Another look at The Unfair Advantage by Mark Donohue

 

In the opinion of many, Mark Donohue’s The Unfair Advantage is one of the finest racing books ever written. MCG takes a few moments to revisit a motorsports classic. 

 

 

 

It really is remarkable, and in a strange way, affirming: After all these years, ask racing professionals, from Indy car drivers to NASCAR crew chiefs to motorsports journalists, to name their favorite book about auto racing, and the one most usually called out is the classic volume by Mark Donohue and co-writer Paul Van Valkenburgh, The Unfair Advantage.

First published in 1975, the book is far from obsolete—in fact, it grows more golden every year. When a new edition was published in 2000, MCG was honored to write the review for AutoWeek magazine. An updated, web-friendly revision of that review follows below. -mcg

 

The Unfair Advantage was originally published in 1975, a bit lost in the wake of Mark Donohue’s brilliant life and its sudden, shocking end.

Donohue won three Trans-Am titles, the Indy 500 in 1972, and brutalized the Can-Am series in 1973 with the 917-30 turbo Porsche, a monster he personally chained and mastered. Little left to win, Donohue retired from driving, but then just as abruptly un-retired to take one more challenge: leading Penske’s assault on F1. At Austria, just two races into the 1975 season, Donohue crashed in the morning warm-up. And he was gone.  Just like that. Donohue’s fans—everyone was a Donohue fan—were left only with their memories, and the book. They weren’t enough.

Co-written with Paul Van Valkenburgh, Donohue’s book was unique, and it still is. It was a racing autobiography, but it wasn’t constructed around his remarkable life. Even in his own memoir, Donohue shyly stood just outside the spotlight. The book was instead broken down into chapters devoted to his race cars and the challenges in developing them: Trans-Am Camaro, McLaren M16, and so on.

So The Unfair Advantage was, outwardly at least, a how-to book about race car preparation. And at that level it was a gem, revealing how production automobiles and raw English formula kit cars became winning Penske racers. But the book’s real insights were its ground-level glimpses into what the racing was really like—the scene, the people, the politics—and  most of all, into Donohue himself. The cars were merely his frame of reference in telling, frankly and intimately, one of the great stories in American motorsports, in one of its golden times. After his death, The Unfair Advantage disappeared from the bookstores and eventually became a collector’s item, with copies selling for hundreds of dollars.

If Donohue didn’t quite tell all in The Unfair Advantage, he told a lot. The title came from a term coined by hawk-eyed Car and Driver and AutoWeek editor Leon Mandel. The alleged unfair advantage Mark Donohue and Roger Penske brought to the track: two-story fueling rigs, brake calipers that virtually changed their own pads, every manner of clever gimmick that might give them an edge. If they weren’t exactly cheating by the letter of the rules, they were taking liberties with an unwritten code of sporting conduct. To hear some racers tell it, Penske Racing didn’t play fair.

Fact is, everyone “cheated.” In racing, it wasn’t cheating unless you got caught. What other teams really resented is how, in every way, Penske and Donohue refused to play on a level field. They refused to run the same okay equipment as everyone else and simply hope it worked. They refused to show up late, and they refused to knock off early. They refused to approach racing as a fun game played with other people’s money. In fact, they refused to race with anything less than the maximum professionalism they could muster. By refusing to play fair this way, Penske Racing and Mark Donohue made life tough for everybody.

Racing technology was then the blackest of arts, with no public lore. Carroll Smith once explained the reason for that: Half the racers didn’t want to reveal their secrets; the other half their ignorance. Few experts were forthcoming, in either sense of the word. In The Unfair Advantage, Donohue admitted with easy, becoming openness how little he knew going in. He simply applied to racing his natural antipathy for pat answers. Much of the book’s appeal is in watching the superb gearwork turning in Donohue’s mind as he sets to work identifying and solving problems.

Because his cars were so often and obviously better, the image we have now is of a talented engineer who happened to be a pretty decent race driver. We could have that all backward. Donohue’s engineering degree from Brown equipped him essentially with a handful of textbook axioms, and for Donohue the engineer, the learning curve was a rocky slope. But the record shows that Donohue the driver was fast from the start, quickly picking up a ride in the Ford GT program. Donohue lived in denial, to a degree, of his own superior abilities. It pushed him to develop superior race cars, which he then drove with extreme intelligence and nearly without error. That was Donohue’s personal advantage, and to drivers of even roughly comparable skills, the results must have seemed brutally unfair.

In 2000, Donohue’s sons, Michael and David, arranged another printing of the classic book. The updated edition includes a section of color photographs, along with perceptive recollections from Donohue’s contemporaries, edited by veteran photojournalist Pete Lyons. Here is the opportunity to revisit a charmed period in American racing, and one of its most special personalities. If there is such a thing as a must-have on an automotive bookshelf, this must be it.

The 2000 edition of The Unfair Advantage is available for purchase online from Bentley Publishers for $34.95. Used copies of both the 1975 and 2000 editions can be found at Alibris.com and  Amazon.com, where a Kindle edition is also offered.

Photo courtesy of the Ron Fournier collection—Ron pictured at far right. 

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