|Roger Penske (kneeling) and the crew of Mark Donohue's Sunoco McLaren in 1971. Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo.|
One of the big storylines for this year’s Indianapolis 500 is the return of McLaren in the Indianapolis 500 with Fernando Alonso. The two-time Formula One world champion will pass up Monaco, the most famous and glamorous race on the Grand Prix circuit to try his skill at oval racing.
Further, it’s the first appearance in the 500 for the storied marque, founded by Bruce McLaren, since 1979.
Although the term probably didn’t exist, Roger Penske was an “early adopter” of McLaren cars in his quest to win the Indianapolis 500.
Penske first came to Indianapolis in 1969 with Mark Donohue. In 1970, the first McLaren, with its now-familiar papaya orange livery, was entered at Indy. Then in 1971 Donohue dominated practice in a revolutionary McLaren, developed after the founder was killed in a testing crash.
“Bruce McLaren and I were great friends,” Penske said. “When we came here the first time with McLaren in 1971, Peter Revson was driving their car, and it was great to see on the track the past week the McLaren orange because that was the way they came to the track back in ’71.”
Donohue was the first to top 180 mph in practice, a speed considered extraordinary for the times.
“We didn’t have (180) on our sheets,” Penske said.
In one of the great upsets in qualifying history, Revson edged Donohue for the pole. Donohue then dominated the race before falling out with a transmission failure after 66 laps.
Penske and Donohue stayed with McLaren for 1972. Compared to the previous year, the combination was relatively low-key during practice, qualifying and the race itself before Donohue climbed to the top spot late, leading the last 12 laps to notch the first of Penske’s 16 Indianapolis 500 wins.
Penske continued to use McLarens through 1977 before constructing his own cars starting with the 1978 Indianapolis 500. During that same time frame, Team McLaren won two Indianapolis 500s with Johnny Rutherford in 1974 and ’76 before shutting down its Indy team after 1979 to focus on Formula One.
Now McLaren is back, in a sense, with Alonso driving the spec Dallara chassis out of the Andretti stable.
“Having McLaren back … it’s an honor for all of us to race against that car,” Penske said. “This an international race and this is what it’s all about. You want to win here against the best.”