Book Review—The Unfair Advantage—Mark Donahue Tells All

“The Unfair Advantage” is proof-positive that nice guys finish first—if they work hard. To say Mark Donohue was modest about his driving achievements is an understatement. He was smooth, and when challenged, would not be intimidated or beaten easily, as Parnelli Jones discovered competing against him in Trans Am. That said, Donohue was not modest about his engineering ability. He made a career of taking someone else’s design, breaking it down, rebuilding it to his satisfaction, and in the end making it faster. The book is about his education as a driver-engineer, beginning in 1958 as college junior and weekend racer who won his very first competition, driving a Corvette; up to 1973, when he dominated the Can-Am championship piloting the vaunted Porsche 917-30 that he personally developed into a winner. This is a book full of insights, not just into cars, but into people. Driving for the Ford Le Mans team, he noticed Dan Gurney was not only clearly faster than everyone else (Andretti, Foyt, Ruby) but did not use up nearly as many brake pads or rotors as they did. Donahue liked Gurney’s smoothness and knowledge of cars, and copied it.

The enjoyment of reading this book is learning exactly what Donohue did to make cars faster, and how, working for Roger Penske, they developed their “Unfair Advantage” strategy. Yes, Penske had lots of connections, with Chevrolet, Sun Oil, Goodyear, and the like, but that doesn’t tell the complete story. Donahue and Penske put in longer hours and worked harder their competition, and were obsessed with discovering the slightest advantage. That, in a nutshell, is the secret of the “Unfair Advantage”—concentrated effort, hard work, and ever on the lookout for an advantage. Donahue lived above the workshop where the cars were modified and race-prepped. Though married, he didn’t have much of a home life, and neither did Penske. They lived to compete—and to win. Among the lessons learned along the way, that I found telling: learning about the basics of chassis tuning with a Cooper-Offy in 1963; visiting Chaparral Cars in 1966, and discovering the benefit of testing on a skid pad; what went into developing the Trans-Am Camaro into a car that outclassed the competition (1966-69) and ditto the Trans-Am Javelin (1970-71); the development of a variety of Indy cars (Eagles, Lolas, McLarens) and making them that tiny bit faster than everyone else (1968-73); the saga of working with Eric Broadly and Lola on a myriad of cars (Can Am, Indy, Prototype, Formula A) and not always with the desired results (1966-72); the development of Ferrari 512 (1971); and finally the development of the turbo-charged Porsche Can-Am cars (1972-73). There is much here to learn about race car preparation and development.

Donahue’s philosophy was to make the car as fast and as easy to drive as possibly, and let the car do most of the work rather than driver, and thus avoiding the trap of driving faster than it wants to go, which leads to increase wear-and-tear and worse—unnecessary risks and accidents. And when everything is working right? Joy. Says Donohue: “That’s the sensation that’s so thrilling to me—knowing that everything in the system is working exactly as it’s supposed to. . . . The driver is simply doing what the car wants to be done. But you’ll never get to that point if the car is screwed up somehow in the engine, tires, or handling.” Getting to that point isn’t always easy, as this book makes clear. The secret to “The Unfair Advantage” was total dedication and simple hard work. If you’re into motor racing at all, get this book. You’ll know far more about what winning actually involves once you’ve read it. Five stars.

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