Jim Smith: The 1972 Indy 500 – a look back

The excitement is building for the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500. There are many story lines leading up to the race and the major one is the fans will be back and the grandstand will once again be filled. The other major story line for this year’s race is four time winner Helio Castroneves “Drive for Five” going for his 5th Indianapolis 500 Mile win. There are many other story lines leading up to the race with one of them being the 50th anniversary of team owner Roger Penske’s first of 18 wins of the Indianapolis 500.

Penske’s first attempt at Indianapolis was in 1969 with the late Mark Donahue. They were both rookies and Donahue finished a credible seventh place while claiming “Rookie of the Year” honors and admitting later they just did not know what was going to happen. Donahue was running second to eventual winner Mario Andretti when the magneto failed which forced a pit stop. He went back out eight laps behind and he cruised the rest of the race to finished seventh.

Mark Donahue was born on March 18, 1937 and died on August 19, 1975 in Graz Austria following a crash while practicing for the Austrian Grand Prix. He graduated from Brown University in 1959 and began racing his Corvette where he met veteran sports car race driver Walt Hansgen, who recognized Donahue’s talent and became his mentor and team mate.

Tragically Hansgen crashed while testing a Ford GT 40 Mk2 on April 3, 1966 and died on April 7, 1966. He was testing the car in preparation for the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the mid 60’s he and Donahue teamed up for many major sports car events which was the beginning of Donahue’s professional racing career.

Donahue and Penske met at Hansgen’s funeral. They had met in 1959 when Donahue was racing his Corvette and they often raced at the same track, but Donahue didn’t think Penske paid much attention to his driving, All Donahue knew about Penske was his retirement from racing and his car dealership. At the funeral Penske told Donahue he was looking for driver for his new Lola T70 and asked if Donahue was interested in driving on a race-to-race basis. That was the beginning of their relationship that lasted until Donahue’s death.

Donahue was an engineer focused driver when race team engineers of that era were as rare as hen’s teeth. Donahue first noticed that Penske insisted on a super immaculate appearance of all the details on his race cars. That attention to immaculate detail extended to the race shop as well as the race personnel.

The 1970 Indy 500 saw Donahue finish second to Al Unser who recorded his first of four wins. In 1971 Penske purchased a McLaren M16 for Donahue and finished 25th after falling out on 66th lap. Ironically the car number was 66 and officials made Donahue park the car on the inside of turn four where it was heavily damaged when Mike Mosely crashed into it. Penske was upset with the officials for parking the car in that location.

In 1972 USAC allowed bolt on wings to be attached to the race cars for the Indy 500. Previously all wings had to be part of the body work. This led to a history making increase in speeds. Bobby Unser’s pole speed of 195.940 mph for four laps was compared to Peter Revson’s 178.696 mph for four laps in 1971. The speed increase of 17.244mph was the largest increase in Speedway history.

The start of the month was depressing for Donahue. He was flying back and forth to Germany testing the 917 Porche and he had seven engine failures before qualifications. Team mate Gary Bettenhausen was using the same motors with no failures. On the day before qualifications Donahue broke their last motor. Penske found a new motor in another garage and he bought it. Donahue qualified third at 191.408 behind Revson’s 192.885 and Unser’s 195.940.

At the start of the race Bobby Unser grabbed the lead for the first 30 laps before dropping out on lap 31 with ignition problems. Bettenhausen took the lead and dominated the race with a total of 138 laps lead. On lap 176 he dropped out with ignition problems and Jerry Grant assumed the lead. With 13 laps to go Grant was forced to pit with a bad tire and he overshot his pit and ended up in Unser’s pit where he was mistakenly refueled while the bad tire was being replaced. He was later disqualified for taking on fuel in the wrong pit. Donahue lead the last 13 laps for the win.

The subject of turbocharger boost is discussed today and it was also discussed back then. Penske advised Donahue to run less turbocharger boost than the other teams and to race conservatively. The advice paid off with Donahue winning the race after many of his competitors had dropped out.

Donahue set a new record average of speed 162.962 that would last until 1984. His 13 laps led were the third lowest led in history at that point. Joe Dawson only led 2 laps in 1912 and Graham Hill only led 10 laps in 1966.

It was the first time that Jim Nabors was asked to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” during the pre-race ceremonies and started a tradition of his singing the song in most years from 1972 to 2014.

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