L&T Motorsport

Motorsports most versatile competitors – Mark Donohue

We move onto part four of the list today and a name that is not as household as those before him. Mark Donohue lived a short life before his untimely death but he raced in many different machines and series, performing well in many. He also dabbled in team management while driving as well, a tricky juggling act at the best of times. An Indy 500 winner the American excelled more in sports car racing and racing in Can-Am at its most exciting as well, lets look at the life and career of Mark Donohue.

Early Days

Donohue was born in Haddon Township, New Jersey on 18th of March 1937. His early life was about his school work, including graduating from Brown University in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. This degree would come in very useful to the American in his motor sport career. His first raced his 1957 Corvette while at Brown, racing and winning his first event, a hill climb in New Hampshire. It wasn’t long before Mark was competing at a higher level with his first race in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) coming in 1961. He won the national championship title at the first attempt.

Donohue would be befriended by an experience driver in the SCCA by the name of Walt Hangsen who would provide at MGB for the 500 mile endurance race at Bridgehampton in 1964, again a race that Donohue won. Moving to 1965 the two would team up in a Ferrari 275 for the Daytona 24 hours, finishing 11th while Mark also raced, and won, in other SCCA events. He would become part of Griffith as a design engineer. His involvement with the company seen a few productions cars made and raced during his time there before he was enticed over to a newly formed team in 1966, Penske Racing and Roger Penske.

Hook up with Penske and pushing limits

The hook up with Penske did come about in difficult circumstances for Donohue. His team mate Hangsen had passed away testing the GT40 that the two were to share at the 1966 Le Mans 24 hours. Earlier in the year the two had finished third at Daytona 24 hours and second at the Sebring 12 hours and hoped for a good performance in France. It was at Hangsen’s funeral that Penske first spoke to Donohue about running in his cars and the first race was at Watkins Glen in June that year, an event he crashed in and destroyed the car despite qualifying well. Ford themselves invited Donohue back to Le Mans for 1967 and despite a fourth place finish himself and team mate Bruce McLaren had many disagreements in regards to car and race setups.

1967 would see Donohue race a Lola T70 for Penske in the United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC), the first series set up by the SCCA for professional drivers. They took part in seven of the eight races, winning six of them on the way to championship success, a feat they would repeat the following season at the wheel of a McLaren M6A. By this time Donohue and Penske also started to race in Trans-Am with a Chevrolet Camero with the series including the Daytona 24 hours and Sebring 12 hours for the 1967 and 68 seasons, winning at Sebring both years as well as the Trans-Am title in 1968 with 10 wins from 13 races, his first of three Trans-Am titles.

Donohue in the ‘Can-Am Killer’ The Penske run Porsche 917/30

During their time in Trans-Am both Donohue and Penske would experiment with new ways to make the car quicker. The most successful and controversial one was acid dipping the body, reducing the weight by 250lbs. Suspicions were raised when Donohue won the last race of the season by lapping the entire field and post race inspections seen it underweight. The win was held however after Penske himself stated that a DQ could see Chevrolet pull its support within the series but new rules meant pre race weight inspections from 1968.

This didn’t stop the ingenuity however with Penske and Donohue continuing to acid dip cars and at Sebring they put out two cars, one legal and one underweight. To fool organisers they sent the legal car through inspection twice, once with the number 15 and once with the number 16 before the underweight car won the class and finished 3rd overall and won 10 of that seasons 13 races. Even when the team moved from Camero’s to AMC Javelin’s the success continued with Donohue missing the drivers title by one point in 1970 and winning it in 1971.

Indy 500, NASCAR and the Can-Am series

During the Trans-Am years the team and driver combo had already started to dabble in IndyCars with running at the Indianapolis 500 in 1969 where Donohue took rookie fo the year honours on his way to seventh before coming second the following season. In 1972 they wound up in victory lane with a then record speed for the race distance. It was Penske’s first Indy 500 victory but for the team would not be their last.

Donohue also raced in NASCAR as well, including a within the premier series the Winston Cup. Donohue would also be the driver to take Penske’s first NASCAR win and is still to this day the last non regular driver to win a NASCAR event (this record is excluding the road course only drivers that show up every year now a days) with victory at Riverside. But it was in the notorious and dangerous Can-Am series that Donohue is most known for.

This is despite the fact that Donohue only raced in the series for two years in 1972 and 1973. At this time many drivers from Formula One and other series raced in the Can-Am series, drawn by its speed and technical prowess due to a lack of regulations. Being run under Group 7 rules meant no limit to engine power and little other rules on top. Starting development alongside Porsche in 1971 Donohue tested and offered his own technical and engineering insight as they set about creating the fastest car possible. One of Donohue’s changes was for larger brake ducts to help with cooling and help to reduce wear during races. However the change had problems with the 917/10’s bodywork and while testing at Road Atlanta the rear bodywork sheared off and caused the car to take off, Donohue breaking his legs in the scary crash.

Penske as a team took the title in 1972 with Donohue’s team mate George Follmer, showing the work that had been put into the car. For the following season Donohue returned with the team bringing the 917/30 with revised bodywork and a 5.7litre V12 that, with the turn of a knob in the cockpit, was capable of between 1100bhp and 1500bhp. When Porsche engineers asked Donohue if it was enough power Donohue is quoted as saying ‘it won’t be enough till I can spin the wheels at the end of the straight in top gear.’ But the speed of the 917/30 was immense with a speed record being set at Talladega of 221.120mph in 1975 and winning every race but one in the 1973 season. However the car is nicknamed the ‘Can-Am Killer’ as a combination of frightening speed, high costs and the ongoing Arab oil embargo at the time meaning the SCCA put in fuel restrictions from 1974 seeing Porsche and McLaren withdrew from the series and the downfall begin.

Retirement, return, F1 and untimely death

Donohue in the PC1 Penske F1 car.

Donohue had always held the nickname of ‘Captain Nice’ but this eroded away over the years with driving and engineering commitments pushing his limits. He was even nicknamed ‘Dark Donohue’ by some before he retired from motor sport at the end of the 1973 Can-Am season. This was also brought on by the horrific events of the 1973 Indy 500 where Donohue’s friend Swede Savage was killed as well as a pit lane worker who was hit by a fire vehicle rushing up pit lane to the burning wreckage of Savage’s car. Donohue had made a debut in F1 in 1971 at the Canadian Grand Prix in a Penske run McLaren, finishing on the podium but it would be three years before he was back on the F1 grid, coming out of retirement to drive the new Penske F1 car for the end of the 1974 season and onwards into 1975.

The Penske PC1 was problematic for sure and Donohue could only get a couple of fifth place points finishes in 75 at the Swedish and British GP’s. Arriving at the Austrian Grand Prix the team had ditched its own chassis in favor of a March 751. Donohue arrived straight from his record speed setting effort at Talladega and during practice he lost control due to a tire failure at the fastest corner on the track. The debris from the crash killed a track side marshall but Donohue himself seemed ok and got away from the wreckage. However hours later he was suffering from severe headaches and was transferred to Graz hospital the next day. He would lapse into a coma with cerebral damage and passed away on August 19th 1975 aged just 38.  Reports state that during the crash he had hit his head on the wooden pillar holding a nearby advertising hording and this was the reason for the resulting damage.

Collection of cars from Donohue’s career

Donohue was survived by his wife and two kids but even after death his legacy lived on with induction to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990. A book published shortly before his death that he co wrote about his career, called The Unfair Advantage, chronicles the step by step process and details Donohue went through looking to maximise his machines and beyond that as well in the pursuit of racing perfection. It details Donohue, and Penske, as innovators, the first to use skidpans for use and perfecting suspension design and set up as well as how he would exploit ABS system and get the best from the turbo charged Porsche engines amongst others.

His legacy might not be world championship winning but how deep it runs in terms of achievements and technical prowess means his legacy just might be the most detailed and driven of any driver in history.

Andrew Campbell
Photo Credits: Main: jayski.com
Car collection: Fine art America
Can-Am Killer: superstreetonline.com
F1 Penske: Sportscar digest


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