SI Vault
Brock Yates
July 12, 1971
It was a wonder that Bill Marvel (left) got the Pocono Raceway built, but no surprise that mannerly Mark Donohue was the first winner at Indy East
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July 12, 1971

Captain Marvel Presents Captain Nice

It was a wonder that Bill Marvel (left) got the Pocono Raceway built, but no surprise that mannerly Mark Donohue was the first winner at Indy East

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"The doctor is an amazing man," says Marvel. "He runs seven corporations out of a black briefcase full of manila envelopes. He came to me and said, 'Look, I don't know a thing about automobile racing. You come up here and get the racing people involved, and I'll get the money." I did, and he did. But, compared to other tracks, we put this place together on a shoestring. We don't have much more than six million dollars invested, and that includes all the money that was frittered away in the early years."

Marvel is a smallish, bright-eyed 41-year-old with sculpture-cut hair and loud ties who is obviously immersed in his work. "I saw my first race in 1941 and I've been nuts about the sport ever since," he says. "I was raised in Indianapolis. My dad was a guard at the Speedway. We went to the races together. Then I started working part-time around the press office and got to know the drivers. For 18 years I was a switchman with the phone company. One day in 1966 I said to myself, 'Marvel, I hate this job." The next day I quit."

After promoting the Indianapolis Pacers basketball team and working in the Houston Astrodome operation, Marvel took over at Pocono and faced up to his insane construction deadline.

"We tried to set everything up like Indianapolis," he says. "After all, that is the most successful track in the world and the men out there—like Tony Hulman—are my heroes. I just couldn't think of anything better than to make Pocono as much like Indy as I could."

Except for its corners. With Marvel's trip-hammer energy and a bagful of luck, Pocono opened on time, complete with an array of Indy-style pre-race trappings. Indeed, it was the authentic Tony Hulman who said the magic opening words, "Gentlemen, start your engines." And Indianapolis East was off and rolling.

What followed on a cloudless mountain day was a first-rate 500, with Donohue ultimately squeezing out a 1.6-second victory over Leonard. Donohue's command of the race had been far more substantial, but a new U.S. Auto Club rule denied him some decent leads. In a move to intensify competition and slow the field during caution-flag periods, the pace car escorted the competitors around the track at a sedate 90 mph during these lulls, rather than let them proceed at near-racing velocities, as under the old do-it-yourself system. Yellow flags, out for a variety of minor accidents, flew for one-fourth of the race and forced Donohue to give up advantages as big as 10 to 12 seconds when his pursuers bunched up behind him and the pace car. He described the experience as "heartbreaking," but it was superior show biz. The crowd of 65,000 loved it.

Donohue took the lead from the pole and gave it up only during four visits to the pits and one exciting brush with Leonard late in the race. Al Unser having broken an oil line on the 32nd lap, Donohue's most dangerous rival much of the afternoon was Al's brother Bobby. He led a total of 34 laps before a misfiring engine eventually dropped him to ninth place. Enter Joe Leonard. With just nine laps left, Donohue slowed to miss an oil patch going into the treacherous second turn, and when his engine stumbled over the sudden low revs Leonard nipped past him into the lead. It took Donohue two laps to catch him, but catch him he did for the first USAC championship-car win of his career. Donohue's day's work brought him almost $100,000—and left him nearly as limp as the spectators. "I was going as hard as I could," he said. "I had no cushion at all." Ah, well, around Pocono, who did?

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