Sunday, May 29, 2011

Indy With An Unfair Advantage

By Doug Vehle
The Daily Bosco

"He stressed if we were going to go racing, we should only go first class. Racing is very expensive, he said, and it was important to only compete with cars we could afford."
-Mark Donohue, The Unfair Advantage

I first read Mark Donohues' autobiography sitting in the Cal State Fullerton library without checking it out. This was a number of years after his death, as well as at least a year after the death of my Father, which had ended nearly a decade of my involvement in timing and scoring for racing. Without Dad it just wasn't the same, just as racing hadn't been the same without one of my biggest childhood idols. Reading the book brought back memories of growing up wishing I could be a part of such amazing events. Also the burning desire to be the guy with that knack to make it work, which Donohue definitely was. While some would talk of the lack of excitement in his recounting of his racing career I found something else; He almost accidently offered a true insight into the inner character that drove him to become a racing legend. And brought back my favorite memory of the Indianapolis 500.

When he ignored the advice he was given when he first met Roger Penske, whose name is now seen on the side of rental trucks and many other things that make lots of money, Donohue struggled. When he followed it, he won 3 amateur titles and a lot of races. That advice was given to him by a seemingly wizened sage, yet Penske was a fellow 22 year old, born 26 days earlier. 2 years after that first meeting, Penske would buy the remains of a Cooper grand prix car, wrecked at the season ending US grand prix, for chump change, thus sparing them the cost of shipping across the Atlantic a car they wouldn't bother to fix anyway. Penske would use this as the basis to build a 'Prototype' sports car with which he would win the USAC Road Racing Championship in its' final year. There'd be a lot of complaints from other competitors, but the official confirmed that Penske understood the rules well enough to build a car that only SEEMED to have an 'Unfair Advantage.' That car bore the number '6', which would become a staple of Donohues' cars. Penske was a good enough driver, but it was as an excellent OPERATOR that he would make his name and fortune.

So when Penske decided to give up driving himself at the age of 28 to focus on his growing business fortunes, he gave various drivers a chance to race for his team. Within a year, Donohue was calling Penske 'The Captain' while Penske was assuring Donohue they were cocaptains, as the one driver who moved to the forefront of the teams' efforts. Donohue emerged at the time of the 'Tom Slick' cartoon, bearing an eerie resemblance to the character both in appearance and by his nature. His domination of the US Road Racing Championship (12 wins in 18 races and two titles) is said to have brought the series to an end, while his TransAmerican Challenge Cup effort started off its' first year appearing to be a continuous mechanical failure only to see the Brown University Engineering graduate pull apart and rework his Camaro until he was dominating the final races. The Penske team would talk openly of their Unfair Advantage, that advantage was really just Mark Donohue and his ability to get things right. For all this success, he was still a minor leaguer. But The Captain was making plans to change that; Mark Donohue would be going to Indy.

In 1969 he was rookie of the year, running 2nd to Mario Andretti late in the race when a magneto problem sent him to the pits and dropped him to 7th. In 1970 he was the fasted in practice leading up to qualifying, again finding himself running 2nd in the race to eventual winner Al Unser. He didn't run many Indycar races, still focusing on road racing with his reputation growing. But in the big time events he'd been unable to win, kind of like Fran Tarkenton or Jim Kelly in the Superbowl. This led up to an almost unholy alliance in 1971 with not one but two arch nemsis types, for a head to head showdown with a third.

The first was Team McLaren. Just as his initial Penske efforts were coming to fruition Donohue had been partnered with Bruce McLaren as a codriver for the Ford GT. The two did not see eye to eye on the setup of the car. While the arrogant New Zealander had expected to ride roughshod on the mild mannered American, he'd discover that the Clark Kent exterior hid a real live man of steel. Donohue bore no grudge from that effort, even warning McLaren of defective oil that kept both Mclaren team cars in one race which cost Donohue not only the win but the Canadian American Challenge Cup Championship for the year if he'd just let them drop out. But McLaren was said to have obsessed over a lingering resentment of Donohue, definitely showing signs of it in public, up until his death.

With their founder gone, the team shocked the racing world by turning to the Penske-Donohue team to help them with their new Indycar. With the McLaren formula one effort struggling, Donohue would also be contracted to race at the end of the season and sort out some problems, his 3rd place finish in his first race was McLarens' best finish for the year. Denis Hulme seemed so distraught at the sight of Donohue in the McLaren garage, as though the world turned upside down, he would walk away from testing, claiming only that he was 'Sick.'

In addition to Hulme, Donohue would have to work with the driver who replaced McLaren, Peter Revson. It was a love/hate relationship between them, dating back to amateur racing where the single Revlon heir Revson always had plenty of money while working class new dad Donohue was pinching pennies but still beating Revson and winning a title, much to the open chagrin of Revson. Revson is believed to be the unnamed driver who two years earlier had warned Donohue of Parnelli Jones planning an on track confrontation with Donohue during a TransAm race, apparently out of resentment of Donohues' domination of the series, at that time winning 18 of his last 26 starts while parttime teammate Ronnie Bucknam won 2 of the 8 races Penske fielded a car for him.

Jones, the coowner of Al Unsers' Indycar, had turned the Riverside TransAm race into a 'Mad Max' affair that Donohue would dub "Real knifefight racing." The slamdance culminated with Jones stopping his damaged car off the track and waiting for Donohue to return the next lap, then speeding directly into him. The remains of Jones car limped to the pits. But Donohue had built his car to survive such a turn of events and continued on to win once again. As Debra Harry would sing, 'The hardest part. . .is the man of steel behind the steering wheel.' Revson was rewarded with a TransAm ride the following year as Donohues' teammate.

So it must have felt good to be wheeling the new McLaren M16 Indycar out on the speedway to run practice laps 6mph above the previous lap record, then to head for a TransAm race where Jones would start alongside him but wouldn't speak to him two years after the incident. Jones' partner Vel Militich approached Donohue to ask if the rumored practice speeds were in fact true, leaving Donohue to watch with amusement as Militich ran to Jones with the bad news.

Donohue would stumble a bit in qualifying and watch the pole position go to Revson, who proceeded to use his soapbox to gripe about Donohue winning rookie of the year in 1969 instead of himself, that the TransAm equipment with Penske was "Junk" because it was setup to suit Donohues' aggressive brake early then power into the turn style, that Donohue just had that 'Unfair Advantage' of knowing how to fix his cars but couldn't drive and life was just unfair like that. But it was Donohue who dominated the first third of the race, setting the lap record of the time on lap 66 only to have the transmission break in car number 66 as he did so. The Penske team had known other teams were using bigger, stronger gears as the horsepower had increased that year, but hadn't gotten around to trying it out. Revson had saved his stumbling for the race; unable to use his clearly superior car to keep pace with Al Unsers' out of date car, which won for Parnelli Jones as Donohue looked on.

Returning in 1972, the McLarens were struggling to keep pace with the new Dan Gurney Eagle, with Donohue struggling to keep his car on the track after 7 engine failures. The day before the race the team was down to their last spare, a down on power unit that had been previously pulled from a car, with no time to have a replacement shipped from the factory. There was a team (Oh, guess who) that was ready to sell them an unused engine at nearly twice the price of a new one. For Penske the decision went all the way back to what he had said 13 years earlier when the pair first met. He was running a first class operation, he could afford the engine, so it was going in his car double the price or no.

Donohue would choose a slightly smaller turbocharger than the rest of the field was using but still qualify 3rd. When the race started, he fell back steadily as the difference in power was enough to carry half the cars past him in the early laps. Yet as the race progressed, his pace picked up, even breaking his lap record from the previous year with the fastest lap of the race with that smaller turbocharger. Faster even than Bobby Unsers' pole winning Eagle was able to go in the 30 laps he completed before his distributor shaft broke. As with Donohue the previous year, not all the vulnerable parts had been beefed up to match the higher horsepower which had again increased for that year. By this time Unsers' teammate Jerry Grant had emerged in 2nd place as Donohues' teammate Gary Bettenhausen seemed to be running off with the day. Penske wanted nothing more from Donohue than for him to protect 3rd. But then Bettenhausens' engine also failed under the strain. It now befell Donohue to carry Penskes' hopes and catch Grant. But Dan Gurneys' cars had been the two fastest leading into the race, Grant and Unser both had an even larger turbocharger than any other car was using that day. That made their engines more powerful by forcing more fuel into each cylinder. Yet the others with their smaller turbochargers were fearing for their fuel mileage, they were allowed only so much to go the distance on. How was Gurney planning to finish the race with his cars using so much fuel?

Donohue was closing the gap, but it might not have been quickly enough, he was running out of time. Meanwhile there was the feeling that Grant might have been sandbagging. Saving fuel? Once Donohue had been able to catch him, would Grant have merely opened his throttle all the way? How could Grants' car hope to finish? Did Gurney have some sleight of hand to play?

Suddenly, with 13 laps to go, Grant was making an unexpected stop. The Gurney crew was off to work quickly with a tire change, even though Grant was in the WRONG pit, that of his teammate Bobby Unser. Grant emerged from his pitstop at full speed, passing Donohue to unlap himself and running as though he thought he could make up the 2 1/2 miles he trailed at the rate of a thousand feet a lap. Perhaps he was hoping for a yellow flag to bunch the field together for a final dash. How could he have the fuel to run this way?

But Gurney as already screaming to the officials that Grant had been a whole lap ahead of Donohue and was in fact still leading the race. That argument would continue into the evening, but another was brewing. The crew chief for Mario Andretti was asking the officials if Andretti could come in for a 'Splash and Go' from teammate Joe Leonards' fuel, as Andrettis' supply had been exhausted. When the officials said no, he asked why Grant had been allowed to. Indeed, the television coverage showed that as Grant was receiving a tire change in the wrong pit stall, the fuel line from Unsers' tank was subtly plugged into his car long enough for him to receive the fuel he would need to run the final 13 laps. Though Gurney would never admit it, they had run the car to the moment the oversize turbocharger had used up all the allotted fuel, then used the ruse of a tire change to sneak more in. By the time Andretti ran out to lose 4th place with 4 laps to go he had already surpassed the Gurney teams' final official lap. Grant was bearing down quickly on the safely cruising Donohue for nothing. Gurneys' trickery to get around the rules had FAILED.

As was usually the case, it was good judgement that won the race for Mark Donohue. Roger Penske would remark that after all that Donohue had done to make his racing team a success he was owed whatever Penske could do to make sure he had the right car ready for the race. The winners share was certainly more than the cost of that engine. And after all those engine failures, Donohue favored an engine that would last over horsepower. All those others who made it through practice without a problem had it catch up to them in the race. That would be his Unfair Advantage on this day.

And it was so amazing to me as a kid to see him climb out of the car in the winners circle and seem. . . HUMBLED! The man who won more than a third of his starts as a professional race driver looked like he was crying. His Mother attended most of his races and found her way over to join him. (I wonder what it's like having a mom that's on your side.) I felt like I was seeing what success is all about.

It was about that time, when I was still in grade school, that I got to go to Riverside International Raceway for the first time. Dad was a bigshot, they called him 'Scoring Marshall' for races like the California 500 and the Long Beach Grand Prix. He never asked if I wanted to go, I'm sure he never considered it would be necessary. One Saturday he woke me up early and I knew what that was going to mean. We were out of there before the sun came up, before Mom knew. The only way we were getting out of there without a fight. I can picture how she stewed all day to the point where she was resigned by the time I got home, the next day there was annoyance but no argument when we left. There were hundreds of days at the track to come before I even finished college.

And I remembered all these things as I read 'The Unfair Advantage' for the first time, with graduation on the horizon. My Father was an engineer: I'd say even if the cartoon character he resembled was more like Fred Flintstone he still thought much like Mark Donohue, as he would say things like "Most good judgement comes from bad experience." From the two of them I had the picture of the way to succeed at things as I went off to work in television. In a field where so many are trying to trick you out of your paycheck I never let anyone work on my set without being paid. Whenever I encountered yet another person determined to run scams or outright steal things for their silly little production I'd refuse to even start shooting until the money to finish it in an HONEST manner was in place. I just feel the reason I never did anything else for a living is because, like my Father, and Penske/Donohue, I'd always seek to do it first class. I remember the one old boss who fought with pretty well everyone except me, because I just wouldn't. He would say "The only reason you're working so much is you're always running around getting along with people." Well, as Mark Donohue was seeing in these situations, that's not always enough.

So I remember working camera at an Angels game in Anaheim Stadium. I got the shot when the foul ball went up into the stands and this old man showed he could still handle the hot ones, bringing it down bare handed and handing it to what I guess was his grandson. The kid put it in his lap and put his hands on the sides of his head and just SCREAMED, it was so exciting. I really think I know how he felt.

There was this race at Riverside, with me up in timing and scoring. I wasn't much older than that kid, so they could send me to the pits with paperwork and I'd run the whole way. Going through the garages a door suddenly opened and the Penske team started pushing out the Porsche 917/30, which had won the last 5 races in the CanAm series. THAT brought me to a halt. But it got better. I hear them calling "Mark! MARK!" Suddenly it was like that line in 'Day of the Jackal,' I turned around and it was as though Zeus had come down from Mount Olympus! You gotta just know he'd be used to kids staring at him bugeyed and open mouthed, he just smiled in that way that won him the nickname 'Captain Nice.' And. . .OH MY GOD! HE SHOOK MY HAND. . . !

1 comment:

Doug Vehle said...

Talk about good judgement/bad experience. No question this rookie was earning the victory, but sometimes they just can't keep their head to the end.

I could see it coming halfway through the dogleg between 3 and 4; he was gaining on the car in front of him too fast. Was their a problem with the other car? Was J. R. Hildebrand going faster than he should have? Was the other guy trying to be nice and let him by? You DON'T want to catch up with slower car while he's running low in the turn.

I'm saying it out loud, "Careful, CAREFUL!" His spotter should have been saying it too. Except with the emotional state he's in at the point it's doubtful he'd have heard a word. 10 seconds from winning with a huge lead, he should slow down and only pass the guy if he could do it on the front straight. But, at speed, perhaps going too fast, he just had to go high on the turn. . . .

Let's say he went ahead and passed but 10mph slower. Even if he does lose his grip he'll be sliding up the track farther into the straightway by perhaps 200 feet, with less momentum carrying him up. If you saw Tahgliani when he went out of the race, that sort of an impact wouldn't have slowed Hildebrand enough to lose. Even the impact he had, several hundred feet closer to the finish line, if you watched the race you saw how close it was as his momentum almost got him there before Dan Wheldon could catch him. If only he'd been closer. . . .

Danica Patrick, meanwhile, had used basically the same strategy to put herself in front first, but twice she'd suffered the misfortune of the yellow flag coming at just the wrong moment, once even getting her a penalty because she needed fuel NOW, while the pits were closed. Take away the penalty and she's farther out front when she makes that pitstop at the end, maybe she comes out racing for it. But that's the same strategy that worked so well for her in her rookie 500 and came from a lap down to lead the race in the closing laps, also to collect her only Indycar win. Even with the bad luck, she calmly held in there and took the lead, the maturity is definitely showing.

So Frankie Muniz, the child star of 'Malcolm in the Middle and 'Agent Cody Banks,' scaled back his career to go racing as an adult. In a group shot of the drivers of a development league series he was racing in a few years ago, the caption read ". . . .And not an ounce of patience among them." There is probably the number one thing they all have to learn.