The July 4th weekend generates a myriad of memories and emotions for most Americans. Some are reminiscent of summer vacations and family celebrations or a favorite place to watch a fantastic fireworks display. The holiday weekend also honors our service members and military women who protect our nation’s freedoms while honoring their sacrifices.
For the Penske team, this weekend marks a historic date in the team’s history. On Sunday July 3, 1971, Mark Donohue won the checkered flag in the Schaefer 500 at Pocono (Penn.) Raceway for the team’s very first victory in the INDYCAR SERIES (photo provided by Pocono Raceway). Today, 50 years after that historic victory, Team Penske celebrates its special anniversary by looking back on that winning weekend that set the stage for lasting excellence.
Formed in 1966, the Penske team saw rapid success in sports car racing with Donohue rising to the top of the racing discipline. While winning races in Can-Am and Trans Am competitions, Roger Penske and Donohue broadened their horizons at INDYCAR in 1969 with the goal of winning the Indianapolis 500 in three years.
The team nearly achieved this lofty goal as Donohue conquered the “greatest racing spectacle” in the team’s fourth Indianapolis 500 in 1972. Team Penske’s third INDYCAR season was a success, however, with success. starting with Pocono. A crowd of 75,000 people filled the stands to witness the first race in the history of the track known as the “Tricky Triangle”. In fact, as the competitors hit the circuit for the first practice session, the workers were still putting the finishing touches on the 2.5-mile oval in Long Pond, Pa.
With several strong ties to Pennsylvania, Pocono served as a sort of home game for Team Penske. As of 1971, the team was still based in its original store in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Donohue lived in Media, Pa., And Penske had attended Lehigh University, located in Bethlehem, Pa.
The weekend got off to a good start with Donohue taking pole position in the # 66 McLaren M16 with an average four-lap qualifying speed of 172.393 mph. Starting from pole, Donohue dominated most of the afternoon, but had to fight late in the race with Joe Leonard due to a new warning procedure adopted at Pocono.
Pocono Raceway was built to closely resemble the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and in many ways. From its 2.5 mile length (albeit triangular in shape) to qualifying races of four rounds with 11 rows of 33 cars on the starting grid, Pocono was designed in the hope of helping INDYCAR (USAC to l era) to welcome a triple crown of 500-mile races that would rival those of thoroughbred races.
One of the differences between Pocono and Indianapolis, however, was that when the warning flag was displayed at Indy, the drivers were ordered to keep the gap between themselves and the other competitors. At Pocono, the cars gathered before the pit lane opened to welcome the competitors, eliminating any advantage of having a big lead. It was in this scenario that Donohue lost the lead of the race to Leonard with just nine laps to go as the Penske team rider later admitted he was being too cautious when restarting the race when ‘he thought there was oil on the surface of the track.
Fortunately, Donohue regained his momentum and rounded Leonard one last time with six laps to go for the win with 1.688 seconds – one of the closest finishes in INDYCAR history so far. Leading 126 of the 200 laps, Team Penske’s first INDYCAR victory is remembered as a dominant performance with a thrilling finish.
“When our team started racing we were just focusing on competitiveness and fighting for victory,” said Roger Penske. “Our racing teams have certainly come a long way since those early days, but our goal remains the same: to win. I don’t think any of us could have imagined that we would still be racing and winning more than 50 years later. “
Team Penske’s second victory, also with Donohue at the wheel, came 15 days later in the Michigan 200 at Michigan International Speedway. It started the team’s unprecedented success in INDYCAR races with a ledger that currently includes 219 wins, 18 Indianapolis 500 wins and 16 series championships. From those early days, the organization grew and became the gold standard of American racing. It’s sort of fitting that the team can celebrate the first victory of a legendary INDYCAR legacy every year during the weekend of July 4th.