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Making Time Stand Still

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Jan. 28th, 2009 | 06:53 am
posted by: quidditchref in roaringracers



            On Sunday, I watched David Donohue share the winning car in the Daytona 24-Hour sports car race.  For me, this was an intersection of present day with a great deal of nostalgia.  A lot of people and names from my long-time career in the motorsports publishing industry were involved in this victory.  I thought I might mention some of them here.


            First, Donohue himself.  David is the 42-year-old son of the legendary Mark Donohue, an Indianapolis 500 winner and champion in a number of other types of racing cars who was killed while practicing for the Austrian Grand Prix in 1975.  Ironically, David’s win came on the 40th anniversary of his father’s own Daytona victory.  I considered Mark to be a friend.  We weren’t drinking buddies (although he had some according to his boyhood friend, Jay Signore) but we got along as well as a major sports figure and guy who had to write him could.  He had his secrets, but he told me many of them.


            I first met the older Donohue in 1966 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course when a dark blue car hauler pulled into the paddock, a sleek dark blue and yellow “Sunoco Special” Lola T70 sports car on its back.  This was the beginning of the world famous Penske Racing Team, which has won more Indianapolis 500-mile races than any other.  An engineer by training at Brown University, Mark became a key member of Roger Penske’s outfit, not only driving but developing successful cars for the Trans-Am “pony” car series (Camaros, Mustangs, Javelins, etc.) in the ‘60s.  Penske also competed in endurance racing (Daytona, Sebring, etc.) and the Canadian-American Challenge Cup (CanAm) sports car series, arguably the most popular road racing series ever run in North America.


            Mentored by Penske and another great driver, Walt Hansgen, Mark had a number of high points.  He dominated the Trans-Am series in ’68, ’69 and ’71.  He would have won the CanAm title in ’72 driving the first turbocharged Porsche 917-10, but he was injured in a mid-season crash, and his replacement, George Follmer, took that title.  I suspect the fact that he had won the Indianapolis 500 in May of that year took some of the sting out of the injury, and watching Follmer driver “his” car.  Mark made up for it in ’73 with the wildly successful 917-30.


            To put a personal spin on these, I have in my living room three huge framed prints.  Two of these feature the Porsche CanAm cars…one autographed by Follmer and Penske, and the other with Mark’s 917-30 as the center point.  In the first years of my career, these were the people and cars that I wrote about.  In fact, when Mark died, I was on my way to Penske Racing headquarters in Reading, Pennsylvania, for dinner with Signore…part of the research I was doing on the International Race of Champions which Donohue, Signore and Penske helped to manage.


            After his last CanAm race in ’73, I was the person charged with asking Mark what he planned to do next.  That turned out to be a short retirement.  However, in 1974, Penske formed a Formula One racing team to compete in the World Grand Prix Championship, and lured Mark out of retirement.  I was probably one of the first persons outside the team to learn of this, when I was handed a set of photos showing him testing the car at the Ohio Transportation Research Center.  In one of my great journalistic failures, I agreed not to tell anyone or publish the photos until given the green light by Penske Racing.  However, the team PR manager broke his word to me, and actually gave the story to another reporter a week before he released it to me.


            The story behind this story was that Mark was in the process of divorcing his first wife, Sue (David’s mother), and she was supposedly asking for a settlement based on Mark’s Indy 500 winnings.  Needless to say, that money probably exceeded all the other cash prizes he had won in all his other victories combined.  However, a move into Formula One would probably greatly increase his income, and the divorce settlement.


            Ironically, when Mark was killed, I suspect Sue profited.  Although Mark had remarried, it was Sue who sued the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company over the tire failure that caused Mark’s accident in Austria.  She was able to do this on behalf of his sons.  They eventually settled out of court for substantial money.  I have often wondered if at least some of David’s career is being financed by some of the settlement money, although I don’t suppose the Donohues were ever poor.


            This brings us around to David and the recent Daytona victory.  David has been reasonably successful in his own right…never as dominating as his father, but obviously talented and fast.  He has a win at the LeMans 24-hour race in the smaller car class, and several wins in the Grand Am endurance series where he currently drives for Brumos Racing.  I have only met David a couple of times, through the Brumos people, and they have been mostly perfunctory “handshake, nice to see you” meetings.  I can’t give the same sort of personal insight into David, but I can write a lot about Brumos.


            There are only a very few racing teams that have survived and been successful for decades.  Racing teams tend to come and go, change names, or just disappear.  In Formula One, only Ferrari, McLaren and Williams are still around from the day when I covered the sport.  In America, it is amazing how few long-lasting teams there are outside of NASCAR.  Some of those would be Penske Racing or the team co-owned by Carl Haas and the late Paul Newman.  The other would be Brumos Racing.


            Brumos grew out of a Porsche dealership in Jacksonville, Florida.  It came on the scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when the owner of the dealership, Peter Gregg, became a force to be reckoned with in the Trans-Am and IMSA GT series.  Partnered with Hurley Haywood, who is still active and who drove the third-place car at Daytona this year, Gregg won the Daytona 24-hour race four times (Haywood has won it five times).  He also competed successfully in several other types of racing, including the CanAm series.


            Sadly, Gregg was badly injured in a road accident in France in 1980.  Apparently, he had also been diagnosed with a serious nervous system disorder, and in December of 1980, he took his own life.  Brumos then passed on to his second wife, Deborah, a racer in her own right, and to Haywood, Bob Snodgrass and other partners.  Taking over the main management position, Snodgrass kept Brumos Racing active through the ‘80s, ‘90s and on to the success enjoyed this past weekend.  Unfortunately, Snodgrass also passed away last year, and was not there to see his familiar white 58 and 59 finish first and third.


            This race was the closest in the history of Daytona, and probably the closest finish ever in a 24-hour race.  In a type of racing where a win by one or two laps is considered close, David Donohue beat a car entered by Ganassi Racing by only .167 of a second, while the team car was only five and a half second behind them.  Four cars actually finished on the lead lap, and another car entered by Penske Racing was in the lead lap with these four for nearly the entire race.


            For me, and I’m sure for others who were involved when I was around, it was a blast from the past, a litany of familiar names.  Donohue.  Haywood.  Penske.  Brumos.  Gregg.  Brian Redman (for whom my son is named!).  Snodgrass.  And many more.  I don’t think anything changes as much, and as quickly, as auto racing.  But once in awhile, it feels like time stands still.

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