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The Unfair Advantage

The story of Mark Donohue’s racing achievements has been told in numerous magazine articles over the years. His achievements too, in the famous #6 Sunoco Porsche 917/30 in the 1973 Can-Am series, have been similarly covered many times. But until I read The Unfair Advantage, I had little knowledge of Donohue’s struggle through the various other racing cars and series that he competed in between 1958 and 1975.
Reading The Unfair Advantage recently, I discovered just what a down-to-earth guy Donohue was. His manner and his approach to anything that he tackled, whether small or large, was the same – he was thorough to the nth degree. In short, Mark Donohue was the sort of guy you would want to have as a buddy, because he would just as soon help you fix your soapbox as help you take the engine out of your race car.
There is no doubt that Donohue’s mechanical engineering studies helped him to develop an analytical approach to problem solving, which in turn made him an invaluable asset to the Penske organisation.

Together with work colleague and friend, Paul van Valkenburgh, the pair recorded on tape approximately 150,000 words covering Mark’s life as a racer. Van Valkenburgh then knocked that into shape so that the reader could enjoy this unparalleled story of pain, growth and glory. The author of the book, Paul van Valkenburgh, is quick to point out that he merely moved a few words around here and there, to make the story that much more readable. All of which just goes to show that Donohue dictated the narrative pretty much as you see it.
What makes this account of Donohue’s story so refreshing, is the fact that he is so honest in admitting when he made a mistake or messed up. This is so uncommon in today’s society where people are quick to look for someone else to blame in order not to look bad, because it may negatively affect their image. Donohue analyses the races he competed in, telling the reader where he blew it, or where he was able to get one up on the rest of the field.
The title of the book comes from his hard work in trying to improve the cars he raced in order to gain an advantage, or as he put it, an unfair advantage – hence the name of the book. The writer, or rather Mark Donohue himself, explains how they tested and retested numerous cars, exploring ways in which the team could improve their chances on the track. You have to take your hat off to Roger Penske, who in all of this, never wavered in his belief and support for Donohue, and this no doubt played a big part in building his confidence on the track.

The book is written mostly in chapters that cover a year at a time, so that the reader can follow Donohue’s progress and development with ease. Donohue was also quick to give credit and praise where this was due, especially to his faithful chief mechanic, John Woodard, but he would equally not suffer fools who he came across on the track.
As van Valkenburgh pointed out in his introduction, Mark Donohue was not born a great racing driver, but that over time, with much hard work, he became a great racing driver. Having spoken with racing drivers and others who were around when Donohue was racing, you are left with no doubt that he was just like the guy next door. And couldn’t we do with a few more like him today!
If there is one thing that I was slightly disappointed with in this book, it is that there is no final chapter given to explain the circumstances surrounding the very untimely and tragic accident that took his life. It isn’t that, as readers of this type of book we are not aware of when or where he died, but it would have rounded off a truly engaging story of a great racing driver, in a respectful way.
I am sorry I was not able to buy a copy of the hardcover edition of this book when it was originally published in 1975, but the new softcover edition is enhanced with 100 new photos, as well as a preface written by Mark’s two sons, Michael and David. A chronology of Mark Donohue’s racing career is also included.
This story kept my attention from beginning to end, and I thoroughly enjoyed every page. If you are interested in historic racing today, or an avid follower of Porsche racing history, or simply a motorsport enthusiast, this book will satisfy all your needs. You don’t want to miss getting a copy of this new edition, if you, like me, missed out first time round.

Key Information

Title The Unfair Advantage
Authors Mark Donohue with Paul van Valkenburgh
Publisher Bentley Publishing
Published 2000
ISBN 978-0-8376-0069-7
Pages & images 368 pages; 53 color/62 B&W photos
Format 155.5mm (6 1/8 in.) x 235mm (9 1/4 in.)
Cover Softcover
Language English
Price $34.95

Written by: Glen Smale

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