My View Of The 1969 Daytona 24 Hours

Doc Austin

Back From The Dead
Jan 29, 2017
Largo, Fla
So, for the 1969 Daytona 24 hours, we parked our motorhome in the infield, just outside of the entrance to the paddock and garage area. Since I was an ordinary little kid, I was able to slip unnoticed past the security guards and into the garage area. I met Chuck Parsons, a grizzled veteran of sports car racing who, for some reason, took a liking to me. Must have been my starry eyed enthusiasm.

Chuck had seen the wars. He was a tough old coot and his very visible limp told me he had gotten hurt in racing at least his share of times. Somewhere along the line I asked him where the limp came from, and he just answered "Pain builds character, son."

Chuck sneaked me into the Penske pits, where he was driving a brand new Sunoco sponsored Lola T-70 Mk.III with another racing legend, Mark Donohue. Donohue was an engineer by trade, but hooked up with Penske and began a remarkable relationship that yielded multiple Trans Am championships for Chevrolet and American Motors. Donohue was instrumental in the development of the Can Am Porsche 917/30, a car that was so dominant that it killed the series.

As a driver, Donohue was the 1972 Indianapolis 500 champion. Donohue won multiple Trans Am championships, the 1973 Can Am championship, and International Race of Champions, back when it really meant something. After a sterling career he retired from driving to become the director of competition at Penske.

Donohue was famous for his polite, friendly, easy going nature. If there was ever a man who was too nice it was Mark Donohue. In fact, the motorsports press often called him "Captain Nice." He was shy and quite, but upon occasion he could be quite playful, and stories of his firecracker pranks are legend. While Penske was Donohue's age, Mark would always address him as "Mr. Penske." Mark would almost never have any run ins with other drivers, and was a media darling because, well..........because he was so dammed nice to deal with.

Everyone loved Mark Donohue. Everyone.

When Penske went Formula One racing, the lure was too much, and Donohue returned to the ****pit. He very sadly secumbed to head injuries after a crash in practise for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix . Donohue had been one of my absolute heroes from the very beginning and the entire racing world was devastated. Everyone loved Mark Donohue. Everyone.

I was sitting in the corner of the Penske pits when Roger came strolling in and noticed me. Actually, it was more like Penske walked in and imposed his presence on everyone. The moment he walked in, everyone, even those who were too busy working to look up, knew that Roger was in the house.

Though Penske had not yet built his formidable reputation, it was very clear that this man was really someone who was quite extraordinary. There was just an air about him, much as one would feel, I suppose, in the presence of someone like Elvis, or the president of the United States. Of course, when Roger looked over at me, I was like a deer caught in the headlights.

"Who's the kid?" Penske asks.

"Oh, he's a big fan, Roger." Parsons replies "Why don't we make him our mascot or something?"

Penske scratched his chin thoughtfully and then replied “Sorry, kid. If you’re not working, you’ve got to go.” Now, I was pretty excited that I had weaseled myself into position with my favorite team, and just before the start, I was going to get tossed out. I could feel my face becoming flush with the tears building up behind my eyes, and right before the damm burst, a man walked up behind me, handed a helmet to me and says “Put a nice shine on that, will you please?” and, of course, it was Mark Donohue. “Ok, Mr. Penske, he’s working. Can he stay?”

Through all of 1969 Mark Donohue wore a Sunoco blue helmet with a nice primer grey spot on the back, evidence of the enthusiam with which I applied myself to the job at hand. Yeah, I got sent out for donuts and coffee a few times too, probably just to get rid of me for a few minutes, but I always managed to sneak past the security and get back to the pits.

Penske's Lola was pitted against the legendary Ford GT40s that had steamrollered the entire world for the last three years, but technology moves fast in racing and the GT40 was no longer the fastest car. By now, the GT40 was a technical dinosaur, but it was so well developed that it would run almost forever without so much as a hiccup. They were, however, not fancied as the favorites for this race.

The white Armada
Instead, most thought the race was already over. The Porsche team came with their armada of 908 longtail coupes, five of them, lovely cars with beautiful, flowing lines and blistering speed. These cars were painted in the official German racing white livery, with different colored panels on the nose to differentiate one from another. They had lost the championship, and the prestigious 24 Hueres Du mans, the world's greatest sportscar race the year before to John Wyer's Gulf GT40 team, mostly because of reliability issues at the worst possible times.

No one wanted to win as badly as Porsche. They would come to every race with a supply of brand new cars. Brand new! Such was the pace of their engineering, innovation and development that last week's car was useless to them, and there was a long line of privateer entrants, money in hand, eager to buy nearly new and sorted race cars with all the latest factory developments. In 1969 they introduced the 908 spyder, the all conquering 917, the Porsche 914/6 road car, and moved their facility to the legendary Zuffnenhausen location.....all in about two week's time. And, of course, the 908 was updated on almost a daily basis. For a small, family owned concern, it was remarkable, and they were probably spread pretty thin.

Clearly, Porsche was pushing the outer edges of technology and development, and paid the price by having sure wins blow up in their face. There is the old motorsports adage "fast, but fragile," and at this point in time it applied to the Porsche 908. The car was still early in it's development, though it later went onto a crushing series of wins that secured the Stuttgart firm's first world championship. The 908 became, in my view, may be the most important sports prototype in Porsche motorsports history, though most Porschephilles would argue for the 917.

And, of course, there was the Lola T-70 coupe. This car was a descendant of the famous Lola T-70 spyder, which won the Can Am championship in 1966. Donohue had also driven a Penske operated Lola T70 to win two United States Road Racing Championships. The initial batch of cars were nothing more than a T70 with a roof put on, but Penske had the very latest version, a T70 MkIII. Very pretty car, and one would suspect that with all the development and sorting the T70 had received over it's lifespan that it would be nearly bulletproof, especially with the near perfection of Penske preparation. Still, the effort came together so late that the team had virtually no spare parts for the car, which would come into play later in the race.


Donohue had qualified the car on the outside of the first row, in second position. Up against the formidable Porsche 908s, this was an incredibly encouraging sign. In the early going, Donohue mixed it up with the Porsches at the front of the field, but it was only a matter of time before they established their superiority with outright speed and Donohue fell behind them. Still, it was a long race, and the 908s had broken before.

Well, it was a long race, but it was probably longer for the Penske guys than anyone else. About halfway through the first stint, Donohue had brought the car in, unable to get any fuel to the engine and had only just gotten back on the reserve tank. After a bit of poking around, the chief mechanic surmised that the left side fuel cell, where the gasoline is carried, had collapsed, and the car could only burn about half it's fuel before it could no longer deliver any to the power plant. Making matters worse, it was burning the fuel off of only the right side of the car, which left it unbalanced.....and unstable. Now, the Penske Lola would have to stop for fuel about twice as often as the Porsches, and we were already dropping back.

By nightfall, we were in a reasonable position behind the 908s and the GT40s, but the car was becoming more and more ragged as it suffered several small collisions with slower cars, running over debris, and running off the track due to it's poor handling. By now, it was held together with duct tape and safety wire, because there were no spare parts to replaced the damaged ones. Near midnight, the car cracked it's intake manifold, and the car was pushed back to the garage where, because they had no spares, the crew was forced to weld up the crack in the manifold.

This was roughly a 30 minute job, so Mark, Chuck and I headed off to the speedway cafeteria in the infield. With all the chaos unfolding around us, this was the first chance since noon that any of us had to grab a bite to eat. Nowadays there is merely a series of vendors to provide food, but back then it was a real cafeteria.....only it wasn't very well stocked. All they had left at that time of night was beenie weenies, which even under the best of circumstances would apparently give Chuck plenty of ammunition for fart pranks.

Chuck would squeeze off a long, slow, loud, stinky one, grunting, visibly straining, and holding one foot off the ground for effect, and then he would look around the cafeteria hoping someone would notice, and say in a loud voice, "Good lord, Mark! You'de better go check your underwear." Donohue was such a shy and polite man that he turned red with embarrassment, in front of the entire cafeteria, of course. Still, I think he appreciated the artistry of Parson's humor, but it was probably a damm good thing that Penske never saw what was going on.

The car went back out, ran for a bit and then returned with the intake manifold cracked in another place. The crew was already overworked and the car by now was totally ragged out and about as sorry looking as you could imagine, so it was decided to pack up and go home. By about now, my parents were in the motorhome wondering just what the hell kind of trouble I was in, so I had to get back anyway. Donohue, Parsons and Penske thanked me for my "help," and I headed out.

It was already going to be an awesome memory, though I went to sleep in the motorhome sad that we were no longer in the fight. I suppose I would just have to wake up in the morning and watch the Porsches dominate the rest of the race.

Morning comes and I see the Sunoco Lola is back on the track, and has fought it's way up to seventh place. Apparently the team decided to fix the car and use the rest of the race as sort of an extended test session. Of course, I had to hurry back to the Penske pits, because they would be out of donuts soon enough.

While I was at the cafeteria rounding up coffee and donuts, I heard over the PA system that the second placed Gulf GT40 had crashed upon exiting the pits and was out of the race. At the time, this was encouraging, though the best we could hope for would still probably only be sixth place. The Porsches were now running like clockwork, in positions 1-5, with over a one and one half hour lead on the Sunoco Lola, with only about 6 hours left in the race. The invincible white army kept circulating round and round, leaving the rest further and further behind.

Strange Voodoo
When I arrived at the Penske pits, all the mechanics were really glad to see me as they had all been so busy that no one had the time to round up some grub. It was just greasy day old donuts and burnt coffee, but I was a pretty popular guy. I turned to Mark and I say "You've got this thing won," Whereupon I do a little dance and chant "Eeenie oonie wanna! Eeenie oonie wanna! Shakka zulu!"

Donohue looked puzzled, but Parsons knew a zoodoo curse when he saw one, and the entire crew laughed hysterically.....right up until the lead Porsche rolled down pit lane and stopped with whisps of smoke rolling out from under the rear of the car. The mechanics poked around under the rear deck, and there was lots of grumbling, which must have been swearing going on in German. After a few minutes, the deck went down, and the car was pushed off, out of the race.

One of the crew looks at Roger and says "Hey, Roger, this guy is our good luck charm." Penske looks over his shoulder at me and says "Got any more, kid?"

Within the span of the next ten minutes, every single one of the factory Porsches rolled down pit lane, with the cursing becoming more and more vocal, until the entire team simply vanished. They were taken out by identical intermediate idler gear shaft failures, a small little shaft which an idler gear in the valve drain spun on. It broke, the gears fell off, the valvetrain stopped turning while the engine kept screaming, and the pistons chewed all the valves into tiny little pieces, which ground up the entire inside of the engine.

A $5 part. Utter, irreversible, catastrophic destruction.

I had to get back. My father had given me the riot act because I came back to the motor home so late the night before, and he promised I would get a good lashing if I did it again. I said my goodbyes, and as I turned to leave there was a presence behind me, and a firm hand on my shoulder holding me back. Of course, it was Roger Penske, who says "Our good luck charm isn't going anywhere until this thing is over."

This from the guy who almost threw me out the day before.

One and one half hours later, the bruised and battered Sunoco Lola swept into the lead that it would keep until it rolled into Daytona's victory lane. The team was ecstatic, and I was swept along with them as we pushed the car to victory lane. Once there, a security guard noticed I wasn't wearing the proper credentials, and I wasn't let in.

The story of my motorsports life: on the outside, looking in, even when I had won.

Thirteen years later, my wife and I were at the Atlanta CART race. I was a grown man now, sporting a mustache and looking nothing like the little kid who didn't show up in the 1969 Daytona 24 hour victory lane. As we strolled down the pits before the race I come up behind a Penske car and stopped to take a closer look. Suddenly, there is a presence, and a heavy hand on my shoulder. It's Roger, of course, who smiles, and says "We already have someone to polish helmets. Can you do wheels?"


Team Owner
Apr 21, 2016
Great story!
Too funny that Penske recognized you after all those years. I wonder what tipped him off?
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