One-hit wonder: Mark Donohue and his 1973 Riverside win helped elevate the sport (2024)

On January 21, 1973, the NASCAR Cup Series opened its season with a road course race at Riverside International Raceway in California. A Pennsylvania native by the name of Mark Donohue, the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner, pedaled a red-white-and-blue AMC Matador to his only Cup Series victory in six career starts.

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This remains the last time a “ringer” captured a win in a Cup Series road course race, but the victory took on a far greater meaning in hindsight. It served as the first NASCAR victory for aspiring team owner Roger Penske, a proverbial snowball sent rolling down a path that’d alter the entire American auto racing landscape.

To appreciate what Donohue and Penske accomplished that day, let’s consider three important points:

1. Donohue’s was a brilliant racing mind and his young team owner had something to prove

It’s safe to say Donohue, an Ivy League-educated engineer, was Penske’s muse when it came to auto racing; the burgeoning team owner offered Donohue a driving job at a funeral for Donohue’s friend, Walt Hansgen, his co-driver in sports cars who’d helped guide young Donohue’s career to that point. The two proved to be like-minded peas in a pod. Together, they took on Trans-Am, then turned their attention to the Indianapolis 500. Donohue was the driver of Penske’s first Brickyard effort in 1969.

“He became a great friend of mine,” Penske said in an IMS tribute to Donohue. “Mark obviously brought an air of professionalism. I think the people at Indy thought we were the college guys with the crew haircuts and the polished wheels. We used to clean our garage out every night, and that was something people didn’t understand.”

To be sure, it seems what we now know as “The Penske Way” gained steam with Donohue as its pied piper. Their performance on the track also quickly turned heads.

In the 1971 Indianapolis 500, Donohue started second and led 52 of the first 66 laps before breaking a gearbox. His car was almost inexplicably fast, so much so that, according to Donohue’s book “The Unfair Advantage,” race winner Al Unser sought him out after the race and said: “Look, we’ve been competitors for a long time, and you have your way of doing things and I have mine, but when you come here and run six miles an hour faster than everyone else – I gotta shake your hand.”

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Donohue went on to win the first-ever 500-mile USAC Champ Car Series race at Pocono in ’71 and claimed victory at Indianapolis in his return in 1972.

“I think at that point we started to bring the sport to a higher level,” Penske said. “We brought some technology. We started to look at data – Mark was an engineer at Brown (University), and that was certainly part of it, but we were committed. We weren’t out there to have fun. We were there to go racing.”

Going racing meant anywhere and everywhere, and the two chose to tackle stock cars. They made four NASCAR Cup Series starts in 1972 and while they displayed commendable speed – Donohue never qualified worse than 11th, including a third-place start at Riverside – they failed to finish three of the four races and earned a best finish of 15th at Atlanta.

They were embarrassed, and like the streak of success following the ’71 Indianapolis 500, they returned to Riverside in 1973 with a heavy chip on their shoulders. This time, the interlopers would leave no doubt as they set out to prove their reputations for calculated dominance.

2. This was a 500-mile race on a road course – firmly in Donohue’s wheelhouse

Riverside was over 2.6 miles long and the duration of the race – 500 miles – meant this particular event was more of an endurance contest. Even with only three caution flags, the race lasted 12 minutes shy of five hours, a brutal exercise for the majority of the right-turn-averse stock car regulars, but nothing a veteran of the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring hadn’t already experienced.

Donahue qualified fourth and passed Bobby Allison for the lead on Lap 10. He’d eventually swap leads with Richard Petty, but took the reins of the race for good for the final 75 circuits, lapping the entire field in the process. It was an epic stomping; he led over 361 miles that day, and in perusing the finishing order – Bobby Unser finished fourth while West Series drivers Ray Elder, Jimmy Insolo, Jack McCoy and Richard White, all of whom made regular stops at Riverside, finished third, fifth, sixth and eighth, respectively – it was clear this was a race decided by the interlopers, the kind of race we no longer see in modern-day NASCAR, where drivers have been cross-trained and educated on technology and data to the point each race contains 38 different versions of the Donohue prototype.

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Allison, the runner-up finisher, will forever be in awe of what he witnessed from Donohue, with whom he’d eventually work while driving for Penske.

“He was, I feel, the finest road race driver this country has ever produced,” Allison told Hemmings Motor News years later. “And given enough time – just one more year, maybe – he would’ve become America’s first world champion.”

3. Everything being equal, Donohue was elite – which he proved

“Twelve identically prepared cars” is the mantra forever engrained in those who followed the International Race of Champions, and IROC’s inaugural season, ranging from the fall of 1973 to the winter of 1974, was one of Donohue’s finest showings.

The four-race schedule consisted of three races at Riverside and a finale on Daytona’s road course. Donohue took three victories and the series championship, besting the likes of Petty, Allison, David Pearson, A.J. Foyt and Emerson Fittipaldi, among others – tangible proof that, stock-car equipment being even, Donohue was a world beater.

Not that Donohue’s career or his one win in NASCAR needed validation, but IROC has long crystallized what fans thought of the talent in drivers who never outwardly succeeded in the Cup Series. Harry Gant was a champion in 1985, Ricky Rudd was a champion in 1992 and Mark Martin became a five-time champion; all three failed to secure NASCAR championships.

Donohue, too, recognized the accomplishment as something of a walk-off home run for his career, briefly retiring following his IROC championship before returning later that year with Penske to compete in the final two Formula 1 races. He died in 1975 a day after a crash during practice for the Austrian Grand Prix.

His lone NASCAR race win was just part of his narrative, but that victory – another hurdle in auto racing cleared in partnership with Penske – helped ignite a flame that’s lasted over 50 years across different genres of the sport and in turn elevated the quality and intelligence of American racing.

(Photo: Bob D’Olivo / The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images)

One-hit wonder: Mark Donohue and his 1973 Riverside win helped elevate the sport (2024)
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