Renowned for his engineering skills, studious approach and road-racing prowess, Mark Donohue could also hold his own on ovals – as his 1972 Indianapolis 500 win testifies.
Mark Donohue’s career at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was much like the man: understated and somewhat under-appreciated, while being overshadowed by his trendsetting car owner and the magnificent machine that took him to victory in the 1972 Indy 500.
When discussing the great ones at Indy, Donohue’s name is seldom mentioned, and that ’72 triumph is more remembered for his teammate’s domination and another team’s faux pas. But make no mistake, Donohue was a quick learner who adapted to ovals, high speeds and walls as easily as he got to grips with the aggressive USAC mentality, all while ushering in a more cerebral approach to racing at the Brickyard.
“Mark brought a different level to the sport with his technical mind, and he showed it wasn’t just brute force that could get you into Victory Lane,” says Roger Penske of the hand-picked protégé who delivered “The Captain” the first of his record 16 Indy wins. “But whenever it was time to go, he did a helluva job.”
Three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser, who had the field well and truly covered in 1972 in Dan Gurney’s Eagle before breaking down, likens the soft-spoken Donohue to his younger brother, Al.
“Mark wasn’t a Parnelli [Jones] or [an A.J.] Foyt,” he says. “Not much of a charger. He was more like my brother, Al, in that he was a little on the conservative side. But he got all that attention for being an engineer when the fact is, he was a damn good racecar driver.”
To appreciate what went down in 1972, it’s important to retrace the steps of the Brown University grad’s ascension that began with a hill climb in 1957 and ended tragically in Formula 1 in 1975.
Partnered with team owner Penske in 1967, Donohue captured the United States Road Racing Championship, then drove the Sunoco Chevy Camaro to the ’68 Trans-Am title while also making his Indy car debut at Mosport. When Penske brought him to Indianapolis the following year, the accomplished road racer had never competed on an oval and only tested once, at Hanford, Calif. Yet he breezed through his rookie test, qualified fourth fastest in an all-wheel-drive Lola-Offy, and finished seventh to earn Rookie of the Year honors.
“Mark felt that Indianapolis was like a four-corner road course,” recalls Penske, whose crew wore identical shirts (tucked into their pants), polished the racecar’s wheels and washed the garage floor every night – all to much mockery from the USAC establishment. “He was very smooth, very calculating and adapted real well, even though it was all foreign to him.”
Bobby Unser wasn’t surprised at how well Donohue adapted to the Speedway.
“I had an all-wheel-drive Lola that year, too,” he recalls. “We tested together at Hanford and Mark really, really understood what was going on with that car. He’s the one who suggested they move the turbocharger forward and down to make the center of gravity lower. Very smart.”
Donohue’s second oval start came in the 1970 Indianapolis 500, where he qualified fifth and ran second, behind Al Unser and ahead of Dan Gurney.
“I had an appreciation for him because I knew his background,” says Mario Andretti, whose lone Indy triumph had come in Donohue’s rookie year. “But it still impressed me, how well he took to Indy even though it was the only oval he’d ever run.”
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