Danny Sullivan parlayed one of the most famous moments in Indianapolis 500 history into a glamorous, Hollywood lifestyle. His popularity helped fuel one of the greatest periods of growth in the century-long history of Indy car racing.
A native of Louisville Kentucky, Sullivan gained Dr. Frank Faulkner as a mentor as he scrapped through the open-wheel road racing ranks. With the support of whisky magnate Garvin Brown, Sullivan won races in the SCCA Can-Am series in the early 1980s and made his Indy car debut with a third place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1982. He then moved back to Europe, where he was able to work his way up to a season of Formula 1 with the Tyrrell team in 1983.
Although Sullivan managed a fifth place finish in the 1983 Monaco Grand Prix, he had no further opportunities in F1 so he decided to pursue a full-time Indy car career. He joined Shierson Racing, where he won three races and finished fourth in the CART championship. That attracted the attention of Roger Penske, who hired Sullivan for what would turn into a six-year association.
Sullivan qualified eighth for the 1985 Indianapolis 500, but he had a fast car and led laps 52-57. He was running second behind Mario Andretti on the 120th lap when he made what could have been a disastrous mistake.
“For some reason, I thought there were only 12 laps left,” Sullivan recalled. “That’s why I was anxious to get by Mario.”
Too anxious. Diving to the inside in turn 1, the back of Sullivan’s March-Cosworth snapped into a spin after he was all the way past Andretti. Mario managed to avoid the spinning car and continued in the lead.
“I thought that was all she wrote, but it spun around and didn’t hit anything,” Sullivan reported. “All of a sudden, the smoke cleared and I was facing Turn 2. So I stuck it back in gear and took off. Whether it was skill or luck is probably 50-50.”
Meanwhile, Penske team manager Derrick Walker informed Sullivan over the radio that there was a full course caution.
“I know,” Sullivan replied. “It’s for me. I just spun, but the car is okay. I’m coming in.”
Andretti also stopped under the caution, and when racing resumed, they continued their battle for the lead. On the 140th Lap, Sullivan tried the move in Turn 1 again. This time it worked and he led the final 61 laps, winning by 2.477 seconds over Andretti after a four-lap sprint to the flag following a late restart.
The loss was a tough one for Andretti, who has famously bad luck at Indianapolis. “Mario and I are reasonably good friends, but after that race, he didn't speak to me for almost a year,” Sullivan told USA Today in 2010. “He was so annoyed. In a crowd, he’d shake everyone’s hand but mine. It irked him so much because he figured he had it won.”
With his good looks and casual charm, Sullivan quickly gained notoriety after his Indianapolis win. He appeared on the ‘Tonight Show,’ guest-starred on an episode of ‘Miami Vice’ and was named one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People.
Sullivan’s polished, corporate-friendly image didn’t always sit well with rough-and-tumble veteran racers. Similar marketing-driven strategies were later used with great success by Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
“That’s really Danny's legacy,” remarked Sullivan’s former boss, Roger Penske. “Even more than his win at Indianapolis or the CART championship he won with us in 1988, he changed the way people look at race car drivers and racing as a whole.”
As a racer, Sullivan’s greatest success came in 1988, when he claimed nine poles, won four races and the CART series championship for Penske. He was extremely competitive at Indianapolis that year, starting from the middle of the front row and leading 91 of the first 94 laps.
“It’s funny, I probably could talk more about that race than ‘85 because what I think of the most is that ’88 is the one that got away,” Sullivan related. “That really hurt. Not that many times in your career do you have just a dominant car. I lapped almost the entire field before halfway when a front wing mount broke.”
Sullivan’s last two starts at Indianapolis for Penske resulted in DNFs, including a crash after just 19 laps in 1990 that left Danny with a broken arm. He coaxed the unloved Lola-Alfa Romeo to a top ten finish at Indy in 1991, then scored a top five for Galles Racing in 1992.
Another early accident left Sullivan to finish 33rd and last in the 1993 race; he rounded out his Indy car career with a ninth place finish for PacWest Racing in 1995. Sullivan also competed in the inaugural Brickyard 400 NASCAR race at IMS in 1994.
But Danny Sullivan’s entire racing career will always be encapsulated in that video image of him from 1985, catching his spinning car in the short chute between Turns 1 and 2 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I never get tired of seeing that - they can replay it all they want,” Sullivan said.