For any driver, the scariest corners are those that can be taken flat out, but only if everything is right. Any deviation from the only line that will permit this approach will spell trouble, and not of the mildly inconvenient variety.
Almost the entire lap of the Talladega Superspeedway is spent on this tightrope of fear and exhilaration. I drove it years ago to help Saab break some records and the 900 Turbo I was in would approach the huge, banked curves at better than 150mph. At that speed you couldn’t just stay in your lane, you had to pick a line down and back up the banking if you were to have any chance of your right foot not twitching. Sometimes my nerve held, sometimes it did not. And when it rained that night, someone else rolled the car into ball.
Ever since that day, I have pondered the enormity of what Mark Donohue achieved here 40 years ago this very day, on August 7th, 1975. For it was here that he strapped himself into an obsolete Porsche racing car and tried to lap the track faster than anyone had lapped any track, anywhere in the world.
That car was the Porsche 917/30, for many years the world’s most powerful racing car and even today a strong claimant to be among the most powerful that ever raced: F1 cars of the ‘turbo era’ had more power for sure, but only in qualifying trim.
The 917/30 you may remember was the ultimate development of the 917 sports car, but adapted for Can-Am racing in North America 1973 Can-Am season. Its 5.4-litre air-cooled flat-12 engine was turbocharged to develop 1100bhp, though some say 1190bhp was seen at times. Mark Donohue was its pedaller, arguably the most intelligent racer of his era. A deep thinker, he was a gifted engineer, a possibly unrivalled developer of race cars and an incredible driver, as his Indy 500 win and three TransAm championships bear witness.
With the 917/30 he achieved a new level of dominance, not just winning the 1973 Can-Am championship, but with twice as many points as anyone else. And then disillusioned with racing and after coming a little too close to meeting his maker on a few too many occasions, he retired. At the same time the oil crisis hit and killed Can-Am and the 917/30 with it. The chances of car and driver ever being reunited were zero.
Or so everyone thought.
But Donohue was not the first racing driver to find himself unsuited to retirement and the offer to do F1 with his old chum Roger Penske at the end of 1974 and then do a full season in 1975 proved too much: once more Mark reached for his helmet.
‘With time running out Donohue took to the track, unhappy with the way it was moving around above 230mph. But, instead of running and hiding as would any normal person, Mark plugged on.’
But what sparked the exhumation of the 917/30 was another driver, none other than AJ Foyt. In 1974 Foyt had lapped Talladega at over 217mph in his Coyote-Ford Indycar establishing a new world record for a closed circuit. Because it was so fast and because it was Foyt at the wheel, the record gained global recognition. And it would do the same for whoever broke it.
So Donohue, Penske and Porsche went to work on a six month programme that would result in intercoolers being added to the 917/30 engine, ostensibly to help keep it cool during flat out laps of Talladega but with the rather handy side effect of bumping power up to a scarcely conceivable 1500bhp. Testing began in July, the car now painted in the red and white livery of its CAM2 Motor Oil sponsor. By the end of the month Donohue was lapping consistently faster than Foyt, just trimming the aerodynamic balance of the car, so by the time the real run came around, it should have been a formality.
Some have said that Donohue’s was a brooding presence that day, as if he were really feeling the pressure. The track was dry but clouds were gathering and humidity rising all the time. Soon it would rain. With time running out Donohue took to the track, unhappy with the way it was moving around above 230mph. But, instead of running and hiding as would any normal person, Mark plugged on. At the end of one run instead of taking a lap to cool down, he came off the banking at 220mph and straight away came to a stop in the pits, the combined heat from the red hot engine and brakes setting the back of the car on fire.
But no significant damage was done and with raindrops starting to fall on his visor, Mark knew he had just one shot remaining. Foot down, fingers clenched and tail squirming, for three laps Mark Donohue put it all on the line, eventually slithering around the Talladega Superspeedway at a 221.12mph average to claim his record.
Ten days later Mark Donohue climbed into his March 751 to qualify for the Austrian Grand Prix. Tyre failure pitched him off the track at considerable speed and while there was initial concern for Mark who’d been hit on the head by a catch-fencing pole, he appeared uninjured and was talking normally. Soon though he started to complain of a headache and visual disturbances. He was rushed to hospital in Graz and operated upon to relieve pressure from an inter-cranial bleed, but to no avail: two days later Mark Donohue was dead.
Of course his record didn’t last forever and today many have gone faster, but all elsewhere, on bowls far more suited to the business of going fast than Talladega. Which is why to this day the fastest lap ever completed of the Talladega Superspeedway belongs to Mark Donohue and the incomparable Porsche 917/30.