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First Andretti vs. Donohue Race Came at Lime Rock Park

Future icons each came home winners in 1963 midget races

Photos via Randy McKee/Joe Corbett collection

 

Two future American motorsport legends raced against each other for the first time at Lime Rock Park – in career milestones for both drivers.

 

While they went on to establish themselves in many different varieties of motorsports, the first on-track meeting of Mario Andretti and Mark Donohue came in an ARDC Midget race on July 27, 1963.

 

Andretti was making his name in oval-track racing in the Northeast. This would be the first road course experience for the future Formula One World Champion.

 

Donohue was establishing himself in amateur SCCA competition at the club level – the only level for American road racers at the time. This would be the first time Donohue competed professionally, as he got a cut of the prize money. Unlike Andretti, he was no stranger to Lime Rock. In fact, that’s where he first caught the attention of his future car owner, Roger Penske, when he raced an Elva Courier at Lime Rock in 1960.

 

To set the scene, Lime Rock held a well-publicized Formula Libre (“Run what you brung”) contest in 1959. Rodger Ward won in an 11-year-old Offy-powered Midget owned by Ken Brenn, beating an assortment of oval track machinery, including a Formula One car.

 

Four years later, Lime Rock hosted the ARDC Midgets, in conjunction with a Formula Libre event for open-wheel SCCA competitors. The program included a 20-lap ARDC Midget feature, a 20-lap round for Formula Libre cars, followed by a 47-lap combined race. Both the midget and finale paid $2,000 – with $1,000 to the winner of each race.

Mark Donohue instructing a drivers school at Lime Rock Park.

 

Brenn brought a unique “pusher” midget for Donohue, featuring a two-speed gearbox. The car started off as a Cooper Formula Junior that Brenn purchased from Alfred Momo. He shortened the chassis by 18 inches and installed an Offenhauser engine in the rear. However, the car quickly went into storage due to a lack of success on the short ovals. With the midget race coming up at Lime Rock, Brenn was reminded of his 1959 Lime Rock success by former ARDC publicist Bill Claren, and reluctantly called on Donohue to test the car one week before the race. While at first Brenn felt that Donohue did not look like a typical race car driver, Donohue was very fast in the test, and Brenn was quickly sold on the 25-year-old New Jersey competitor.

 

Andretti drove a conventional Kurtis-Offy fielded by brothers Bill and Ed Mataka, with the 22-year-old enjoying success racing the orange car in eastern midget racing circles. The car had the traditional “in-and-out” single-speed transmission used for oval racing.

 

From here, details get sketchy. Both drivers give prominent mention to the event in their books, Donohue’s The Unfair Advantage and Andretti’s A Driving Passion with Gordon Kirby. However, each driver only describes the race he won, while other accounts have conflicting details.

Mario Andretti #33 - ARDC

Mario Andretti running the #33 in ARDC.

 

“No matter,” Michael Argetsinger wrote in Mark Donohue: Technical Excellence at Speed. “They both won races that day, and the 20-lap event was likely more important in Mario’s memory because it counted for ARDC points. Both men were recalling events having been run in the interim.”

 

The midget race saw the two future Indy 500 winners go toe to toe – according to Andretti. The 22-year-old Andretti recalled pressuring Donohue throughout the race. Donohue dropped a tire wheel with two laps to go, resulting in a slow leak.

 

“It slowed him down just enough that coming off the last corner I got underneath him, and won the race,” Andretti recalled in A Driving Passion. “I felt like Fangio! … God, did I feel good that day!”

 

Donohue won the 47-lap feature race without close competition. Some accounts have Andretti second. Argetsinger reported Andretti coming up missing on the second lap, with Donohue lapping the field. Rich Taylor wrote in Lime Rock Park: 35 Years of Racing, that Donohue “ran rings around everyone, including the winner of one of the heat races, another young kid named Andretti.”

 

Regardless of the details, Donohue was excited.

 

“It was like the end of World War II for me,” he recalled in The Unfair Advantage. “That car was the first rear-engine midget, it was the car’s first finish and my first ‘professional’ race.”

Mark Donahue running Trans-Am in 1971

Mark Donahue running the Trans-Am series in 1971.

 

“Professional” was in quotes because Donohue competed in strictly amateur SCCA competition. However, he recalled Brenn slipping him $600 of the $1,000 purse under the table.

 

The details may be a bit fuzzy, but one fact is certain: Lime Rock Park played a major role in the career development of two American racing icons.

 

See the future of racing legends at Lime Rock Park in 2022 with visits from the Trans Am Series presented by Pirelli (Memorial Day Classic) and IMSA (Northeast Grand Prix). For full event information visit: All Events – Lime Rock Park