A Brilliant Scheme Carried Out In The Dark
The Story Of The Lightweight Donohue/Penske Camaro
© Andrew S. Hartwell.
Pat Ryan saw the ad in Hemmings Motor News back in 1988. He immediately knew that the car being offered was not a run of the mill vehicle and so, before too long, he became the next in a short line of racing enthusiasts to own one of racing's great cars. That's great as in 'what a great story'.
It was this particular car that would generally be
credited with the being the catalyst for associating
the term 'Unfair Advantage' with 'Penske Racing'.
After all, running a race in a car that is markedly
underweight is quite an advantage on a racetrack.
And that is where the history of the 1967/68
Sunoco Camaro was written, with a few moments
spent out of the light.
The chapter in history penned by this car could
best be described as a dark moment with brilliant
For the last 13 years Ryan has cared for and raced
the 1967 Trans Am Camaro that Mark Donohue and Roger Penske campaigned under two numbersin one race. The car forever after referred to as 'the lightweight'. Current caretaker Ryan; "This is the car that Penske acid-dipped and qualified twice at Sebring. It is the car that Mark Donohue ran in the '67 season and used for just one race in 1968."
Like Penske, Ryan made his fortune in the world of automobiles, selling primarily Japanese cars to Americans looking for something better than what Detroit was producing. The owner of over 40 classic cars, with a dozen or so up for auction at a recent event, he has a special place in his world for this car. Ryan has compiled a scrapbook with news clippings, photos and more pertaining to the history of this car. When he eagerly pulled the book from his trailer and began showing me page after page of it's contents, it was obvious he appreciated how unique a possession this prize was.
"This is a full history of the car", he said proudly. He then began turning the pages carefully and slowly to be sure his attentive audience was hearing the tale as it really happened. "These are the full build sheets for the Traco motor. Here is a picture of Mark getting out of the car. Here is a shot of the car on the track at Seattle in 1967. This is the race that he won and he lapped the field. This particular car made its debut in July. He used another car for the first eight races.
"They acid-dipped this car at Lockheed in California. According to Mark's book (The Unfair Advantage now available in reprint from Mark's son, David Donohue) the car weighed only 2,550 pounds when it won the race, and the rule was 2,800 minimum. For the first time they weighed his car at the end of the race. The stewards threatened to take his win away from him for being 250 pounds under weight. But Roger said, 'You really do want Chevrolet back in Trans Am next year, don't you?'
"They let the win stand but told Mark and Roger to never bring this car back. Since it was the end of the season anyway they sold it to a guy named Terry Godsall. He was a Canadian and he promised he would only run the car in Canada."
And Godsall kept his word, as an honorable Canadian. But a bit of the devil may have possessed his future and one time only- partner, one Roger Penske.
"At Daytona the next year, the new '68 Camaro finished behind two Mustangs." The General Motors brass at Chevrolet didn't like that conclusion at all. "They essentially told Penske 'we need you to have two cars at Sebring'. Between the lines they were saying, 'and one of 'em better win.'"
Being a good Chevrolet dealer, Mr. Penske didn't want to upset his car supplier so he devised an alternative plan to reach the top step of the podium. "As they didn't have enough time to build a second '68 car, they got the lightweight back from Godsall - actually, he wouldn't sell it so they became partners with him - they put his name on it, and they raced it at Sebring."
But they said they wouldn't race this car anymore. So how did they pull it off? Ryan explains the mystery 'by the numbers'.
"Here are some more pictures of the car. This shot is at Las Vegas and here it is at Seattle. Here you see the car at Sebring where it ran number 15. You can see it has a small vent window, which is the only way you can tell it is a '67. To initiate the planned deception, Penske had grillwork and lights from the newer '68 Camaro bodywork put on this car." This, plus identical paint schemes for the '67 and '68 cars, would help them to slip a fast one past the SCCA technocrats...twice.
"Again, according to Mark's book, they were trying to figure out how to get it through tech inspection because the car was now 400 pounds underweight, with the changes made to the rules to increase the minimum weight requirement. So, they decided they would just switch the numbers on the two cars and send the newer car through tech twice. That is what they did, and it worked."
"In the middle of qualifying, they figured well if it worked once, it should work twice so they brought the cars back into a closed hanger area and switched the numbers one more time, sending the lightweight out to qualify for both cars! The official entry shows them a 1/10th of a second apart."
Back to the scrapbook. "Here you see the number 15 car being driven in practice by Craig Fisher, but it is a '68. Here is a shot of Mark Donohue driving the number 15 car in the race, and you can tell it is the '67 by the side vent window. Nobody picked this up!"
Nobody picked up the deception, but Mark Donohue and Craig Fisher did pick up the first place trophy. And just as GM had directed them to do, they finished ahead of the rival Ford Mustangs. And so the legend of the 'unfair advantage' was born, in a dark secluded hanger at an airport in central Florida.
A brilliant move made in the shadows of racing's officialdom.
So there is the history behind a car that Pat Ryan rings to vintage festivals so others can share in the joy of seeing the car that won a race by sleight of hand.