We first met David Donohue at Barber Motorsport Park in Birmingham, Alabama for a Porsche press event called the “PDK Push”. This fun filled, two day trip paired members of the press with driving greats such as Patrick Long, Hurley Haywood and last year’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona winner David Donohue (just to name a few). The idea behind the trip was to show just how capable the PDK transmission is both on and off the track (you can read more about it in “Is the Porsche Boxster a Girl’s Car?“). We were fortunate enough to be paired with David and were immediately impressed by both his driving skills and his warm and likable personality.
In fact, the first thing that strikes you about David Donohue is that he is a truly nice guy. When his call for our interview [requested at the press event] comes in four minutes late, he apologizes profusely, instantly putting the Porsche Purist team at ease. And then he compliments our craft, making us officially love the guy: “I had to write a little thing for [a car magazine] and it took me forever,” he laughs, adding “it was just little, I don’t know, eighteen hundred words, not even eighteen hundred, I can’t remember what it was for, some small segment and they were all laughing at me because it was almost too short.” For a driver that has so many accomplishments to his name, interviewing him still feels like holding a conversation with a friend.
David Donohue has participated and excelled in a wide variety of auto racing series and classes, including NASCAR. In 1998 he won the GT2 class running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. More importantly and perhaps his most heartwarming win to date, Donohue won the 2009 24 Hours of Daytona in 2009 almost 40 years to the day his father had won the same event. Donohue, who started from pole position, attained victory with a 0.167-second margin over Juan Pablo Montoya (the closest win in the race’s history by over a minute, and the closest finish in the history of major international 24-hour motorsports events).
David Donohue on Winning The Rolex 24 in 2009
Donohue, who currently drives the #58 Brumos Riley-Porsche with teammate Darren Law (the other entry, #59, was driven in 2009 by Antonio García and Buddy Rice) for Brumos Porsche, had a great year in 2009. Our Motorsport Editor Christian Maloof, traveled to Daytona with the PorschePurist team and witnessed David and the Brumos team win the Rolex. We congratulate him on the win and he says, “Thanks. Did you notice much panic before the race?” We tell him no, not before or during. However, toward the end of the race nobody and everybody wanted to watch the monitors, and at one point David’s co-drivers actually went and stood behind them. The motorsport tension was palpable: Under the Brumos tent various people wanted to talk to Hurley Haywood, the drivers or take pictures. In the meantime, David and Juan Pablo Montoya were going toe to toe. And not much talking was going on.
We ask David to tell us what it was like for him on-track. “Everyone kept saying, so what was it like out there…you know with him all over behind you,” says Donohue, “all I could say was, well better that he’s behind me than in front of me! Isn’t that kind of the point?” He smiles and continues his story. “I got in the car for the last hour and I was like, ahh, finally, this is nice. There was far more anxiety in the pits!” For Donohue, the car is a definite comfort zone. “Not so much that I can relax, but you know, at least I can do something about it.”
Although David and the rest of the Brumos crew appeared calm, race spectators did not know the car had experienced electrical problems before the race. “Although we were fast in the race, right before we’d had no dash,” said Donohue, adding “even when we qualified, I didn’t have a dashboard. I don’t remember if I had shift lights or not, but we had a lot of electronic glitches leading up to the race and really it wasn’t until the start of the race that we knew we had gotten them fixed.”
On Handling Adversity
We ask David how he handles challenges such as the above. Does he just rise above it, go out and go to work? Loss of a dash on a prototype is, admittedly, a big challenge. Does he rely on his knowledge of the car and focus on hitting his marks?
“Well, it mostly has to do with shift points,” says Donohue. He goes on to explain: “we’re so, so sensitive to RPMs. Fortunately, we had done a lot of testing–about thirty-eight hundred miles of testing just for the twenty-four hour for the Rolex twenty-four. So you kind of know when and where to shift. I had done sticker runs before, so you sort of know what you can get away with and you’re basically going by instinct. If you hit the rev limiter it really is like throwing out an anchor!”
There was another concern in the back of the Brumos team’s minds, too. Says Donohue, “everyone was on the edge of their seats is because…we’ve lost it in the last fifty yards before.”
David Donohue’s Racing Pedigree
As many versed in Motorsport history know, David Donohue has an enviable pedigree. David’s father, Mark Neary Donohue, Jr. was known for his ability to set up his own race car and drive it “consistently on the absolute limit.” Donohue drove the 1500 hp “Can-Am Killer” Porsche 917-30. The cars he drove and wins he collected are far too many to list here, but suffice it to say the man did not lack talent or ambition.
David, however, did not hone his skills by karting at the age of four, as many other driver’s sons did. In fact, he never even went to a race track until he was in college. His father’s death when he was 8 years old meant his mom isolated his brother and he from the racing community, both on and off the track. “We grew up very far away from racing, but of course we knew who my father was,” says David, adding “but as far as having the desire to pursue his career or pursue that kind of path, [that] wasn’t handed out to us as a realistic objective.”
His Mom taught him to drive (“I remember one of my first days behind the wheel, I couldn’t believe how fast thirty-five was!”) and he says he was “always a car person and always dreamed of owning a nine-eleven.”
So how did David come to find racing? Smiles David, “I couldn’t find a real job because I graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in finance [during] the last huge financial recession.” He had purchased a 1979 Porsche 911 SC and, like many of us, was participating in Porsche Club of America events (autocross and DEs). After all the track preparation and modifications David had submitted the 911SC to, the Porsche had become “not a joy at all to drive on the street. Says David, “I think I got three tickets in a matter of two days after I did an engine and differential ring!” David decided he could not drive the Porsche on the street anymore, and thus it became a track-dedicated car.
Not surprisingly, he was quite good on track, and people in those circles kept asking him what his racing plans were. “I befriended a lot of, I guess, the right people who helped me in my early days,” says David, tongue-in-cheek. Specifically, he befriended Gordon Nagel, who suggested they go super car racing. “I did end up in the super car series with another PCA guy named Ed Arnold, in BMW’s,” says David. His beginnings at the club level endeared David to grass-roots drivers, both in the Porsche and BMW clubs.
Donohue’s first exposure to the racing world and his father’s peers (Johnny Rutherford, A. J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, etc.) was when his Dad was inducted into the Hall of Fame. The drivers, legends in David’s mind, took him into their fold, talking to him like he was part of their family. Being embraced by drivers, says David, “gave me the motivation and the desire to pursue [racing] further.” He sold the 911 and got a Porsche 944 Turbo Cup Car (“I totally over-extended myself buying one!” he admits) and did some EMRA (Eastern Motor Racing Association) races, securing a few wins.
Earning his Stripes
Additionally, David earned his stripes working at a shop. “I was managing an independent shop, Don Galbraith Motoring—that’s when I really learned to appreciate the skills of the technicians. I struck a deal with my boss: I’d just take [the Porsche] to work and park it on the trailer behind the shop. When we got slow the guys would go through the car [and] have it ready for the next race.” The result? “I totally out-classed the rest of the field in preparation alone!”
Well sorted equipment, good preparation and solid knowledge of the tracks, which he had acquired through PCA events, combined to grant David success on-track. Donohue’s first race was at Bridgehampton (which isn’t around anymore). It was also where he first made contact with another car. “Funny enough, the first person I ever had car-to-car contact with was Bob Grossman, who had raced with my dad,” smiles Donohue, adding, “I was absolutely terrified. It was one of those deals where I got alongside of him in really fast sweepers and there was a Corvette all over me. I was on the inside and it was going to be really, really bad for him if we got together. When we got to the center of the corner and I tried to withdraw and I couldn’t get far enough and my right front hit his left rear. He went sailing anyway.” Grossman later approached him and said, “the last person to do that to me was your old man,” embracing Donohue.
The accident did not sideline him, however: ”I banged out the bodywork with a hammer and put black duct tape on it and I went through traffic for the rest of the year like a hot knife through butter–everyone saw the black duct tape and got out of my way!”
After the win-filled year, Donohue participated in the IMSA’s Bridgestone Supercar Championship, racing against Andy Pilgrim and Shane Lewis, among others. There, he met Bob Snodgrass and Hurley Haywood. “Bob Snodgrass promised I’d drive for Brumos someday—and Bob is a man of his words!”
We ask Donohue how long he’s known his current co-driver, Darren Law. “We raced against each other in Super Touring in ’96 and ’97” says David, adding, “I was still sort of new to everything and not so comfortable with who my father was and what his role and influence were and who he knew.” Darren immediately put him at ease by saying, “hey, you know, I spent some time with living with you back when we were babies” The two wound up teammates in ’04, and have been since. Says Donohue, “it’s not hard to get along with Darren!”
In our race coverage in 2009, The Porsche Purist team has enjoyed hanging out in the pits and we’ve witnessed interaction between the drivers, pit chiefs and crews. We tell David he and Darren seem like nice guys—focused yet approachable—even during highly charged race weekends. Donohue chuckles. “Darren is a lot more normal and approachable than I am. I can be a real jerk sometimes. I’m the loose cannon and he’s the guy that’s the captain nice of the team!”
Talking About Le Mans
We turn our focus to Donohue’s career again, asking him to tell us a little bit about his GT victory at Le Mans. “Le Mans in the Viper was truly the team’s win,” says Donohue. “All the drivers did was not throw it off in the race, kept it on the pavement. We had a very reasonable pace, a slow pace that frankly, had us all kind of upset when we were told what we were going to run, because each car had a specific pace we were going to run, at least for the first part of the race and ours was the snail. You know, we were the tortoise. And we weren’t at all happy about that!” But as in the fable, the tortoise won the race. Continues Donohue, “we followed orders and three to four hours into it, we were leading and not by a small margin and everybody else kept breaking trying to catch us. So, it was really the team’s preparation, the team’s execution of the pit stop. We never shifted it over 5500 RPM, if you can believe that!” The team was so well prepared, there was only one unscheduled pit stop to put slicks back on David’s car when it dried out. The team finished a spectacular one-two and were up by nearly five laps – no small feat at Le Mans!”
Was this his proudest win? “Oddly enough, I felt more ownership and pride in the 2000 Le Mans 24 Hour,” responds Donohue. The team won again, I think in the twenty-first hour. By that time I’d spent a year with the team, but I felt a lot more ownership in this than I did in my own victory in ’98 because [this victory] was mine. I just kind of showed up, drove, stayed on the pavement and collected a victory.
Saying Hello on The Track
Like many professional drivers, David has seen his share of contact on track. He shares a few stories of contact over his years in racing, so we take the opportunity to ask him how he feels about it in general.
“That’s a tough one to answer,” smiles Donohue. “I was a real instigator in 2003 and ’04 and maybe even into ’05, mostly because I was getting knocked around a bit by a particular driver and I wasn’t having any of it. And so, I started saying hello back because, in my opinion, Mark Raffauf [Grand-Am Director of Competition] was now having this series be self-regulating.” Adds David, “If he wasn’t going to stop hitting me I was going to have to make him not want to hit me anymore!”
We ask him to elaborate, as stories of on-track adventures are always enjoyable. “His hits on me were pretty subtle for the most part, but my hits on him were just blatant! After the race, Mark asked me what happened? and I said, “well, I hit him—I hit him hard. I wanted to take him out of the race.” So he said, “well, why are you telling me this?” and I answered, “because you’re not doing anything about it!” Continues Donohue, “you know we really butted heads together …but funny enough ever since then, we’ve raced wheel to wheel, cleanly from there on out.”
David tells us thereafter he made a pledge to Mark that he was “done with hitting,” and left it up to him to control race contact and make some judgments. We should be able to race clean with everybody,” says Donohue, adding, “the problem is we’ve all got big egos and we all want to one-up the next guy!”
In NASCAR, where crashes are de rigueur, it is an almost unspoken truth that contact is a big part of fan entertainment. We ask David whether he believes contact entertains race fans. “I think despite what some may say, I think the fans actually don’t want to see that,” he asserts, adding, “[maybe] they like to see some, you know–one team having a good battle with another and a rivalry building but once it gets to the crashing part…I think that’s why our [fans] watch road racing versus other racing!”
Pre-Race Rituals, David’s Thoughts on the Panamera and other Daily Drivers
Unlike other drivers, Donohue has no pre-race rituals (when we ask him he answers, no, its bad luck to be superstitious, and waits to see if we get it. We eventually do.)
Since David’s on-track career started with a Porsche 911, we ask him if he drives one now. “No, I don’t actually…I really want to get an old one again. I love the new cars, I [got to] drive around in a Panamera, which is just a wonderful car.
We ask him to elaborate on Porsche’s newest addition, which he genuinely seems to like. “All you do is sit in it, shut the door and it’s already really nice—let alone when you start driving it,” he starts. “We had them on the track at Laguna and, and on the road all around Carmel, Monterey. I guess I didn’t know what to expect, [but] it certainly exceeded anything I could have expected!”
So is the Panamera his daily driver? No, a Mercedes. “I tend to buy from my boss!” David smiles (Hurley Haywood owns and oversees the Brumos dealership in Florida, which also sells Mercedes). “I’m pretty sedate right now,” admits Donohue, adding “I want to get either a late ‘70’s or early ‘80’s Porsche 911 turbo or even a regular 911!”
Like many of us, David’s attachment to the Porsche brand is emotional: “that’s what I started out on, a seventy-eight  SC, that was the wide body, you know, turbo look kind of thing. It’s just a sentimental attachment!”
Oh yeah…we know. All of us smile wide.
Having already been so successful, is there a race David would still like to win? “I’d be a fool to not say the Indy 500,” he answers without much pause, adding, “I’m not so sure that’s in the cards.” All in all, it seems like when David Donohue got the hand he was dealt, he did very well with it. “After racing with Brumos for a bunch of years,” he says, “I’m happy where I am.”
We wish him luck for the weekend and he responds, “well, thanks—we just need to make sure we don’t run out of gas fifty feet from the line!” They most certainly don’t.
As we prepare this interview for publication we are only days away from the start of the 2010 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. Once again, David was kind enough to take a few minutes of an incredibly demanding preparation to reflect on the 2009 season for us, “After Daytona last year we were faced with some difficult changes beyond our control. It seemed we were trying to compensate for a different package at each race for the first half of the season, and we just failed to figure it out quick enough if it was even possible. In ‘08 we had establish a very good baseline with solid performance all year, and a string of good finishes. The ‘08 season was hampered with off-the-wall mechanicals, like the ring and pinion failing at VIR. For ‘09, this baseline was pretty much thrown out the window because of these changes. The ‘09 season finale was at Homestead, and Daytona and Homestead are our two best tracks without a doubt. We were hopeful to finish well there. The 58 did OK, but the 59 win was just fantastic for all of us… especially Hurley of course.”
Interview by Christian Maloof / Story by Valerie Roedenbeck
Stay tuned for more coverage direct from Daytona.