The Fourth of July weekend generates a myriad of memories and emotions for most Americans. Some recall summer vacations and celebrations with family or a favorite place to watch a fantastic fireworks display. The holiday weekend also pays tribute to our servicemen and servicewomen that protect our nation’s freedoms while honoring their sacrifices.
For Team Penske, this weekend marks an historic date in team history. On Sunday, July 3, 1971, Mark Donohue captured the checkered flag in the Schaefer 500 at Pocono (Penn.) Raceway for the team’s first-ever INDYCAR SERIES win (photo provided by Pocono Raceway). Now, 50 years after that landmark victory, Team Penske celebrates its special anniversary by looking back at that winning weekend that set the table for enduring excellence.
Formed in 1966, Team Penske found quick success in sports car racing with Donohue rising to the top of that racing discipline. While still winning races in Can-Am and Trans Am competition, Roger Penske and Donohue broadened their horizons to INDYCAR in 1969 with a goal of winning the Indianapolis 500 within three years.
The team nearly reached that lofty goal as Donohue conquered the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in the team’s fourth Indianapolis 500 in 1972. Team Penske’s third INDYCAR season did bring achievement, however, beginning at Pocono. A crowd of 75,000 filled the stands to see the first race in the history of the track known as the “Tricky Triangle.” In fact, as the competitors took to the circuit for the first practice session, workers were still putting the finishing touches on the 2.5-mile oval in Long Pond, Pa.
With several strong Pennsylvania ties, Pocono served as sort of a home game for Team Penske. In 1971, the team was still based out of its original shop in Newtown Square, Pa. Donohue lived in Media, Pa., and Penske had attended Lehigh University, located in Bethlehem, Pa.
The weekend started off well with Donohue claiming the pole position in the No. 66 McLaren M16 with a four-lap average qualifying speed of 172.393 mph. Starting from the pole, Donohue dominated for most of the afternoon, but he had to sweat out a late-race battle with Joe Leonard due to a new caution procedure adopted at Pocono.
Pocono Raceway was built to closely resemble Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and in many ways it did. From its 2.5-mile (albeit triangular-shaped) length to four-lap qualifying runs to 11 rows of 33 cars on the starting grid, Pocono was designed with the hopes of helping INDYCAR (USAC at the time) host a Triple Crown of 500-mile races that would rival that of thoroughbred racing.
One way in which Pocono was different from Indianapolis, however, was that when the caution flag was displayed at Indy, drivers were instructed to maintain the gap between themselves and the other competitors. At Pocono, cars would bunch up before pit lane was opened to welcome the competitors, which eliminated any advantage of having a big lead. It was under this scenario that Donohue lost the race lead to Leonard with just nine laps remaining as the Team Penske racer admitted later that he was too cautious on the race restart when he thought there was oil on the track surface.
Fortunately, Donohue regained his momentum and got around Leonard for a final time with six laps left to score the victory by 1.688 seconds – one of the closest finishes in INDYCAR history up to that point. Leading 126 of the 200 laps, Team Penske’s first INDYCAR win is remembered as a dominant performance with a thrilling finish.
“When our team first began racing, we were just focused on being competitive and fighting for wins,” Roger Penske said. “Our race teams have certainly come a long way since those early days, but our focus remains the same – winning. I do not think any of us back then could have imagined that we would still be racing and winning more than 50 years later.”
Team Penske's second race win, also with Donohue driving, came 15 days later in the Michigan 200 at Michigan International Speedway. That began the team's unparalleled success in INDYCAR racing with a ledger that currently includes 219 wins, 18 Indianapolis 500 victories and 16 series championships. From those early days, the organization has grown and risen to become the gold standard of American racing. It’s somehow fitting that the team can celebrate the first win of a legendary INDYCAR legacy every year during Fourth of July weekend.