Mark Donohue: Technical Excellence at Speed – Book Review

Mark Donohue: Technical Excellence at SpeedBook Review, Mark Donohue: Technical Excellence at Speed

In the first full biography of Mark Donohue, author Michael Argetsinger tells the story of racing’s ultimate driver-engineer, one who set the standard for generations to come. He also explains how Donohue’s life and career were shaped by his friends, family, and fellow drivers, as well as by the rapid changes in technology and competition that swept through racing during his time.

Author: Michael Argetsinger
Publisher: David Bull Publishing
Format: Hardcover, 8 3/8″ x 9″, 344 pages
Photographs: 15 b/w and 25 color
ISBN: 978 1 935007 02 9
Price: $39.95

Review by Lee Robie, Loveland, Ohio

I was stoked when I heard that Michael Argetsinger was writing a biography about Mark Donohue. Mark was one of my heroes growing up, and I followed his example by going to engineering school and then into sports car racing (unlike Mark, I soon ran out of both money and talent). I treasure my tattered copy of Mark’s classic, The Unfair Advantage, having read it so many times as to have almost memorized it.

So it was with both anticipation and a lot of questions that I dove into Mark Donohue: Technical Excellence at Speed. How would the story of Mark’s childhood shed light on his driving career? What happened during his year in Formula 1? And now, with the perspective of history, how good a driver was he really?

Mark Donohue: Technical Excellence at Speed

Argetsinger uses a simple narrative structure to describe a straightforward guy: Mark Donohue begins at the beginning (Donohue’s birth happens in the second paragraph) and proceeds linearly to his fatal accident. As a result, there is little drama or suspense, although I suspect this won’t matter to the intended racing audience. Argetsinger fills in the missing story of Mark’s early life nicely without over doing it. I hadn’t realized that Mark was a somewhat reckless street racer from a young age; he was apparently quite familiar with four-wheel drifts well before that first SCCA driver’s school.

By page nine we encounter the familiar (from The Unfair Advantage) story of Mark’s first race car, the Elva Courier. You will appreciate that Argetsinger goes to great lengths to provide context, filling in interesting tidbits about the sanctioning bodies, the tracks, the gruelling tows, and the many drivers (famous and not) who raced with Mark. The picture emerges of a very personable, slightly square guy with rock solid values and a great deal of charm, who also happens to be incredibly bright. This is a rare combination indeed.

Roger Penske obviously has a prominent part in the story. He comes across as smart, demanding, tough, and at his best when handling a crisis. But he is also very compassionate and considerate of those around him – a class act. In the foreword to the book, Penske generously credits Mark, saying “Mark Donohue was the catalyst for all that we have achieved at Penske Racing … it was Mark who set the standard.” And it was Penske who hired Mark when he wasn’t the popular or obvious choice.

Mark Donohue: Technical Excellence at Speed

George Follmer and Sam Posey also play a recurring role throughout the book. I got a renewed appreciation for these two great American drivers, and its fitting that they both autographed the Publisher’s Edition of the book.

The book makes clear that it took super human effort to achieve what Mark did, and that it came at great personal cost. Nowhere is that more evident than with Mark’s relationship with his first wife Sue. In the beginning, it’s a carefree existence of traveling and adventures shared at various tracks. With the passage of time comes added responsibilities – a house, children – that are shouldered stoically by Sue. As Mark’s self-imposed workload grows, the couple drifts apart until Donohue finally leaves. Argetsinger captures it beautifully, writing, “Obsession with his sport may have been the vice that lived within Mark’s great spirit.”

But Donohue was first and foremost a racing driver. Consider what Paul Van Valkenburgh wrote in Chevrolet – Racing?, He was systematically improving his performance on a very few laps, and then maintaining that near-ultimate level for as long as he cared to run … I have found no one who can exceed Donohue’s level – and maintain it with such precision.” Dispelled forever is the notion that Donohue won mostly because he had the best equipment. He sometimes did, of course, because he personally developed it. But clearly, he drove very strategically, always extracted the maximum from his car, and was capable of beating anybody.

Mark Donohue: Technical Excellence at Speed

The book falls short in a couple of areas. There is some discussion of racing finances, but not enough to clearly indicate what a top driver could earn during this period. The closest we get is a brief summary of 1974, Mark’s retirement year. Wouldn’t it have been possible to account more accurately for Mark’s income?

One aspect of the racing history that I thought was shortchanged was Traco, the engine builders. Frank Coon and Jim Travers, although not exclusive to Penske, were a critical part of his racing programs. Who were these guys, and how did Mark and Roger come to rely on them so heavily?

The other problems for careful readers are the places where the book differs materially from The Unfair Advantage. Regarding the failures with the Javelin engines in 1970, Argetsinger says the fix was a new oil pan. In The Unfair Advantage, Mark explains that the solution was to add a second oil pump, which then caused excess wear in the drive gears and retarded the ignition timing.

Mark Donohue: Technical Excellence at Speed

The biggest disappointment for me is the omission of research footnotes and references. Mark Donohue, based on multiple sources, may well be more accurate than Mark’s own recollections in The Unfair Advantage. Argetsinger has obviously researched his book carefully, and appropriate notes would have clarified the discrepancies between the two books. Sources are mentioned informally throughout the text, but the reader would be better served by a complete list of references.

With that said, let’s agree that Argetsinger faced a particularly difficult challenge with this project. He had no choice but to revisit territory that Mark himself had already extensively documented. I think Argetsinger handled this admirably; there’s some overlap but also much new information and insight.

Mark Donohue: Technical Excellence at Speed

So, it’s not perfect, but Mark Donohue is a beautiful book that adds substantially to the historical record. Mark raced during a period of great change, due both to technical freedom and the increasing involvement of sponsors and manufactures. If you followed racing during the 60’s and 70’s, then this book with bring it all back. And if you’re younger, it will explain how today’s über-teams evolved from rag tag operations built with blood, sweat, tears, and severe sleep deprivation.

David Bull’s “Publisher’s Edition”, limited to 300 copies, converts Mark Donohue from a book to a collectors item. While the signatures of Roger Penske, Karl Kainhofer, and others are nice, the inclusion of a CD containing one of Mark’s recordings from The Unfair Advantage clinches the deal. It’s a kick listening to Mark nonchalantly describe his GT40 experience while driving and dodging radar traps.

The Unfair Advantage has always been incomplete, and was one-dimensional by design. Argetsinger has finished the job, filling in many interesting details and anecdotes, and rounding out the story of Mark’s life. The result is a comprehensive portrait of a good man and a great driver – one of America’s best ever. The autographed limited edition, with Donohue rambling on for 35 minutes about the Ford GT40, is a steal at $100; the standard edition can be had for $40. Either way, Mark Donohue belongs on the bookshelf of every racing fan.

Show Comments (9)

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  1. I too have been a Mark Donohue fan since my mid teens. There is a certain quality great atheletes have, an intangable that creates the feeling that as long as our “hero” is still in the competition, he had a shot at winning. Like a Michael Jordon, a Peyton Manning, a Mickey Mantle or a Tiger Woods.

    Mark Donohue was such a man.

    I was at Watkins Glen in 1973 when Mark and the Captain showed up with their Lola T330 with a AMC “lump” in the back of it. It was narrower than the standard issue Chevy, but appeared longer and the instillation was the typical Penske-Donohue “you could eat off of it” beauty, right down to the AMC badges glued to the stamped steel valve covers. It was straight of the truck; direct from its assembly at the PA shop and in the first heat, Mark was all over Brian Redman, winding up 2nd, I believe. The second heat didn’t live up to the promise of the first, with Mark coming in something like 6th.
    But the car’s performance stunner everyone, yet no one – cause it was Penske and it was MARK! And you never, ever bet against him.

  2. Very good review – thanks Lee and SCD.

    I’m sold. Just placed my order. Can’t wait to read it.

  3. I bought a copy while I was at the Mid-Ohio Vintage Races and am up to the 1970 season. Originally I wondered what it would add to the story beyond Unfair Advantage but agree it adds another perspective and adds additional information. One additional driver it adds more information about is Dan Gurney’s protege Swede Savage and how competitive he was. One minor item that should have been caught in editing is that in a few places the author has Savage driving a Challenger when the AAR team was driving the Barracuda version.

  4. The first time I saw Mark and the Captain was at the Glen – they were running a blue Sunoco Ferrari with a Traco tuned engine – needless to say they outran the factory Ferrari – I was hooked.

  5. I am so glad that a new book on Mark Donohue has come out. I could not find the earlier book on him and this book is long overdue. A great driver and the varied cars that he has driven like the Sunoco Penske White Ferrari 512 Racer in the Group 5 guise, the Porsche Twin Turbos in Can-Am Racing and the TransAm series of Cars Totally Awesome. Where can I buy this book?

  6. I’ll have to buy the book… the mention of Mark’s wife, Sue, brought back a memory of one of the Lime Rock Trans-Ams I covered for Competition Press and Autoweek. I don’t remember what year, but I did this in the late 60s, early 70s.

    I and a some other writers were invited to a party at Sam Posey’s house. One of the other guys and I were going up the spiral staircase to the house’s cupola when we saw two women up at the top talking; one was crying. “That’s Mark’s wife,” the other guy whispered.”Let’s go back.”

    This helped me realize that those of us writing about racing were doomed to get only part of the story… we could handle the details of racing tactics and techniques but not human emotions of someone who was consumed by racing. But, it’s probably just as well that most of us never tried to go beyond the podium celebrations and the dejection of a DNF driver.

  7. Because myself and Mark Dopnohue were both natives of Pennsylvania, as a car and racing nut growing up, I instantly had my “driver” to follow–and the fact that he was so good at what he did didn’t hurt either. My career as a motorsports announcer is due, in no small part, to the inspiration of one Mark Donohue. My Aurora HO slot cars were imitations of his racing machines;Hey, in my young, highly impressionable and imaginative mind back then, I WAS him in those basement races against my friends. The first “professional” race I ever attended was the 1969 Can-Am event at Watkins Glen; another inspirational moment in my life–little did I know back then nor even dreamed that my first pro road racing gig would come at the same track just about 25 years later. So, obviously, I never got the chance to announce or even meet my “hero” but I guess I’ll have to “settle” for the 2003 victory lane interview with his son David after he won the 6 hours event in a Porsche powered racing machine painted blue with red and yellow trim almost 30 years to the day that his father parked the mighty 917K-30 there!