Born on March 18, 1937, Mark Donohue was one of the most famous American racecar drivers. Known for his ability to set up his own cars, Donohue recorded numerous wins with Shelby Mustang, Lola T70 MkIII, McLaren M6A, Chevrolet Camaro, AMC Matador, McLaren-Offy, Porsche 917/30 and Carrera RSR.
“Captain Nice” broke into international sports car racing in 1965, finishing 11th in Walt Hagnsen’s Ferrari 275 at the 12 Hours of Sebring. The same year, Donohue also won the B Class (Shelby Mustang GT350) and Formula C (Lotus 20) of the SCCA Championships.
Win after win
After a fourth place finish at the 1966 24 Hour of Le Mans in the Shelby American Racing Ford GT40 MkIV, Donohue dominated the 1967 USRR Championship with Roger Penske’s Lola T70 MkIII, winning six out of eight races. He defended his title the following year in Penske’s McLaren M6A Chevrolet.
Donohue also had an historic Trans-Am series campain in 1968 in a Chevrolet Camaro, also owned by Roger Penske, winning the class for the second time at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Donohue scored 10 wins out of 13 races setting a record which would stand for 29 years. Another huge succes came in 1972, when Donohue won the Indianapolis 500 in a Peske McLaren-Offy, after three previous attempts. One year later, he drove a AMC Matador to Penske’s first NASCAR win.
Taming of the Can-Am beast
In 1973, Penske Racing and Mark Donohue were commissioned by Porsche to assist with the development of the 917/30, a more powerful and aerodynamic version of the 917/10, with an output of up to 1.500 horse power, provided by a 5.4 liter turbocharged flat 12 unit. Although the 917/30 was almost uncotrollable because of its insane power, Donohue managed to win every race but one during the 1973 Can-Am season. The Porsche 917/30 is, even now, regarded as one of the most powerful and most dominant racing machines ever built.
IROC succes and Talladega record
Donohue won the inaugural IROC series in 1974, a competition in which all pilots raced identical Porsche 911 RSRs. “Captain Nice” raced to victory in three out of four events, defeating some of the best drivers of the era, such as Denny Hulme, A.J. Foyt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Peter Revson, Bobby Unser or Richard Petty.
After Porsche withdrew from the Can-Am series, Penske and Donohue decided to use the 917/30 to set the world closed-course record. This was achieved on August 9, 1975, at the Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Alabama, with an average speed of 221 miles per hour. Donohue and Porsche held the world record for eleven years.
Formula 1 challenge and death
Donohue made his debut in Formula 1 in 1971 with a Penske-White Racing McLaren at the Canadian Grand Prix, finishing in third place. He came back at the end of the 1974 season, racing in Canada and USA in the Penske PC1. After nine races in 1975, Penske and Donohue dropped the PC1 and started using the March 751.
On August 18, during a practice session for the Austrian Grand Prix, held at Osterreichring, Donohue lost control of his March and hit the fence, suffering a head injury which led to a cerebral hemorrhage. He died the next day, aged 38, just nine days after the Talladega record run.
A gifted race car driver who could drive just about any kind of car and win, Mark Donohue is, without a doubt, one of the greatest names in motorsport history. After his death, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Sport Car Club of America Hall of Fame.
“If you can make black marks on a straight from the time you turn out of a corner until the braking point of the next turn, then you have enough horsepower.”, Mark Donohue