Book 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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.