.

“We were pissed off because our own cars were out. But I suppose from a company standpoint it was very good for us, and Goodyear knew that we’d built the car and were behind us 100%.”

Mark Donohue poses next to his 1972 Indy 500-winning car

Donohue’s Sunoco McLaren M16B won ’72 Indy at a speed that would not be bettered for over a decade. Yet he was not even remotely satisfied


In fact it was to be a memorable weekend for McLaren, a company that was juggling as many racing programmes in 1972 as it is in 2023.

Indy was held on Saturday, and on Bank Holiday Monday Denny Hulme won the non-championship Oulton Park Gold Cup F1 race in his M19A, beating the all-conquering Lotus 72 of Emerson Fittipaldi. And the very same day a young South African called Jody Scheckter triumphed in the European F2 race at Crystal Palace in his works M21.

Just two weeks later Hulme won the opening round of the Can-Am series at Mosport – ahead of the Penske-run Porsche 917 of a certain Mark Donohue. This was a golden period for McLaren.

Meanwhile a first works victory at Indy would have to wait until Johnny Rutherford won in 1974, by which time the Can-Am and F2 projects had been shelved.

“In reality it was a lot of effort, and an enormous amount of work, from what I can remember, in trying to do all this stuff at once,” said Alexander. “Like everything else we did, we did the best job we could do. We worked like hell, and the project wasn’t short-changed.

“We weren’t saying that we can’t do these things because of something else. If you look back on it, if we’d known a few things a tiny little bit more, we would have been a helluva lot more successful. But then that’s the way it goes.”

Race Results - 1972 Indianapolis 500