When you think “race car driver”, you’re probably thinking “composed professional who is very skilled and on top of their game”. You’re probably not picturing someone who shrugs their shoulders and says, “I have no idea why this worked, but, uh, it did”—which is exactly the kind of picture Mark Donohue paints of himself in his autobiography.
(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. This month, we’re looking at The Unfair Advantage by Mark Donohue, one hell of an interesting ride about what it was like to juggle multiple racing series at a time.)
Now, before you start thinking Donohue is a mad jack of all trades, The Unfair Advantage was co-written with Paul Van Valkenburgh, a noted automotive journalist. It’s essentially a transcript of Donohue’s racing memories, but the man was busy. He didn’t have time to write all that shit down. So, he found someone else who would do it for him.
Donohue took a year off racing in 1974 to craft what is essentially a tell-all about his racing career. He starts at the beginning, the first time he ever raced a car, and leads up to his retirement. It was published the following year and, unfortunately, got a little lost in the wake of the news about its author’s death.
The most notable thing is that this isn’t an autobiography of a man so much as it is an autobiography of a career. Reading it, you get a sense that Donohue isn’t a big fan of the spotlight, and the book really reflects that. We don’t start out with his childhood or hear about all the things Donohue studied going through school. Personal details are pretty sparing and are mentioned as a side note only when it’s relevant to to his career.
Instead, The Unfair Advantage is broken down into chapters devoted to race cars. It follows a largely chronological timeline, so we can see ideas and understanding fomenting as Donohue tackles one challenge after another. But Donohue’s passion is obvious. He loved the challenge of developing a race car.
One of the few personal details we get about Donohue is that he studied to be an engineer before he stumbled into racing—but his engineering degree didn’t necessarily mean he was able to craft a dominant race car with a snap of his fingers. It was actually, uh, kind the opposite.
See, Donohue was always searching for his “unfair advantage”—that one little thing that was going to give him the edge over his competitors. The most entertaining part of the book is the sheer number of times Donohue admits to trying things that didn’t work, only to find something that did and not understand why. I feel like we can all relate to a “I had literally no idea what I was doing and somehow it ended up okay” mindset.
This was all back in the beautiful era where the rules of racing hadn’t quite been written in stone yet. Roger Penske and Mark Donohue were the unstoppable duo of just throwing shit at the wall to see if it stuck. It was wild reading through the pages and seeing all the things they were doing. They’d show up to the track with two-story fueling rigs, hoping that might speed up pit stops. They messed around with their brakes until the calipers were essentially changing their own brake pads. They read through the rule book, found every loophole, and showed up to the track with some clever contraption that slotted perfectly into gaps. Hell, Penske Racing was even one of the first teams to start testing before they showed up to a race.
Mark Donohue was one of a kind. He was working on so many projects in so many different racing series at the same time that you’d definitely lose track of it if he’d tried to organize chapters by year instead of car. This was someone who just really loved what he did, the kind of driver you just don’t see anymore. If there was an open seat in a car, Donohue would fill it, and he’d come prepared with a neat little trick to give you an extra tenth off your lap time. You just don’t see drivers crossing series like that and getting their hands dirty in the engineering side of things anymore.
Donohue and Penske really brought the professional sheen to racing, especially racing in America. They weren’t the kind of people who were just going to be content with the equipment everyone else had. They’d get up early, stay late, and work all week if it meant they’d get a leg up on the competition. And it was a hard battle. They failed in their experiments way more times than they succeeded.
But what Donohue’s book shows is that he wasn’t afraid to ask the hard questions. If he didn’t understand something, he’d figure it out. Since he’s the one telling the story, Donohue comes off as a mediocre racer who just kind of got lucky. But if you actually read what he’s telling you, you know that his success was hard-earned. Yeah, he had some natural talent—but what was really remarkable was the hunger that made him seek out how to make himself the best on the field.
On my first reading of The Unfair Advantage, I was kind of annoyed at the lack of personal details. I’m a creative writer at heart. I like having backstory, I like the drama that comes with balancing a full racing calendar with real life. But, skimming over the chapters to write this review, I also realized that you learn just as much about an author by what he leaves out as what he includes.
Donohue didn’t go into his personal life because his life was racing. He didn’t really have the time to dwell on shit outside the track. I mean, this is the same guy who barely spared a paragraph to talk about winning the Indy 500. Donohue doesn’t have to tell you flat-out how much he dedicated his life to overcoming the struggles of racing; you’re going to read a couple hundred pages of all the things that consumed his mind.
I can’t lie to y’all. I’m a Donohue fan. The first essay I ever wrote for school was a research paper on Mark Donohue when I was probably six, and it just feels like destiny that I ended up here to talk about him again. My opinion of this book was always going to be favorable—but I didn’t realize just how much I was going to actually enjoy learning about the technical side of racing.
Donohue is really down to earth. He’s not just listing off all these hyper-technical details to let you know how much smarter he is than the average person. Nah; he’s explaining his thought processes and actions, the desired results compared to what actually happened, all tinged with frustration and relief and annoyance and celebration. Even if I had no idea what he was talking about, I still knew.
This isn’t a book about how to build a perfect race-winning car, even if it might look like that at first glance. I think it’s a much deeper insight into Donohue’s mind and the inner workings of racing, the politics and and people who made the era what it was. Sure, you might figure out how to experiment with a race car along the way—but you’re most definitely getting a glimpse into an era unlike any we’ll see again.
And that’s all we have for this month’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on September 1! We’re going to be reading Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans by AJ Baime, a book that has been highly requested (and that I’ve been dying to read for years). And don’t forget to drop those hot takes in the comments or at elizabethawerth [at] gmail [dot] com!