The Racing Capital
of the World
July 24, 2012 | By Bruce Martin
Forty years after his historic Indianapolis 500 victory, Mark Donohue remains one of the greats of racing. The Donohue legacy is carried on by his son David, who will compete in the inaugural Brickyard Grand Prix GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series race Friday, July 27 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard.
“It’s really exciting to be back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” David Donohue said. “I was fortunate enough to attend the press announcement last year, and that was my first time standing on the front straightaway. It’s always cool to go to Indy. There is electricity in the atmosphere. But when you stand on the front straightaway, that’s something else. I had goose bumps.
“I did more than get to see my father’s 1972 Sunoco car that won the Indianapolis 500; I got to sit in it for a picture. I fit perfectly, by the way.”
This won’t be David Donohue’s first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He competed in a Porsche Supercup race at Indianapolis during the United States Grand Prix days. But with the advent of the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard, Donohue will be one of the main attractions when GRAND-AM hits the 13-turn, 2.534-mile IMS road course.
“I think the course will be good,” Donohue said. “I drove it in the Supercup in 2001. It has its challenges. It’s very high speed at the top speed. I’m just thrilled we are going there, to be honest. We have a very diverse selection of tracks on our schedule, and the fact they created an endurance championship so we have a championship within a championship in our series with Daytona, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen, it should add to the field and add to the diversity.
“It’s a heck of a ticket. You get all of the NASCAR series and our series as well as well as the Continental. It’s going to be a busy weekend. You get your fair share of watching racing, no matter what kind of racing you like.”
So 40 years after his father won the 1972 Indianapolis 500, what would it mean for David Donohue to win there?
“It would be too much for words,” he said. “I can’t even describe it and give it credibility to what it would mean.”
Donohue realizes that his father was there at the beginning of the most fabled team in American motorsports – Penske Racing.
“It’s funny looking back because I’ve been in motorsports now for a while, and you see people come and go,” Donohue said. “Roger Penske was so new to it, and I’m sure back then you saw people come and go. My Dad’s days with Roger, no one knew if he was one of those that would come or go. Here they ended up starting a legacy that is really historical.”
Although David Donohue never drove for Penske Racing, he has been behind the wheels of the machine that started it all.
“Tongue in cheek, I can say I’m on the only driver to drive for Roger Penske in a Formula One car at Indianapolis, but it was PC1 in a vintage event,” Donohue said. “Although I never drove for Roger Penske, he will always answer a call and always return a call. I make sure I don’t abuse it. Not just Roger but his whole organization. There are really high-quality people there. I like to stand on my own a little bit, but I lean on them every once in a while for advice and guidance and counseling. The nice thing is I know that they are there.
“This business is a gypsy business, for one thing. We lead two lives – a life on the road and a life at home. And they are very different. When you are in it and you are recognizable because of my father’s accomplishments and because of who my father worked for and who he worked with and how he treated people, I was really accepted with open arms into the industry. And I was helped by a lot of people that didn’t have the opportunity to give back to my dad or say thank you to my dad, so the way they did it was to help me.”
David Donohue was just 5 years old when his father drove the famed Sunoco No. 66 McLaren/Offenhauser to victory May 27, 1972 at Indianapolis. It was a classic race for the man who not only drove the race car but also served as its engineer and mechanic back at the Penske Racing shop in Reading, Pa. He paced himself throughout the race before taking the lead for the first time with 13 laps to go.
While the details of his father’s win were unknown to young David at the time, he remembers being awoken by his mother to watch the end of the tape-delayed race that night on ABC.
“When my father won in 1972, I was 5 years old and I was at Lime Rock, Connecticut,” said Donohue, who will compete in the GRAND-AM race at IMS in a Daytona Prototype Porsche Riley for Brumos Racing. “I was in a motorhome, and my mom came out got my brother and I up. We were sleeping, and she came in and woke us up so we could watch the end of the race. Back then it was tape-delayed, and she was watching the race on TV. She brought us in to see the finish. I don’t think she knew he had won. I know their first conversation after the race he didn’t say. He wanted to know how we were doing. He was just that way.”
Not only was it the first Indy 500 win for Penske, it was at the time the fastest race in the history of the Indianapolis 500 with average speed a whopping 162.962 mph in a race that lasted just three hours, four minutes, 5.54 seconds. There were no caution periods in the 500 Mile Race, which made Donohue’s victory even more rewarding as he defeated Al Unser, who had won the previous two Indy 500s.
Those statistics tell part of the story of Donohue’s father and his time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was Penske Racing’s first driver at the Indianapolis 500 in 1969 when he started fourth and finished seventh. In 1970, he started fifth and finished second to Unser. In 1971, Donohue started second and had Penske’s car out front for 52 laps before gearbox failure knocked them out of the race after 66 laps.
He started third and won in 1972 and returned to Indy in 1973, starting on the outside of the front row before finishing 15th after piston failure took him out after 92 laps.
Donohue’s father was an all-around race driver. He was so good in the old Can-Am series that the car he drove was known as the “Can-Am Killer” – a Porsche 917-10. After further development, the 917-13 won every race but one in the 1973 Can-Am season and was generally considered the most powerful and dominant racing machine ever created.
He competed in six NASCAR Cup races and drove to a dominant victory in 1973 at Riverside, Calif. He won three Indy-car races in his career, but his 1972 Indy 500 win would be his last. He became Penske’s Formula One driver, competing in two F1 contests in 1974 and 11 of the 14 races in Formula One in 1975. The team used the PC1 but dropped that car after it experienced problems and chose a March 751. During a practice session for the Austrian Grand Prix, Donohue’s March suffered tire failure and sailed into the catch-fence at the fastest corner of the track – the Vost-Hugel. Donohue’s crash killed a corner marshal, but Donohue did not appear to be seriously injured. He complained of a headache and went to the hospital.
Donohue went into a coma from a cerebral hemorrhage and died.
Mark Donohue’s name and reputation continues to be revered 40 years after his victory in the Indianapolis 500. And on Friday, July 27 at IMS, David Donohue will continue that legacy.