Friday, March 17, 2017

1000 Words: Mark Donohue

I finished Mark Donohue's legendary book The Unfair Advantage last week and tomorrow would have been his 80th birthday. Now is as good a time as any to write about the man critical to the history of Team Penske and a visionary way ahead of his time.

Mark Donohue couldn't exist in the modern motorsports landscape and that has nothing to do with the guy bouncing from an IndyCar to Can-Am to NASCAR and another three series in one year. He bought a Corvette at the age of 20 and his first race was a hill climb at the age of 21. Today, most drivers are at a crossroad at the age of 21, whether it is deciding between open-wheel and sports cars or having already finished three seasons in Formula One and without a ride and no one willing to take a flyer on someone with only a few million dollars in funding. 

After joining the SCCA and becoming one of the top amateur drivers in the United States, Donohue ended up in the Ford GT program in 1966. Think about the line-up Ford brought to Le Mans last year. All those drivers had years of professional experience. Some had already been factory drivers elsewhere, two were IndyCar champions and the least known driver on the team had been a Ford factory/affiliated driver for almost a decade. Donohue got the job on the word of Walt Hansgen. He would have been vilified if Ford hired him with that résumé in the present.

After Ford came Team Penske and without Donohue, who knows if Team Penske would be celebrating its 51st anniversary this year or maybe the team wouldn't be as successful or as celebrated or as diverse as it is without Donohue. The man wasn't just Roger Penske's driver; he was Roger Penske's right-hand man. A Tim Cindric before Cindric was even born. They bounced decisions off one another and Penske gave Donohue the slack he needed when it came deciding what car to drive or how a car should be set up.

Throughout the book I was astounded at the level of doubt Donohue had within himself. Most of the time he was winging it, he was making adjustments mostly through trail and error, even though he had an engineering degree from Brown University. Donahue was before shaker rigs and wind tunnels revolutionized car development. The only way to make a car better was on the track or, in many cases for Donohue, the skid pad where Donohue was ahead of the game when it came to suspension development and the importance of having speed in the corners as well as in a straight line. 

Donohue's doubt wasn't just around early in his career when he was with Ford and at the start of his time at Team Penske, it carried throughout his career, even after winning the 24 Hours of Daytona and multiple Trans-Am championships. He talks about his frustration in preparations for the 1970 Indianapolis 500, his second year at the Speedway. He describes his qualifying effort as disappointing. He started fifth. He finished second. 

The man can only be described as a perfectionist. It continued after another year at Indianapolis, finishing third on his Formula One debut in the 1971 Canadian Grand Prix and winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1972. When developing the Can-Am killer or better known as the Porsche 917-30, it wasn't good enough to be just a second and a half faster than the rest of the field. In some ways, the unreachable goal and determination to wring every tenth of a second out of car is what made Donohue one of the greatest. He was never satisfied and once he reached a state of satisfaction he stopped driving... for a year. 

Through each chapter from the McLaren MB16 to the Eagle-Offy to the Porsche 917-10 and 917-30 and Porsche Carrera I felt I was reading Donohue go mad. He reached a point of constant observation and every little vibration and movement in the race car that most drivers would never notice he could feel and he wondered what the car was doing. He wanted every answer about the car. Take Donohue's own obsession to have complete knowledge of car and add that on top of the pressure to not just win but dominate, especially when driving for Porsche. I am surprised Donohue didn't have a mental breakdown or a heart attack before the age of 35. 

After his Can-Am title in 1973 in the Porsche 917-30, Donohue couldn't have done anymore than that. You only get so many opportunities to go out with a car that was two seconds faster than everyone else in the field and having won six consecutive races to end a championship season. Winning the inaugural International Race of Champions, beating contemporaries such as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, David Pearson, Richard Petty and Formula One invitee Emerson Fittipaldi was just the cherry on top of his retirement sundae. 

I can't help but feel Mark Donohue had to die in a race car for him to have ultimate satisfaction in his life. That sounds morbid but he couldn't stay away. He retired because he said most drivers don't go out on top and that is true. Even today, drivers hang on about three to five years too long when they have become shells of their former selves. But Donohue returned to driving when Penske entered Formula One. He admitted he needed the money but I bet Donohue was like many others who retire from much less glamorous positions than race car driver and feel worthless. He was the President of Team Penske but even that could not make up for the void of running hundreds of miles of testing in the middle of the week at Road Atlanta. He needed to be in a car and having found success at every level in the United States he had to take on the world.

I wonder what Donohue would think of motorsports today. In the final chapter of his book he laments that he is retiring at what he believes is the end of the greatest era of motorsports. He writes:
We will probably never see unlimited 1200-horsepower motors, exotic aerodynamics, engineering freedom, giant leaps in racing technology, and continually higher speeds and lower lap times. The individual driver's performance and safety are rightfully becoming more important, but I'm glad I didn't miss all the rest. 
While I am sure there is a generation who agrees with Donohue's quote, he was right but he was also wrong. The eras changed and innovation persistent. Donohue probably would have been ecstatic over ground effect and active suspension in Formula One. He would have been at the forefront of Penske's PC-23 500I project. I think he would have loved the turbo-diesel behemoths from Audi. He probably would be disappointed about the current state of IndyCar and the Daytona Prototypes-era but there would be plenty he would have loved and he might be surprised how much lap times have fallen all around the world. Maybe Donohue would be leading the charge for hydrogen-powered automobiles and be working on a rival to Formula E and a car that could go two hours on a charge with battery swaps taking five-seconds to complete. 

The man would have turned 80 years old tomorrow. I can't help but think the motorsports world would be further down the line in development if he were preparing to blow out some candles.