1972: Donohue Spreads His Wings for Penske’s First 500 Win

The 56th Indianapolis 500 was a transformational year in 500 history. Bolt on front wings and rear wings came into widespread use. It would the 500’s last all American driver field. The Pacer light System to control the position of cars during caution periods debuted. Thankfully, it didn’t last long.

Race Day featured a last minute replacement singer for “(Back Home Again in) Indiana,” a television actor named Jim Nabors. He would return to sing it again a few times.

The front row had Bobby Unser on pole. Unser had destroyed the track record by 17 miles an hour thanks to the addition of the rear wing. Peter Revson, 1971 pole sitter, lined up in the middle of the row, and Mark Donohue started on the outside.

The Front Row Bobby Unser (R), Peter Revson, and Mark Donohue (L)

Donohue was the lead driver of the relatively new Team Penske, which came to IMS for the first time in 1969. Donohue had been competitive in his first three races. He finished seventh in 1969, second in 1970, and started second but dropped out with gear issues in 1971.

Mark Donohue

Unser charged into the lead and built a big lead, but it only lasted 30 laps. Ignition problems put Unser out of the race. Seven laps earlier Revson had dropped out with gearbox issues.

The start of the 56th 500. Unser beats Revson to turn1. Donohue slots into third.

Gary Bettenhausen assumed the lead, leading 138 of the next 145 laps. Ignition failure ended his day on lap 182. Jerry grant took over the lead of the race. A deflating tire forced Grant to pit with 12 laps to go. Grant thought he would settle for second, except that he pitted in teammate Bobby Unser’s pit. Grant was later disqualified and was officially twelfth.

Mark Donohue inherited the lead from Grant and went on to take the checkered flag. Roger Penske had won his first Indianapolis 500. His team has won a few more since then.

I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more fanfare concerning the 50th anniversary of Team Penske’s first win. The team produced a team logo commemorating the occasion today. I thought the Speedway would do more to honor the milestone.

While the 1972 front row wasn’t the most tragic in history, fate was not kind to two of its members. Revson was killed in a fiery crash while practicing for the 1974 South African Grand Prix.

Donohue would lose his life the following year preparing for the Austrian Grand Prix. It was a strange accident. Donohue crashed into a catch fence. he seemed fine when he got out of the car, but developed a headache which became worse. a few days later Donohue lapsed into a coma and died of a cerebral hemorrhage.