The Slide-Rule Boys At Indy

A couple of college chaps, Roger Penske and Mark Donohue, go into Saturday's Indianapolis 500 with the fastest racer ever to appear there and a faith that science can beat old black magic
A couple of college chaps, Roger Penske and Mark Donohue, go into Saturday's Indianapolis 500 with the fastest racer ever to appear there and a faith that science can beat old black magic
May 30, 1971

Remember those quaint old days when colleges were enclaves of study rather than revolution? There were two main types on campus in that period: the Liberal Arts Major and the Engineer. The former could generally be found outside the library, draped over a slim volume of verse—poetry so morbid that a single unrhymed couplet had the depressant effect of 25 Nembutals and a slug of gin. Alone and palely loitering, this fellow got his kicks by proclaiming life to be—alternately—a fountain or a dung heap. The Engineer, by contrast, marched briskly past the library toward the lab, his slide rule slapping his hip like a Dodge City sheriff's six-gun. When and if the Engineer stopped to speak to the Liberal Arts Major, it was in curt, quick accents: "You don't like the way things are? Well, we can fix it. Let's see—Pi equals the square root of Smog plus DDT divided by War and Highways to the nth power. There, it's fixed." Quoth the Liberal Arts Major: "Bushwa!"

Which is by way of prologue. When and if you ever enter Roger Penske's garage in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—and be forewarned that his security is so tight that you probably never will—the first thing you may notice is a neat sign tacked above the telephone. It reads: "Those of you who think you know it all are particularly annoying to those of us who do."

Aha! The Engineer personified. A quick glance around the garage seems to confirm the diagnosis. There stands Penske himself, not a hair out of place on his charcoal-graying head, not the least fleck of lint on his Sunoco-blue cashmere sweater, nor a wrinkle in the creases of his Sunoco-yellow slacks. At 34 he seems too fit and tidy for germs—his direct, unblinking, China-blue eyes surely have never known a tendril of hangover red, his lungs in dissection would doubtless prove pink as a baby's, despite all the engine exhaust he has inhaled in 13 years as a racing driver and team manager. His voice might be Hal's from 2001—a learned phrase followed by another and yet another, each sounding quite logical but the total a bit too fast for comprehension. Like Lily Tomlin's Ernestine the Telephone Operator, he seems to be saying: "You're dealing with no man's fool. I am a college gradyooate...."

He is indeed. Lehigh University, 1959, industrial management. He is also, by virtue of his highly successful automobile dealerships in Philadelphia, Allentown and now Detroit, a member in good standing of the Young Presidents' Organization. He owns an office building and a Lear jet. He can balance two dozen business deals at once on his cleanly chiseled, matinee-idol's nose. He skis frequently at Vail. No man gets that successful that fast without discipline, as a further tour of the garage reveals. His men call him Captain, as in Bligh, though with no rancor intended. After all, Roger wins.

From fuels to tools, every item in the garage has its place—and heaven for-fend if it is not there when needed. Wrenches and bolts, screws and their drivers are all graded as to size and function. Even if a tool is left momentarily on a workbench, one senses that it had better be squared with the angles of the table. The car itself—Penske's superbly tuned, meticulously painted blue-and-yellow Sunoco McLaren M16 Special, to give it its proper title—is the centrum of this squeaky clean world.

Like any Penske car—his Trans-Am Javelin, his spanking blue Ferrari 512M, or even the Formula A that briefly led the Questor race at Ontario last spring—it is lovely to look at. All clean angles and distorted reflections, pluperfect in its polish, ominous in its aura of total readiness to race. Beyond a doubt, Penske's McLaren-Offenhauser is the fastest car ever to run at Indy. That is not to say, however, that it will win Saturday's 500. Too many other factors—some of them named Revson, Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Ruby; others random and incalculable—enter into the Indy equation. But a fast contender is always a magnet, and during the weeks that preceded the 500, the Penske racer was the focus of up to 50,000 fans per practice session and 250,000 for first-qualifying. Hitting a top lap speed of nearly 181 miles an hour—a leap in performance comparable with Bob Beamon's Mexico City long jump—Penske's driver and alter ego, Mark Donohue, consistently broke the lap record of 171.953 mph. Though Donohue ultimately lost the pole to Peter Revson of the McLaren factory team (SI, May 24), the Penske men learned a lot in the process. And since the mind of the Engineer is at once open and skeptical, direct and detailed, it is possible that the disappointment of qualifying day could produce victory on race day.

What makes the Penske car so quick? Roger bends over to whisper confidentially: "It's the attention to detail. Take a look at that paint job! Take a look at those polished hubs! Nobody ever did that before." Bushwa, Roger. What makes the car run so well is a combination of superior design and superlative preparation. The M16 reflects the late Bruce McLaren's intention to build an open-cockpit chassis that could take on a fresh engine in a mere 35 minutes, and take the hard raps of Indy without self-destructing. Essentially, the car is a tub (engineers call it a monocoque) with tubular frames projecting from either end. There are two small spoilers at the front and a large wing at the rear that runs the width of the car and is about 10 inches deep from leading to trailing edges. They are in effect upside-down airplane wings; they reverse the lift that makes an airplane fly, and thus force the car down onto the road.

"If you can keep all four wheels on the road all the time, particularly when you're going through banked corners, you obviously go much faster than a car that has a wheel up in the air part of the time," says Donohue. "The wing is only a partial solution to the road-holding problem. If you ran a ground-effect vehicle—a vacuum-cleaner job like Jim Hall's new Chaparral—at Indy, you'd never have to take your foot off the throttle. You could go around the course flat-out. Lap speeds would be 195 mph or so. All we're trying to do with spoilers is come to some point in between—trying to get more down force so we can take the turns better."

Holding these concepts in mind, a Liberal Arts Major begins to sense some answers of sorts. The Penske McLaren's speed is due primarily to a design concept that Roger himself did not dream up but which provides the potential for a grand victory. That hoped-for event obviously depends on the most elaborate of automotive preparations: finding the right tires to go with the right suspension settings and then shaping the right wings to precisely the right angles of attack. And, finally, having the right engineers, mechanics, pit crew and driver to put it all together.

"This is the most businesslike operation I've ever been involved with," says Lujie Lesovsky, the 58-year-old chassis wizard with Holman & Moody of Los Angeles who is on loan to Penske this season. "Roger is an excellent administrator—the sort who has the good sense to accept advice—but Mark is the catalyst. He's a driver and an engineer, so he can come in from a practice run and translate that 'seat of the pants' feeling into precise, meaningful language. This helps us make the right adjustments. Mark is a lot like Rex Mays [a big-car hero of the '40s]. You'd do anything for him."

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There is an uncanny aura of ESP about the Penske crew, the kind of telepathic teamwork usually associated with basketball or hockey, but on a far more technical level. On the day of Donohue's big run—the practice lap of 180.9 mph—the car did not start right away. "It was weird. Usually it turns over like a passenger car," says Lujie. Almost instantly, Woody Woodward, Lesovsky's young deputy, broke out his meters and gauges and had the problem isolated: a frayed wire between the battery and the starter switch. "This isn't Christian Science," says Lujie. "These things don't cure themselves."

Another specialist Penske has rented for the Indy effort is Walter Howell, better known as Davy Crockett, a trouble-shooter from Traco, the engine people. Davy specializes in Offenhauser engines and played a large part in the decision to run with a short-stroke version of the Offy. Thus far it has paid off. The chief mechanic is Karl Kainhofer, a quiet, Austrian-born craftsman who began his association with Penske in the late 1950s when Roger was racing Porsches in amateur sports-car competition. Cool almost to the point of nonchalance, Kainhofer displays none of the temperament usually associated with Indy wrenches, but that calm is deceptive. "You actually live with the race car," he likes to say. "I may look like I'm relaxing, but every minute I'm thinking about the car. Even when you are completely ready, you are always thinking, listening, worrying about it."

Even more of a worry wart is Chief Engineer Don Cox. Like Penske and Donohue, Cox is irreverently young—31 years old—and his youthful skepticism is a great asset at Indy, where tradition often devolves into stagnation. Cox is lean, slightly stooped, intense, with short hair and sunken green eyes. A graduate of the school of no knocks ("The General Motors Institute, if you call that a school"), he came to Penske Racing from Chevrolet, where he had a hand in the design of the first winged American sports car, Jim Hall's highly successful Chaparral of the early 1960s. It was Cox, primarily, who developed the wing shape that gives the Penske McLaren its superior cornering qualities. Of course, it is impossible for the Liberal Arts Major to talk intelligently about gearboxes or aerodynamics with the Engineer, but Cox can reveal a lot about the Penske team's psychology. "You see these yellow sneakers we all wear? Sunoco yellow, right? Well, up to about a year ago we had everything else Sunoco blue and gold—shirts, pants, racing jackets—but no yellow shoes. Couldn't find them anywhere. Then this college kid came into the garage one day in yellow sneakers. Roger looked at them and his eyes lit up. He didn't even have to say anything. The kid came from L.A., the only place in America, I guess, where they sell yellow sneakers. We just had a batch flown in—$147 for a dozen pair. That's what you call attention to detail."

But the man who best understands Penske, and thus serves as the linchpin of his organization, is Mark Donohue. In a sense, Donohue is an extension of Penske. The two men are the same age (34) and of similar perfectionist temperament. Penske was an excellent driver in his day; he was quick enough to win and he did not break cars. Donohue, too, is plenty quick, though not as quick as a Jackie Stewart or a Mario Andretti. But he is superior to either in his ability to conserve the machinery. He can sense not only his own limits (How deep do I take this corner? How wide do I pass this chain of slower traffic?), but the limits of the car itself, those minuscule parameters of engine heat, revs, suspension loads, brake wear, etc., the disregard of which usually results in "also-ran." Donohue claims he can do this because he studied mechanical engineering at Brown University (B.S., 1959). As a tough scientist, he has only disdain for the heroic approach to racing exemplified by most of the Indy Establishment. "They call it the Establishment," he says, "partly because there is so much black magic in what goes on, especially with engines. One of the old engine guys says that the thing to do is to run the engine on the dyno in the late afternoon, then let it sit overnight. The next morning you go back and blast it—run it flat-out. Undoubtedly if you let it sit overnight, everything will get happy inside, all the molecules will adjust and all these black magic things will happen and it will be more powerful in the morning." He shakes his head and sighs.

That sigh is one of the clues to a difference between Mark Donohue and Roger Penske. Penske is pure, uncut, 100-proof methyl enthusiasm all the time. Donohue suffers moments of doubt, though he rarely mentions them out loud. He has two little tics: the anguished sigh, uttered deep in the throat and probably generated by exasperation ("Oh Lord, these silly Liberal Arts Majors!"); and a wet, wincing roll of the eyes that looks suspiciously like a small boy's attempt to blink back his tears. The latter clue is most evident when he is running a race in any position back of first. "He blames himself," says a perceptive Donohue watcher, "because he knows how much has gone into making the car mechanically superior. What he does not realize is that there is no mechanical superiority that cannot be undone by chance."

Donohue can go on for hours about the details of a particular accident, as for example the disaster at Daytona this year during the 24-hour race that stripped the entire left side from his splendid Ferrari 512 and cost his team the race. "I took a gamble and I lost," he says. "We'd been set back by electrical trouble earlier and I was trying to chip away the seconds, now that we were healthy again. Just before midnight, coming through Turn Four, I saw the yellow caution light come on. I could see dust or smoke ahead. That was Vic Elford crashing, though I didn't know it then. Anyway [sigh], there was a small, much slower Porsche ahead of me, a 911. My choices were 1) to brake and drop behind the Porsche as we went through the smoke or 2) to back off a bit from 180 mph and drift past him, making my way alone through the smoke and taking my chances. I took the second choice, got into the smoke, slowing all the while, and then the Porsche came up and ran me over. I didn't think he would do that. I was wrong. We lost the race."

Where the gambling did mesh with the preparation recently was in the season-opening Trans-Am Race at Lime Rock, Conn. There early this month Donohue's Javelin blew champion Parnelli Jones' Mustang off the road course and into the mud. And of course it may well mesh at Indy, not to mention the two other big-car 500-mile races in which the Penske McLaren will run: at the Pocono track in Pennsylvania on July 3 and at Ontario, Calif. on Sept. 5. "Things gotta go well," says Donohue, with a combination sigh and wince.

Intense as he is on the racetrack, Donohue puts the lie to the Engineer image when he shows up—infrequently—at home. It is a tidy, tan-brick house set back among the ancient hardwoods in Media, Pa. near Philadelphia's Main Line. His wife Sue is an equally tidy blonde who runs both the house and the two Donohue sons with Penske-style efficiency. For their own transportation, the Donohues drive a Javelin, a station wagon, a monstrous Chevy in "gangster black" with fine red detail work, and a metallic blue dune buggy, which was a gift from Mark to Sue and is her favorite tooling-around-town car. "It shakes up the neighbors," she grins. Playing with his boys in the backyard, Donohue drives the dune buggy up onto a boulder so that one wheel is dangling clear. "Want me to lie down under it?" he asks. Yeah, daddy. Thus do fathers inspire sons to daring.

Donohue is so central a part of the Penske operation, and so much the Engineer, that like most of the others he cannot communicate its human meaning. One man on the team can. He is David Hobbs, 32, an Englishman who is the leading Formula A driver this year and Donohue's backup in the Javelins and the Ferrari. Hobbs is also driving Penske's second Indy car, a two-year-old Lola-Ford in which Donohue finished second last year at the Brickyard. It is a 170-mph machine at best, and Hobbs got just that much out of it in qualifying 16th for this year's race. A tall, loose-jointed, ruddily affable product of Upper Boddington, Warwickshire, Hobbs has easy ways and long hair that drive Penske over the wall. "Why don't you get a haircut?" he snarls—Captain Bligh with a twinkle in his eye. "I'll be calling in Lee Roy Yarbrough any minute now to drive the car in your place."

"I just shrug and chuckle a bit and make like I'm going to the barber's," says Hobbs. "But I never do." Hobbs once drove GT40s for John Wyer, currently the éminence grise of the sports-car scene, and he sees interesting parallels with Penske. "John is also a master of meticulous preparation," says Hobbs, "but it was always on a lower key, not quite so intense. You'd see him there in the pits, well after midnight, rumpled and in slippers, sipping a little brandy in his tea. But you knew his ear was tuned to the engine. Roger is just as acute, but doubly intense—you can feel it blazing at you out of the pits as you motor by. Roger never stops. Of course, he rules with an iron rod, but it's not really a rule of fear—rather a rule of tension."

Hobbs pauses reflectively, pondering judgment. "I suppose there is always the danger that a man so deeply involved in machines as Roger Penske might himself take on the qualities of the machine. But I think that is not the case with the Penske team. Man always has to dominate the machine. What Roger is looking for—what Mark and the rest of us are looking for as well—is that the machine does not dominate the man to the extent that it lets him down. No more than that."

It is a reasonable enough answer to an unreasonable question. For once, the Liberal Arts Major really understood the Engineer.

PHOTOA GRAYING PENSKE (LEFT) IS THE SPIT-AND-POLISH TEAM BOSS AND THE BOYISH DONOHUE HIS ALTER EGO AND

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DRIVERPHOTODONOHUE ENJOYS a dune-buggy outing at less-than-Indy speeds with his own driver.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)