Mark Donohue was the driving force behind Penske Racing in the 1960s and ‘70s. He was one of the most analytical and engineering-focused drivers in history, and it is interesting to speculate how he would have utilized the telemetry and computer data available to today’s racers. 

Donohue graduated from Brown University in 1959 and began casually racing his Corvette. Veteran racer Walt Hansgen recognized his talent and began teaming with Donohue for major sports car races in the mid-60s. Roger Penske then tapped Donohue to drive his Lola T70 for his start-up team in USRRC and SCCA Can-Am races in 1966. 

Donohue developed a strong rapport with Penske’s chief mechanic, Karl Kainhofer. They didn’t restrict themselves to Can-Am racing: Penske and Donohue competed in the SCCA Trans-Am series in its heyday in the late ‘60s and developed cars to enter in the 24 hour sports car races at Daytona and Le Mans. They also later branched out into NASCAR. 

Penske Racing’s first Indianapolis appearance came in 1969 with a Lola-Offenhauser. Donohue finished seventh in the Sunoco-sponsored car, claiming “Rookie of the Year” honors. A year later, Donohue finished second at Indianapolis, this time in an updated Lola with Ford power. 

That winter, Donohue and Penske decided to switch to McLaren chassis for 1971. The new McLaren M16 adapted Formula 1 technology to Indy cars, including a wedge-shaped chassis with side-mounted radiators. In addition, McLaren cleverly bypassed a rule that banned front and rear wings by integrating them into the central bodywork. 

“The minute I saw it I knew McLaren had a better package than what we were discussing with Lola,” Donohue wrote in his autobiography The Unfair Advantage. “They had obviously learned a lot about wings in Formula 1 and were applying that knowledge to Indy. I quietly marveled at their guts to come up with such a new concept, and it inspired me even more to go USAC racing.” 

Indeed, Donohue was always at his best when he had a technical challenge to resolve. He and Kainhofer quickly got the 1971 McLaren-Offy up to speed and dominated the practice days headed into Pole qualifying. But Donohue mistakenly shared some setup advice with factory McLaren driver Peter Revson who promptly stole pole position.

Donohue led the first 50 laps of the race, but he retired with a gearbox problem immediately shortly after re-taking the lead and turning the day’s fastest lap. The parked car was later heavily damaged when Mike Mosely crashed into it.

“Probably the most devastating thing that happened to us with Mark came in ’71 when we went to the Speedway, went quick all month and ended up qualifying second,” recalled Roger Penske. “He came around after the first lap and I thought something had happened to the rest of the field, he was so far out in front.           

“We’d had some problems with the gears, and ironically - because the car was number 66 – on Lap 66, the gearbox blew up on us. He pulled the car off inside Turn 4 like they did in those days, and on about Lap 190, there was an accident between Mike Mosely and Bobby Unser. They slid across the grass, hit the car and just trashed it. I remember picking the car up with a hook, and they carried it to the garage and dumped it. Karl Kainhofer looked at me and said, ‘You know what I’m going to do? I’m gonna fix this car for Pocono in a couple of weeks. We’re gonna sit on the pole and win the race.’ That was the first Pocono 500, and that’s exactly what we did. So that’s one that I really remember.”

In 1972, everyone struggled to keep pace at Indianapolis with Bobby Unser in the new Eagle, but Donohue still slotted his Penske McLaren onto the outside of the front row. Roger Penske advised Donohue to run less turbocharger boost than his rivals in the race, and that conservative strategy paid off when Donohue won a race of attrition. It was the first of Roger Penske’s 15 Indianapolis 500 victories and Donohue’s average speed of 162.962 mph stood as the race record for 14 years.

“In the ’72 Indy 500, we were very competitive with both cars, with Gary Bettenhausen and Donohue,” said Penske. “Gary dropped out with a surge tank leak and Mark won that race. Of course that was our first Indy win, and we had committed to our sponsor that we would try to win it in three years. We did that, and that was the kickoff.” 

Donohue qualified third but lost an engine at Indianapolis in 1973, his final appearance at IMS. He retired from driving after winning the 1973 Can-Am championship in the Porsche 917-30, but returned to the cockpit in late 1974 when Penske Racing built a Formula 1 car. Donohue was killed driving a Penske PC-3 F1 car while practicing for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix.

Roger Penske recently paid tribute to Donohue:

“Mark obviously was a key to Penske Racing’s early successes,” Penske said. “He became a great friend of mine, and he committed his life to auto racing. Mark obviously brought an air of professionalism. I think the people at Indy thought we were the college guys with the crew haircuts and the polished wheels. We used to clean our garage out every night, and that was something people didn’t understand. I think at that point we started to bring the sport to a higher level; we brought some technology. We started to look at data; Mark was an engineer from Brown, and certainly that was part of it. But we were committed. We weren’t out there to have fun – we were there to go racing.”