Occupation: Racing Driver
Consider the life of a full-time racing driver. There aren't many. Get past Formula One or NASCAR and the ranks thin out considerably. It's the sponsorship that a driver brings that provides the juice. David Donohue is one of the rare ones. Driving is his job, period. Here, he offers a look at how he got there and hopes to remain.
European Car: What was your major in school and when did you make decide to turn pro?
David Donohue: I got my BS in Finance at the beginning of a recession-the last big one, that is. Getting a real job proved more difficult and far less fun than going racing. I had been doing some club driving and making friends with people who could help me. I never thought of it that seriously until my father was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Novi, Michigan. While attending that event, people like Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford would come up and talk to my brother and I, and talk to us in a comforting and accepting way. Then Al Unser, Jr. presented us with the award.That was my first real exposure to my father's world. I was blown away by how these motorsport legends talked to us. At this time I hadn't started to race yet, I couldn't afford to. But after my wife saw what was happening at this induction and how I reacted, she said the immortal words that truly got me started: "Well, if you want to try racing, you might as well start now or else you'll be kicking yourself for the rest of your life, not knowing what might have been. But you only get five years. After that, if you're not making it work, you'll have to quit and get a real job."
EC: How did you go about securing that all-important first paying drive? What was the venue?
DD: I had some help getting started in some showroom-stock races, but the pressure was mounting as I began to realize how difficult it was financially. I was keeping in contact with all my Porsche Club friends and then I heard one of them was having two BMW M5 Bridgestone Supercars built. I called him and he gave me a shot by letting me do a test day and the first three races. I had to prove my mettle against my teammate, the guy who put the team together, Chris Hodgetts.That first test [at Moroso] got me 'in' with the team. Unfortunately, the first race didn't go well. I T-boned another car in practice at the Miami Grand Prix street race. The car in front tagged the tire wall and blocked the track. I had nowhere to go. The damage was so bad I couldn't race. Not a great start.Since I was local to the shop, I ended up working there for pennies and getting paid pennies for driving. I wasn't making enough to live on, but my wife made enough to cover the bills. I made more the second year on my way to the Championship title. The whole thing wasn't too glamorous, but we made a lot happen with little resources.
Ec: Regardless of your father's reputation, you've been successful in your own right. But what would it have been like to fail? With your last name, you put a lot on the line.
DD: I never felt I was in his shadow. Rather, being his son gave me the advantage of name recognition. That counts for a ton. That first drive in the M5 Supercar started my career. Everything I've done since can be traced back to those two years-'93 and '94. That's when I met Hurley and Bob Snodgrass of Brumos, by the way.Only after some time passed did I realize I missed achieving what my father achieved. For me, the biggest challenge has always been staying employed. I rarely got to choose where I was going to race. I took every opportunity that came my way. Teams and programs come and go in racing, and your ability to perform often has little impact on the decisions about the program continuing. The result is that drivers have little job security, regardless of their abilities.
If I failed, or fail in the future, of course I'll be unhappy. I don't know what else I would do. However, my father passed away when I was eight and even then he was traveling all the time. I really didn't know who he was. All this time I've spent in racing, in all the paddocks, there are still many people who knew him. And luckily for me, they often feel compelled to tell me some story about him, or just relay their feelings for him. All these experiences are special. They provide another dot in a picture in my mind. Through all these stories, I've been able to put these dots together and the resulting resolution is far better than anything I would have had if I didn't race. Racing, in a very emotional way, has tried to give my father back to me as much as it ever could.
EC: One of the great 'what-ifs' of racing was the North American Touring Car Series. It had the potential for a great series, but never caught on in the same way as the touring cars in Europe and Japan. Was the NATCS the platform that got you the factory ride for Le Mans with the Viper?
DD: Absolutely. I won the Supertouring title in '97 (in a Dodge) and then the series died. I was left without a ride. The industry was a mess with the Indycar split-up (remember Supertouring was CART sanctioned). I was left with no options and no one to call except the folks at Chrysler. They put me to work in their fledgling Truck test program and a handful of races in the Oreca Viper.
EC: How prepared for Le Mans were you, compared to the other races you had participated in? Few drivers get to that podium on Sunday afternoon yet you were there as a winner, one of the few experiences your father never had. That win must have been very satisfying.
DD: I was completely unprepared for Le Mans, or any other Viper race early on. I struggled more in that first year in the Viper than anything else before or after. Tommy Archer helped me more than anyone, especially at Le Mans and learning the track. We'd later become teammates. But coming from a 300-hp front-drive car and stepping into a 600-plus-hp rear-drive car really threw me off. For a long time, my instincts were all wrong. Plus, I had some personal issues that affected my motivation. I got over it, but it was tough.I like to say I drove the Le Mans-winning car that first year, but it was the team who really won that race. The drivers just never threw it away. Justin Bell, Luca Drudi and myself simply cruised to the win on the shoulders of an excellent team.Honestly, at the time I felt guilty by winning. I didn't perform very well, I wasn't fast. That's such a special race and means so much to a great many people, it felt like an injustice in my mind that I got to the top step.Of course, now I love it. It's a fantastic accomplishment, but I try not to fool myself. In '99, we broke a timing chain in the 20th hour, running second. The team still finished one-two. I felt more pride and more a part of the team than I did in '98. Odd, huh?
EC: How about your personal views of racing in Europe versus the USA?
DD: At first, I hated going to Europe. I had something I was dealing with at home and I was going to drive a car I didn't seem to get. Eventually, I began to embrace the experience, especially after I began to deal with the time changes better. My whole time in the FIA GT series was still a struggle in the Viper. It wasn't until part of the way through '99 that I finally got my grip around the car. That's a long time for any driver. Fortunately, I haven't had that problem since and have been able to jump into different things much easier, perhaps because of that experience.
EC: Your resume consists of a great many different series contested, from NASCAR to GT racing. Did you ever consider open-wheel?
DD: Definitely, but when the CART Supertouring series died, the CART-IRL split happened. Opportunities for under-funded Americans were non-existent, especially for ones with little to no open-wheel experience. To get that, you need a wealthy sponsor-something I never had.
EC: Few people understand how difficult it is to be a full-time race driver, as most bring the necessary heavy sponsorship with them. What would you tell someone trying to break into any aspect of being a driver these days?
DD: They'll need to hedge their bets somehow. Whether it's something as simple as an advanced education, business interests, or just hard work, make sure there's something else you could do. Racing is cruel. You can be talented, motivated, know all the right people, be lucky and maybe even independently wealthy, but it's some mysterious combination of these things that leads to success.
EC: The Daytona prototypes of Grand Am have been your home since the inception of the series. With the Brumos team, you've had wins, poles and solid performances, at times with an uncompetitive car. Because Grand Am is an American series, it doesn't get the international coverage that shows how competitive you are. This must be frustrating.
DD: I wish I could do more races overseas. I enjoy watching Joao Barbosa when I can. As a new member of Brumos, I cheer him on wherever he races. More frustrating has been this year's results, or lack thereof.
EC: The Donohue name can't seem to escape the Porsche connection. You and your father drove a variety of other makes to success, yet the most visible has been from Weissach. What other race cars would you like to try?
DD: I started in the Porsche Club's driving events and have done work for PCNA. I do feel an attachment to Porsche, but that can't steer my career. Looking at the Spyder, who wouldn't want to drive it? There aren't many out there, though. Both Penske and Dyson have full rosters of really good shoes. I'd still like to do Indy and also feel I have unfinished business in NASCAR. All it takes is a good opportunity, but those are hard to come by.