A. J. Foyt called him Pretty Boy. The rest of the racing Establishment wondered what he was doing in oval racing--was his yacht broken? Weren’t the lifts working at Aspen? Did he think it was a way to meet girls? Didn’t people like him think cars came with chauffeurs?
He had seen too many Steve McQueen movies, they concluded. The first time he saw Gordon Johncock or one of the Unser brothers in his rear-view mirror, he would turn white and head for the pits.
How could anyone with a Roman numeral in his name go down the short chutes of Indy with the guys who came to the track from the lube racks of Torrance or the dirt tracks of Texas?
This wasn’t white-scarf racing on the tree-lined circuits of Europe. This wasn’t for monocled Marquises de Portago. This was for guys who drank from a bottle, who played poker with death. This was a saloon fighter’s game, not a hand-kisser’s--a no-limit, any-raise game where the ante was your life.
They called him Danny Boy. They were pretty sure nobody had asked the girls before they hid this profile behind a bubble helmet and flame-proof neckerchief.
They called him the designer driver. They wondered if he’d show up in a Gucci-Cosworth.
They all agreed that Daniel John Sullivan III didn’t belong in a 220-m.p.h. turbocharged race car, he belonged on a polo pony--or in a tango act.
He’d been a male model in New York. He’d never driven anything more dangerous than a New York taxicab. He’d never had to be cut out of a tub of flaming steel or steer his way through oil-slicked grooves at speeds faster than the mind can think.
So, when he went out the first time on that brutal brickyard, that frightening clash of men and metal, and stayed in the game, the modern equivalent of the Christians and the lions for 148 laps, the gurus of Indy were astounded.
When he didn’t come back the next year, they wisely nodded their heads. When you hit the wall at Indy, as Sullivan had, you tend to remember you promised your mother you’d never drive too fast.
When he came back in ’84, Indy sat up. They relaxed again when he rode over the wheel of Roberto Guerrero’s car, trying amateurishly to avoid the crash of driver Pat Bedard.
But when he won Pocono’s 500, the Preakness in the Triple Crown of auto racing, Roger Penske, who runs the New York Yankees of auto racing, snapped him up.
And Danny Sullivan blew off the flower of American racing at last year’s Indy, out-dicing Foyt, the Unsers, the Andrettis, Tom Sneva and all the guys who had 20 years on him in dirt track cars, sprint cars and road racers.
No one knows quite what makes a race driver. The same things that make a wire walker, lion tamer, high-iron worker or maybe even an international jewel thief. The need to live life on the edge, the zest for danger, the scorn for the placid.
Danny Sullivan never looked like a guy who wanted to floor-board it through life.
In New York, his life, while not exactly sedentary, had run more to your basic lounge lizard, a guy who looked at home in open shirt fronts with a vodka rocks in one hand and a reigning centerfold in the other. But there was a restlessness about him that the brittle cafe society life could never still.
Still, he learned to race in Europe, and the pit crews at Indy still expected him to show up on race day in top hat and tails. Penske knew better.
“No one fit a car better,” Penske said. “I began to realize early in ’84 he was the one to beat.”
Instead of beating him, Penske joined him. “I knew I had my quarterback,” he told the press.
Sullivan’s Indy victory last year was no ride at the beach. It was your usual miasma of falling tires, spinning metal, wall bangs and fire in the pits. If it had been a fight, it would have been like “Rocky IV.”
On Lap 120, Sullivan, who was driving faster, tried to reel in the leader, Mario Andretti. Mario, one of the craftiest drivers on the speedway, is hard to pass. You can get to him. You can’t get by him.
Danny ducked down below the apron to get by. His wheels stumbled over the paint. It went into a smoking-tire, 360-degree spin.
The next sound you usually hear in such cases is the wail of the track ambulance. Sullivan had shamrocks. He also had Andretti. Probably only a half-dozen racers in the world would have gotten through that smoke and spinning car without a head-on. Mario Andretti is one of them.
Sullivan lost only his lead. He still had his hair, teeth, limbs--and life--when the car stopped spinning. Twenty laps later, he took over the race, safely, from Andretti.
Danny is in a milieu more to his image this weekend. The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is an Indy car race but it has more the aura of champagne and finger sandwiches to it, and its audience runs more to leggy blondes in silk and satin and pearls than guys in baseball caps holding beer cans.
It moves Danny closer to the movie crowd, with which he moves as easily as he does down a back straight in a Penske-Cosworth.
When he isn’t in a race car or an airplane, Danny is usually on the arm of a movie star and is as familiar a face in the fan magazines as Burt Reynolds.
But he’s no longer just another pretty face, the driver from Rodeo Drive. He’s Indy champion, the roughest, toughest, hardest-to-catch of the breed.
And Foyt no longer calls him Pretty Boy. Now, he’s become to A.J. “that damn Sullivan.”