May 27

This Day in History

Sports

May 27, 1972:

Mark Donohue sets record at Indy 500

On May 27, 1972, Mark Donohue wins the Indianapolis 500 with an average speed of 163.645 miles an hour, six miles an hour faster than the previous speed record.

Mark Donohue, born and raised in Summit, New Jersey, caught the hot-rod bug as a teenager in the 1950s. "The hot-rod phenomenon flew East from California and caught me up in it," Donohue once said. His interest, however, lay less in cruising the strip than in the mechanics of the engine. While at Brown University, Donohue studied engineering, and he applied his knowledge to the cars he raced throughout his career. He was said to have a thinking man’s approach to racing, and was less interested in pushing the pedal to the metal--though he could do that too--than in making his cars run as fast as possible.

Donohue won events in all styles of racing, against the best competition in the world. After winning the 1965 Sports Car Club of America Driver of the Year award, he joined up with fellow racing enthusiast Roger Penske, who was starting his own racing team. After winning the 1972 Indy 500, Donohue entered the 1973 Winston Cup Series, the top division of NASCAR. He won his first race, the season opener at Riverside International Raceway in California, against Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, the best the good ole’ boys had to offer. Donohue was the last part-time driver to win a Winston Cup event; today, drivers commit to racing year-round for their numerous sponsors.

Donohue retired from racing after a victory in the first International Race of Champions on February 15, 1974. He then took over as president of Penske racing, helping to design stock cars and run the Winston Cup team. However, he soon got the urge to race Formula One cars, the one genre he had yet to conquer, and began to enter grand prix events.

Donohue died on August 19, 1975, after an accident during a practice run at the Austrian Grand Prix. His front left tire was punctured as he raced through one of the track’s tightest turns at 160 mph. His car spun out of control, crashing through four catch-fences and a few billboards at the Oesterreichring race course. The crash killed one race marshal and injured another critically. Donohue died three hours later while in surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain. The surgery was unsuccessful, and his wife, his father and his friend Roger Penske mourned Donohue by his bedside.

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