Sport: Auto Racing
Born: March 18, 1937
Died: August 19, 1975
Town: Haddon Township
Mark Neary Donohue Jr. was born in Haddon Township on March 18, 1937. Mark grew up in Summit and attended the Pingry School, about 15 minutes away in Hillside. Mark was a popular boy and a terrific student, with a particular aptitude for math and science. He also loved to drive the (then) country roads of Union County. In 1955, Mark was accepted at Brown University and in 1957 he entered his first official race, driving his beloved Corvette to victory in a hill climb competition in New Hampshire. He graduated from Brown in 1959 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
Mark’s love of racing and his understanding of engineering and physics vaulted him to almost immediate success. In 1961, he won a Sports Car Club of America championship and caught the attention of veteran driver Walt Hansgen, who took Mark under his wing. In 1964, Mark drove Hangsen’s MG to victory in an SCCA 500-mile endurance race. In 1965, mark won the SCCA Class B and Class C championships. In 1966, Hangsen perished in a crash. At his funeral Mark was approached by Roger Penske, who signed him to drive for his team in 1967.
Mark won six of his seven starts in the 1967 US Road Racing Championship series driving a sleek Lola T70 for Penske. In 1968, Penske put Mark behind the wheel of a McLaren M6A and he was dominant again. He also won three Trans-Am races in 1967, including 12 Hours of Sebring. In 1968, Mark had a huge year on the Trans-Am circuit, taking the checkered flag 10 times and winning his first of three career Trans-Am championships. Having a great owner and team was a huge advantage, but so was the fact that Mark was one of the few drivers who could set up his own car and then steer it to victory.
In 1969, Mark teamed with Chuck Parson to win the ultimate endurance race, 24 Hours of Daytona, in the Lola T70. That May, Mark entered his first Indianapolis 500 and drove a Penske car to a seventh-place finish—earning him Rookie of the Year honors. In 1970, Mark finished second, far behind Al Unser. However, in 1972 Mark was the man in Victory Lane. He made his move with just over a dozen laps to go and outraced Unser to the finish line. Mark’s average speed of 162 mph stood as a record until 1984. In 1973, Mark entered the first NASCAR race of the season, the Western 500 in Riverside, California, and drove Penske’s AMC Matador to victory over second-place Bobby Allison. Four decades later, Mark is still the last non-NASCAR regular to win a top-level road race. Also in 1973, Mark assisted in the design of the legendary Porsche 917–30, which won almost every Can-Am race that season. In 1975, Mark drove the 917–30 to a record closed-course speed of 221.1 mph at Talladega. That record stood until 1986.
Mark considered calling it a career after his friend Swede Savage was killed during the 1973 Indy 500. But his longtime partner Penske lured him out of retirement when he announced that he was starting a Formula One team.
Midway through the 1975 season, just a few days after setting the record at Talladega, Mark arrived in Europe for the Austrian Grand Prix. During a practice session, a tire failed heading into the fastest corner on the track. The crash sent debris flying and killed a track official, but Mark appeared to be unhurt. A review of the crashed showed that his head may have hit the bottom of a sign adjacent to the catch fence. Whatever the reason, he began experiencing headaches and checked himself into the hospital the following day. He lost consciousness, lapsed into a coma and died from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Mark’s son, David—who was just six at the time—grew up to be a racer like his dad. And like Mark, he has found success in a wide range of cars and classifications. In 2009, 40 years after his father won 24 Hours of Daytona, David (who was born in Morristown) took the checkered flag at the same event, edging Juan Pablo Montoya by 0.17 seconds—the closest finish in the history of the race.