Mark Donohue did not think of himself as one of the all-time great race car drivers. The 1972 Indianapolis 500 winner, three-time Trans-Am champion, IROC titlist and winner of 57 major races believed his mechanical ability made up for what he lacked behind the steering wheel.
Donohue was born in New Jersey on March 19, 1937. He discovered automobiles at age 12 when his father allowed him to steer the family sedan in their driveway.
Donohue graduated from Brown University in Providence, R.I., in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. While a senior there, he began racing his 1957 Corvette and won the first event he entered, a hill climb in Belknap County, N.H.
Donohue eventually discovered the Sports Car Club of America and won an SCCA national championship in 1961. He caught the eye of four-time champ Walt Hansgen and they entered an SCCA endurance race at New York’s Bridgehampton Race Circuit in 1964. Donohue won the event driving one of Hansgen’s cars.
Hansgen and Donohue became teammates in 1965. Co-driving a Ferrari 275 at the 12 Hours of Sebring, they finished 11th. Also in 1965, Donohue won two SCCA B Class divisional championships in a Shelby GT350 and in SCCA Formula C aboard a Lotus 20B. Ford Motor Co. officials noticed his driving ability but questioned if Donohue was ready for professional racing.
Hansgen was part of Ford’s GT40 MK II program but had to talk John Holman of Holman Moody into hiring Donohue, who had never driven at 200 mph before. In February 1966, Donohue and Hansgen finished third in the Rolex 24 At Daytona. Less than two months later, the pair ran second in the 12 Hours of Sebring.
However, Hansgen was killed on April 7, 1966, when he crashed a GT40 while testing in wet conditions at Le Mans.
Donohue was paired with Australian Paul Hawkins for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but the duo completed only 12 laps and finished 47th.
Ford hired Donohue to co-drive the redesigned Mark IV with Bruce McLaren in 1967. Teaming with Shelby American Racing, the duo finished fourth.
Team owner Roger Penske, a former driver, joined forces with Donohue for the first time at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) Int’l in 1966, but Donohue crashed. Donohue returned to Penske Racing in 1967 to drive the new Lola T70 Spyder in the United States Road Racing Championship. Donohue won six races in the series.
In Trans-Am series competition in 1967, Donohue won three of 12 races, wheeling Penske’s Chevrolet Camaro. His two most prestigious outings were the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. He finished fourth at Daytona and won the Trans-Am class at Sebring.
In 1968, Donohue and Penske defended their USRRC title with the McLaren M6A Chevrolet, even though Donohue missed the first race in Mexico City due to engine problems. He dominated the series despite three DNFs.
Also that year, Donohue defended his 12 Hours of Sebring Trans-Am victory along with co-driver Craig Fisher. Donohue won 10 of 13 races, a Trans-Am record that stood for 29 years until Tommy Kendall went 11 for 13 during the 1997 Trans-Am championship.
Donohue’s last Trans-Am title came in 1971 while driving an American Motors Javelin for Team Penske.
In 1969, Donohue tackled the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. He finished seventh in Penske’s Lola-Offy T152 and was named rookie of the year. Donohue finished second in 1970 and 25th in 1971.
Then in 1972, Donohue collected the biggest victory of his career by winning the Indy 500 after leading only 13 laps. Driving a McLaren-Offy, he scored the first of Team Penske’s record 18 Indy 500 triumphs.
Next, Donohue tried his hand at NASCAR racing. From Jan. 23, 1972, through April 1, 1973, he competed in six Cup Series events, winning the 1973 Western 500 at California’s Riverside Int’l Raceway. It was Penske’s first NASCAR victory and the first win for the AMC Matador.
Donohue won the 1973 Cam-Am championship with the Porsche 917-30, topping six of eight races. His championship in the inaugural Int’l Race of Champions series proved he was at the top of his game.