Mark Neary Donohue, Jr. (March 18, 1937 – August 19, 1975) was an American racecar driver known for his ability to set up his own race car and drive it consistently on the absolute limit. Donohue’s wins include multiple SCCA National championships, 1968, 1969 and 1971 SCCA Trans Am, 1972 Indianapolis 500, 1973 Can-Am and the inaugural IROC series.
Donohue’s racing career began while a mechanical engineering student at Brown University. Racing his 1957 Corvette, Donohue won his first race, a local hillclimb event. Regional wins led to national wins, enabling Donohue to garner the attention of an experienced driver named Walt Hansgen.
Hansgen quickly realized that Donohue had unusual talent as a driver, but more importantly, had an extensive working knowledge of vehicle mechanics and dynamics, due to his engineering background. Hansgen befriended Donohue, and even provided an MGB for Donohue to race at the 1964 Bridgehampton 500-mile SCCA endurance event, which Donohue won. In 1965, Hansgen invited him to co-drive a Ferrari 275 at the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race. This would be Donohue’s big break into international sports-car racing. Hansgen and Donohue combined to finish 11th in that race.
Ford Signs Donohue
Thanks to his friendship with Hansgen, word quickly spread to the Ford Motor Company about this young, quick driver. Ford quickly signed Donohue to drive one of their GT40 Mk II race cars campaigned at the 24 Hours of Le Mans by the Holman & Moody racing team. Donohue and partner Paul Hawkins only completed twelve laps and finished a disappointing 51st.
Donohue would be asked back to Le Mans by Ford the following year. Ford had developed a new GT40, the Mark IV. Donohue would co-drive in the #4 yellow car with legendary Kiwi sports car driver and race car builder Bruce McLaren for Shelby American Racing. The two drivers did not agree eye-to-eye on many aspects of racing and car setup, but as a team were able to muster a 4th place finish, a far better result than the previous year.
1966 would culminate with Roger Penske contacting Donohue about his interest in driving Penske’s brand new Lola T70 Spyder in the United States Road Racing Championship. Little did the two men know, this new partnership would transform their lives forever.
Donohue dominated the 1967 United States Road Racing Championship driving a Lola T70 for Roger Penske. Donohue raced in seven of the eight races that year, winning at Las Vegas, Riverside, Bridgehampton, Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio, while finishing 3rd at Laguna Seca.
In 1968, Donohue and Penske returned to defend their USRRC championship with the McLaren M6A. While not participating in the first race of the year at Circuit Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, Donohue still dominated the series, although he suffered three DNFs during the season due to mechanical problems with the McLaren.
Donohue began his historic Trans Am series campaign in 1967, winning three of twelve races in a Roger Penske-owned Chevrolet Camaro. In 1967 and 1968, the Trans Am schedule included two of the most prized endurance races in the world, the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. Donohue finished fourth at Daytona and won the Trans Am class at the 12 Hours of Sebring.
1968 would be a banner year for Donohue in the Trans Am series. He successfully defended his 12 Hours of Sebring victory the year before by partnering with Craig Fisher and driving his Penske Chevy Camaro to victory. Donohue went on to win a whopping 10 of 13 races. This was a Trans Am series record which would stand for 19 years.
Donohue was considered the leading Trans Am driver of the late 1960s and early 1970s, winning three Trans-Am championships (his last in 1971) while driving Camaros and AMC Javelins, all for Roger Penske Racing.
In 1969, Penske and Donohue raced in their first Indianapolis 500, where Donohue finished seventh, winning the rookie of the year award. Donohue raced at Indianapolis each year following, finishing 2nd in 1970 and 25th in 1971. Donohue won the 1972 Indianapolis 500, driving as always for Roger Penske. He finished the race in his McLaren-Offy with a then record speed of 162 mph, which would stand for twelve years. The victory would be the first of Roger Penske’s Indy 500 victories.
Donohue raced in several NASCAR Grand American races, a NASCAR pony car division from 1968 until 1971. In 1973, driving an AMC Matador for Penske Racing in NASCAR’s top division, the Winston Cup Series, Donohue won the season-opening event at Riverside. It was Penske’s first NASCAR win in a long history of NASCAR participation, and remains to this day the last non-regular (non-full schedule) driver to win a NASCAR Winston Cup road race. Although photographed with the more aerodynamic 1974 Matador coupe, he would not survive to drive it in competition.
Between 1972 and 1973, Penske Racing (along with Donohue as the primary test and development driver) was commissioned by Porsche to assist with development of the 917. Donohue extensively tested the 917, offering up his substantial engineering knowledge to the Porsche engineers in order to design the best possible race car to compete in the Can-Am series.
Porsche, Penske and Donohue quickly started the development of the 917-30, complete with a reworked aerodynamic “Paris” body and a 5.4-liter turbocharged Flat-12 engine whose output could be adjusted between approximately 1100 and 1500 bhp by turning a boost knob located in the cockpit. During the development of this motor, the German Porsche engineers often asked Donohue if the motor finally had enough power. His tongue-in-cheek answer was “it will never have enough power until I can spin the wheels at the end of the straightaway in high gear.”
This infamous car is generally referred to as “The Can-Am Killer” as it dominated the competition, winning every race but one of the 1973 Can-Am championship, eventually leading to the discontinuation of the series. It is generally considered one of the most powerful and most dominant racing machines ever created.
Donohue announced that he would retire from racing after the 1973 Can-Am season. However, his retirement was short-lived, as he was lured back to full-time competitive driving by Roger Penske when Penske formed a Formula One team to compete in the final two events of the 1974 Formula One World Championship, and continue competing in 1975 with the new Penske PC1.
Donohue debuted in Formula One on September 19, 1971 with a Penske-sponsored McLaren at the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport Park, finishing on the podium in third place. After being lured out of retirement by his former boss, Penske, Donohue would return to Formula One, entering into the final two races of the 1974 Formula One season. Donohue finished in 12th place at the Canadian Grand Prix and failed to finish at the United States Grand Prix.
A full-on assault of the 1975 Formula One season was planned. The 1975 season turned out to be a difficult one for Donohue and Penske. Donohue was able to muster 5th place finishes at the Swedish Grand Prix and British Grand Prix, but the new Penske PC1 chassis proved problematic, as evidenced by three retirements in the first six races. At the Austrian Grand Prix, Donohue’s career, along with Roger Penske’s Formula One aspirations, would take a tragic turn.
International Race of Champions
Donohue raced in the inaugural IROC series in 1973/74, racing identical, specially-prepped Porsche RSR’s. Of the four-race series, Donohue won the first two races at Riverside and the final race of the year at Daytona. The only person to beat Donohue was his former Penske Trans-Am teammate, George Follmer. In winning the first IROC championship, Donohue beat the best-of-the-best racing drivers of that era from all of the major championships, such as Denny Hulme, Richard Petty, A.J. Foyt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Peter Revson, Bobby Unser, and Gordon Johncock.
Austrian Grand Prix Wreck
Midway through the 1975 F1 season, Penske abandoned the troublesome PC1 and started using the March 751. Donohue had recently arrived in Austria for the Austrian Grand Prix following the successful closed-course speed record attempt at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama just a few days earlier. During a practice session for the race, Donohue lost control of his March after a tire failed sending him careening into the catch fencing. A track marshal was killed by debris from the accident, but Donohue didn’t appear to be injured significantly. However, a resulting headache worsened and after going to the hospital of Graz the next day, Donohue lapsed into a coma from a brain hemorrhage and died.
Donohue’s racing legacy lives on in his son, David Donohue, a successful road racer in his own right, who currently races a Daytona Prototype Porsche Riley for Red Bull Brumos Racing in the Grand-Am racing series.
[Source: Wikipedia; photos courtesy of Autosports Marketing Assoc.]