The Unfair Advantage
by Mark Donohue
Reviewed by: Brian Kennedy
You'll probably buy this book no matter what we say about it. Good for you. It's worth the $24.95 (paper) cover price. But why not buy it for all the right reasons, rather than just because it's been so hard to get for so long? Here are some things you might consider before you head to your favorite bookseller's web page.
If you're under thirty, or if you weren't interested in racing back in the sixties and seventies, this book will catch you up on what when on during an era of incredible bravery and glamour in motor racing. Donohue, who died in a racing accident in 1975, surveys the period from 1958, when he began racing a Corvette in hillclimbs, to the early 1970s, when he competed at Indy and in Can Am as well as at Le Mans. The format follows Donohue's career through the various cars he drove, with each chapter introducing a new model. The book features Donohue's voice, which is warm and personal, revealing the man as much as the era.
You'll learn about the cars, the personalities, the tracks, and the innovations that made Donohue and the Penske team so dominant during this time (Donohue joined the Penske outfit in 1966). The book's title is derived from the team's constant attempt to find speed secrets ahead of their competition. These could be many things, from car setups to pit strategy to innovative fueling rigs. More than once, these "unfair advantages" bamboozled the people racing against Donohue, and he takes delight in relating the stories of how things happened, and how his competition reacted.
It won't surprise you that Donohue and Penske managed to win because they devoted a good deal of time to developing newer and better mechanical bits. What will strike you as out of phase with modern racing is that they did it with so little money compared to what's done today. Racing is a game of huge budgets and enormous teams of specialists, with drivers who spend more time making appearances at malls than they do getting their hands dirty in the shop. That's now. Back then, Donohue was lucky to have a couple of mechanics, and he sometimes pitched in himself and put an engine together if the engine builder was busy on other jobs. His engineering background gave him a synchronicity with mechanical things that inclined him to such tasks.
Throughout the book, Donohue details the time the team spent testing. Today testing is taken as a staple of racing. Back then, however, it was not so common to sort a car before a race, and even when Donohue talks about what they did, he describes much of it as pure guesswork and repetition of mistakes. Of course, contemporary open-wheel cars are outfitted with sensors to measure everything from shock deflection to throttle position, making a science out of setup. But even NASCAR, which doesn't allow onboard data-gathering, is a highly sophisticated affair in comparison to what Donohue presents as the engineering of the day. It seems like every year, with every new chassis, he began from scratch. What he was trying to figure out is not even as complex as what the average NASCAR fan knows from watching the telecasts of races on TV. It leaves you to conclude that racing back then must have been that much more glorious for being so mysterious.
What might strike you as odd given Donohue's cult status are his confessions of being forever insecure about his job. Perhaps it's just Donohue's deferential manner, but it seems that from year to year, he's never sure whether the manufacturers who sponsor his efforts will be willing to begin anew. It's like he thinks of himself as a rookie every time the calendar turns over a new number. Additionally, he treats his team owner, Roger Penske, like he's the lord of the estate and Donohue a mere vassal. But perhaps the man just commands respect. (Do you ever recall hearing Rusty Wallace refer to his boss as anything but Mr. Penske during an interview?) Maybe, too, this sense that he had no entitlement to his seat is what kept Donohue on the edge. Ever notice how drivers these days suddenly get faster when their jobs are on the line during "silly season?" You get the sense that Mark Donohue kept himself guessing about his own greatness partly as a way to make sure that it continued.
You may also find it funny how unsophisticated an endeavor being a racing hero was back then. At one point in the book, Donohue confess that he began a jogging program for fitness in 1968, but felt too silly running around his neighborhood with people snickering at him. He decided instead to work out at home, and kept himself in shape by doing situps and pushups. Imagine the unfair advantage he would have had if he had figured out ahead of everyone else what drivers these days know about sports medicine and nutrition?
It is a little eerie reading these words and thinking about the fact that their speaker would die young, in a race car. At times, you'll wish you could turn back the clock and warn him, especially when he says early on, "I can't say that I was ever personally concerned about my own safety in the car . . . perhaps because I'm something of a fatalist" (61). But you can't, so you just have to embrace the book for what it is: more meaningful because it's a time capsule rather than the contemporary memories of a driver who survived the era and retired. Above all else, Mark Donohue impresses as a decent man, not prideful.
It's a shame that Donohue left his two young sons behind in his pursuit of speed, but good of them to say in the Preface to this new edition that "even though racing has taken him from us, it continually keeps giving him back to us" (ix). This book shares with the rest of us the life of a professional driver in those days. It wasn't what it is today, but neither is the racing world as we have it on TV every Sunday the raucous adventure that it must have been in that grand past era. For those of us who missed it the first time around, Donohue's book is a must-read.