Indy 500 paralleled up-and-down life of winner Danny Sullivan
Indianapolis — The day before this year's Indianapolis 500, Danny Sullivan was one of the race car drivers riding in the 500 Festival parade. Among the crowd of more than 300,000 lining the streets was a ``little old lady'' who shouted to Sullivan, telling him ``she was rooting for me in this race and I'd better not blow it.'' The ``little old lady'' and the rest of Sullivan's fans must have had some anxious moments -- particularly when he spun out at 200 m.p.h. while trying to pass Mario Andretti a little more than halfway through the race. He recovered from the 360-degree turnaround, though, and went on to beat Andretti to the finish by a scant 2.477 seconds.
The spin was a close call, to say the least, but once Sullivan got straightened out and took aim on Andretti again it steadily became apparent that it was only a matter of time before he caught him, which he did in the 140th lap. After that Danny and his March-Cosworth car were so strong that not only did they hold the lead the rest of the way, they made their fastest circuit of the 2.5-mile oval -- at 204 m.p.h. -- on the next to last lap.
Sullivan and the Roger Penske team for which he drives collected $507,662 from a record $3,261,025 prize fund. And although the loss was a tough one for Andretti, he could console himself with earnings totaling $290,362 -- or almost $85,000 more than he got for winning the race in 1969.
In some ways, the race paralleled Sullivan's life. Figuratively speaking, he spun out a few years ago and was virtually disinherited by his family. But today, he is back on track -- the fast track, that is -- with a condo at Aspen, and the lifestyle of a typical wealthy young bachelor.
Daniel John Sullivan III, 35, grew up in Louisville, Ky., where Churchill Downs was among the projects handled by his father's construction company. But young Danny was more interested in race cars than race horses.
From Kentucky Military Institute, where he earned varsity sports letters in swimming, track, football, and soccer, Sullivan enrolled at the University of Kentucky, but stayed only for his freshman year. Bored, he and a friend ``decided to go to New York for a weekend, and stayed 2 1/2 years.''
``I was bumming around and doing odd jobs,'' said Sullivan, who worked as a lumberjack in the Adirondacks, as a laborer on a chicken farm in New Jersey, and as a janitor, sod cutter, waiter and cab driver.
Finally, a family friend from Louisville, Dr. Frank Falkner, went to New York to stop Sullivan's spin. Dr. Falkner, now a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, also is a respected international sports car racing official. Falkner agreed to enroll Sullivan in a race car drivers school if he agreed to return to college.
Falkner contacted his friend, Jackie Stewart, who got Sullivan into the Jim Russell school of motor racing in England. ``But I haven't gone (back) to the university yet,'' said Sullivan, who excelled in the classroom on wheels.
Sullivan stayed in Europe for five years, winning more than 20 races on minor league formula car circuits. And when he returned to the United States, it was to race cars, not study at Kentucky. He was rookie of the year in the Can-Am series in 1980 and worked his way onto the team headed by actor-driver Paul Newman, for whom Andretti now drives.
Sullivan tried Indy car racing in 1982, and even finished 14th in the 500, but his spin continued as he lost his ride, with one of his car owners calling him uncompetitive.
While living in England, Sullivan had served as a handyman for Grand Prix car owner Ken Tyrell. In 1983, Tyrell invited Sullivan back as a driver. His best finish was fifth at Monte Carlo.
Last year, he drove the full Indy car circuit for car owner Doug Shierson, winning three races. The spin was over.
``As the (1984) season rolled out, I realized this was the guy we were going to have to beat,'' said Penske, who heads perhaps the top team in Indy car racing -- one that has now won the big race a total of five times.
``Danny was available at the end of the season. Based on his winning performance, he got the quarterback job.''
Penske needed a quarterback since the star of his team, defending Indy winner Rick Mears, had been seriously injured in a crash last year and was still out of action as the season began (Mears eventually got back and made the field for the 500, finishing 21st).
However, the new quarterback's first big pass nearly was intercepted.
Two days before the race, Sullivan talked about how the 500 really was two separate races, a 400-miler which demands patient endurance and a 100-mile sprint to the finish. But then he belied this conservative approach to the first portion of the race when he spun while trying to pass Andretti just beyond the 300-mile mark.
The reason for Sullivan's sudden recklessness was a misunderstood communication over the two-way radio which connects the driver on the track and his crew in the pits. Danny thought he was told only 12 laps remained in the race. Actually, there were 80.
He pulled even with Andretti and tried to cut inside going through the first turn. Andretti held his line and Sullivan found himself out of the groove, down on the apron of the track.
Suddenly, Sullivan's car fishtailed into the middle of the track. Andretti managed to get past safely and, remarkably, Sullivan didn't hit the wall.
``I thought that was all she wrote,'' he admitted. ``It just spun around, didn't hit anything and all of a sudden the smoke cleared and I was facing towards Turn 2 and I just stuck it down in gear and took off.''
Sullivan returned to the pits for new tires, then returned to the track to chase Andretti down again. Twenty laps later, he took the lead for good.
``I knew I had a few more laps to pass him this time,'' Sullivan said. ``I wasn't going to mess it up.''
He didn't, although it almost had been messed up for him when Rich Vogler and Tom Sneva hit the wall in front of him only a couple laps after his own spin.
``I just missed him,'' Sullivan said of Sneva, one of several contenders who didn't make it to the finish.
The first to fall were pole-sitter Pancho Carter and fellow Buick driver Scott Brayton, both of whom suffered from mechanical problems in the first 20 laps.
Early leader Bobby Rahal -- a pre-race co-favorite with Andretti -- had engine problems, as did Al Unser Jr., Don Whittington and Emerson Fittipaldi, all of whom dropped out while in the top five on the scoring tower.
Unser's father, Al Sr., might have been a contender, too, but was penalized a lap for running over an air hose during a pit stop. Al Sr. finished fourth, unable to make up for the penalty. Third was Roberto Guerrero, who was second last year as a rookie.
In addition to Vogler and Sneva, John Paul Jr. and Bill Whittington both crashed, but none of the drivers was seriously injured. There were nine caution periods, slowing Sullivan's winning average speed to 152.982 miles per hour.
After the race, Sullivan asked Penske fob a license plate like the one Mears got after winning Indy. Penske explained that he'd bought Mears a personalized plate for his personal car. Penske said Sullivan would get one, too. ``1INDY85,'' is how it will read. That's fine, but ``SPIN2WIN,'' might be more fitting.