To celebrate the release of Hurley from the Beginning, Total 911’s Tony Mcguiness continues our sit down for an extended series of interviews with America’s greatest ever endurance race driver
On 19 August, 1975, one of the world’s greatest racing drivers and my good friend Mark Donohue died in a Formula One racing accident during practice at the Austrian Grand Prix. I was shocked and devastated. Mark had helped me in so many ways with the 917; he had provided me with guidance and advice that was immeasurable.
Mark was very much like his son David in looks and personality. Mark was extremely proud of the pranks he played on other drivers. His pranks were ingenious! One time before the driver’s meeting at the 1973 Watkins Glen race he opened the bonnet of my rental car and switched all the plugs. I was able to start the car, but as I was driving it the car was shaking and shuddering. It wouldn’t make it up the hill. When I finally ran into the driver’s meeting completely out of breath he was laughing, almost in tears. He had a great sense of humour.
We both shared a love for powerboats, and of course Mark loved to race boats fast! One time we had his boat out in south Florida when he misjudged a wave and stuffed our nose straight into it. It pretty much submerged the boat! It took on water but luckily we kept it from sinking. It was funny and scary at the same time!
It’s interesting how things turn out because before Mark died he had talked to me about becoming his partner in a BMW dealership. He had negotiated a plan with BMW to be the head of the BMW racing team in America, with me being his main driver. He had all the papers signed in his briefcase when he was killed in Austria. I don’t know if it was fate or something, but that would have changed my life completely. I would have never won all the races I won, and not had the relationship I ended up having with Porsche.
In 1977 I got the call to be a factory driver with Porsche at Le Mans. For a driver then it wasn’t like it is today at all. There was no lead-up, no pre-practice, nothing! You arrived at Le Mans, you got in the car and began to learn the track and the car. Because they had seen me in the 917, Porsche was confident in the fact that I could do that. Keep in mind I had never even seen the Martini Racing Team 936 car in person.
When I first arrived at Le Mans I got very lost! I had pictured Le Mans as a small town, but it isn’t. I drove around for hours until I noticed a guy in a Porsche jacket, so I stopped and asked him for directions. He said, “Mr Haywood, we have been waiting for you.” He happened to be my crew chief Klaus Bischoff. He took me to meet the guys and have a couple of beers with them. I ended up sleeping in the back of my car that night and then the next morning going to tech inspection.
I had met Dr Ferry Porsche very briefly before, and he remembered me. At Le Mans he came up to me and I remember him very distinctly saying, “Mr Haywood, we are very happy to have you on the team. I am sorry we can’t pay you a lot of money, but I can give you a car that you can win the race with.” The Porsche family opened their arms up and made me feel at home. That was part of the mystique of being in the factory team. Everybody was friendly and everybody respected one another. Even the lowest denominator on the team was treated as an equal to the highest.
I was paired with Jürgen Barth. Everyone on the team was very helpful. It was easy to learn the car, but Le Mans is a very fast track and all the corners are taken at a high rate of speed so you had to be careful. The car had a rhythm to it. It was beautiful and delightful to drive. In fact, the 936 was my favourite race car of all time.
At the 1977 24 Hours of Le Mans Porsche entered two 936s. I was in the #4 car with Jürgen (above). Jacky Ickx and Henri Pescarolo would be in the #3 car. Porsche gave me the honour of starting the race, which was a big deal.
The race didn’t start off well. On the opening lap the throttle stuck wide open. I had everybody behind me so I didn’t want to make a stupid move. I basically hit the kill switch and got the car over on to the side of the road and into the grass, but then I suddenly realised I couldn’t restart the engine as it would over rev. So I got out of the car and got the bonnet off the rear of the car which we had practiced doing. I found what the problem was and fixed it so I could drive it back to the pits. By the time we got it back in the race with the system fixed we had lost two laps.
Then the #3 car had a mechanical failure and Porsche decided to move Jacky Ickx over to our car with us. Jacky was brilliant! He really was something to copy as he was so good at night and so consistent.
It was now going incredibly well for us. Leading the race into the last few hours felt amazing. We had a big lead and Porsche was going to give me the honour of taking the chequered flag, but then, something unbelievable happened…