When Mark Donohue Set a World Record at Talladega in a Porsche 917

And why his 221.16-mph lap speed will probably never be topped.

Mark Donohue - 1975 Talladega WCC Record
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Last weekend, Porsche brought a 911 RSR race car and factory driver Nicky Tandy to Talladega for demonstration laps. It ruled. But it wasn't the first time a Porsche ran around the famous Alabama tri-oval.

Mark Donohue - Talladega Record 1975
Donohue sitting on his 917/30/
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In the early 1970s, Talladega organizers invited all kinds of racers to come the track during NASCAR weekends and attempt to set a world record for fastest lap on a closed course. The first was Buddy Baker in 1970, who ran a 200-mph lap; in 1974, A.J. Foyt averaged just more than 217 mph. For 1975, Talladega organizers invited Roger Penske and Mark Donohue to try and beat Foyt.

Donohue would attempt the record in a Porsche 917/30, the car he took to victory in six out of eight races in the 1973 Can-Am season. The 917/30 was a heavily modified open-top version of the 917 that gave Porsche its first Le Mans win, sporting a 5.4-liter twin-turbo flat-12 and riding on a longer wheelbase. Porsche says the car made 1100 hp in race trim, but on the dyno, the engine was apparently good for 1500. It weighed around 1800 pounds. The 917/30 was so fast, it was effectively banned from Can-Am after 1973. For the Talladega run, the 917/30 was fit with two intercoolers, and made around 1230 hp according to Porsche.

Despite having one of the most powerful race cars in the world, the task wasn't easy for Donohue. "As you approach the turn, you and your sense of the car feel that the car will not be capable of making the turn that you can see ahead," he said in the video above. "You tend to lift the throttle, and you have to tell yourself, It's going to make the turn. You can keep the throttle down, and so far, I've not been able to keep it down all the way, but I think we're getting closer.

"It's very light, it's very fragile, it's very sensitive to steering wheel movements," he added. "Consequently at those speeds, on this kind of a banking, it's, you would say, very, very darty."

Penske Porsche 917 - Talladega 1975
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After one run, Donohue came straight into the pits rather than take a cool-down lap. As a result, the back of the car caught fire. It wasn't damaged and he pressed on, eventually running a lap at 221.16 mph. On the straights, he was reaching over 240 mph.

Foyt was characteristically defiant when asked about Donohue's new record, promising he'd soon go for 230 mph. He eventually took the record for fastest speed on a closed course in 1987, lapping a Texas test track at 257.123 mph in an Oldsmobile Aerotech.

Sadly, Donohue was killed the week after the Talladega run, when he crashed due to a tire failure during his qualifying run before the Austrian Grand Prix. Amazingly, his Talladega is still a record for the Alabama track. The fastest NASCAR lap was a 212.809-mph qualifying run by Bill Elliot in 1987. After that race, NASCAR started running with restrictor plates at the track, effectively sealing Donohue's record in place.

Mark Donohue
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