Danny Sullivan knew that all he had to do Sunday to win his first Indy-car championship was to keep 2-time champion Bobby Rahal and Al Unser Jr. behind him.
The easiest way to do that, he reasoned, was to win the race--the Champion Spark Plug 300K--which he did with surprising ease in front of a sun-baked crowd of more than 70,000 at Laguna Seca Raceway.
Sullivan’s bronze-colored Penske PC-17, powered by the latest state of the art Chevrolet Ilmor engine, finished 2.7 seconds ahead of Michael Andretti, but that didn’t tell the domination the 38-year-old Louisville, Ky., native enjoyed over the field. Sullivan led 70 of the 84 laps and the only time he lost the lead was when he pitted.
Mario Andretti, Michael’s father, finished third with the two championship contenders, Rahal and Unser, fourth and sixth. Sullivan’s Penske teammate, Rick Mears, was fifth.
The victory gave Sullivan an unbeatable 171 points to 136 for Rahal and 128 for Unser with one race remaining.
Rahal, who had won the last four races at Laguna Seca, and Unser had special problems that hurt their chances of challenging Sullivan.
Rahal, after running a strong second for more than half the race, suffered serious braking problems in his Lola and had to back off the pace.
Unser, running third at the time, smacked a rabbit on the track that damaged his front wing and he had make an unscheduled pit stop to replace it.
“I was just getting to the bridge between (turns) 5 and 6 and this thing (the rabbit) comes out of nowhere,” Unser said. “Wham! It knocked a hole in the top of the right sidepod next to the tub. We had to replace the right front wing.
“The rabbit cost us second place, but we weren’t going to catch Sully today. He was wired.”
Curiously, Unser’s father, 4-time Indy 500 champion Al Unser Sr., hit a rabbit during the Indianapolis 500 last May.
The victory margin could have been wider but Sullivan slowed dramatically toward the finish. With 3 laps remaining, his lead over the Andrettis was more than 8 seconds, but he slowed perceptibly to avoid emergency crews, who were putting out a flash fire in Johnny Jones’ car, and because he was cautious of a slower car in front of him.
“It was definitely not a cakewalk,” Sullivan insisted as he accepted congratulations from the all-conquering Roger Penske crew. In 14 races this year, Penske cars have won 12 poles (Sullivan 8, Mears 4) and 6 races (Sullivan 4, Mears 2, including the Indianapolis 500).
“Winning the championship is better than winning any race, even though the Indy 500 is the biggest thing in racing,” said the new champion, who won at Indy in a Penske car in 1985. “This means you had to perform, the crew had to perform and car had to perform all season long against these guys. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work from all concerned.”
Sullivan, who spent nearly 10 years racing in Europe before joining the Indy-car circuit, also had a good luck charm on his side. Watching the race from the Sullivan pits was Prince Albert of Monaco. It was the second time he had been with Sullivan at an Indy-car race. The other time was at Miami in 1985 when Sullivan also won.
“We’re having a little party tonight to celebrate, and I’m going to talk with the Prince about coming along to Miami,” Sullivan said.
The Miami season finale is Nov. 6.
The winning speed of 94.090 m.p.h. was the slowest in Laguna Seca history, but that was caused by a new 11-turn track that replaced the old 9-turn, 1.9-mile circuit where the race record was 119.693 by Rahal 2 years ago.
Another factor was an 8-lap caution flag brought out when Dale Coyne’s stock-block Buick smacked the wall at turn 8--at the top of the hill before the cars start down the famous Laguna Seca corkscrew--after tangling with Tony Bettenhausen on lap 6. Coyne was shaken up and taken to Community Hospital in Monterey where his condition was listed as stable.
Running 8 laps under the slower yellow flag conditions also eliminated the team’s pre-race fears of running out of fuel.
“With all the new low-gear corners on the track, we weren’t sure what kind of consumption we were going to need to finish,” Sullivan explained. “We knew we had to run a conservative race and try to save the car as much as possible. Then we had that long yellow and that (the fuel) was one less worry.”
Although Teo Fabi finished 10th in the Porsche, he ran with the leaders and held off both Rahal and Unser for a number of laps even though he was running 3 laps down. Fabi, who started eighth, spun in the second turn of the first lap and dropped to the rear of the field. Then, in his haste to catch up, he spun out in turn 3 and stalled on the second lap.
By the time he got a push start from an emergency truck, the field had gone by three times.
It was the first outing for the Porsche team since the death of its founder, Al Holbert, in a plane crash Sept. 30. Derrick Walker, who had directed Sullivan’s team for Penske since 1985, switched to Porsche and was in the German team’s pit for the first time.
“Don’t underestimate the Porsche, they’ve been moving forward and they’ll be a force in Indy cars before long,” Sullivan said. “I know I would never have won the championship this year without Derrick (Walker), and I wish him all the best in his new position.”
Nigel Bennett, who designed the Penske PC-17s, made his Indy-car debut as a crew chief for Sullivan.
Sullivan made two pit stops, taking on 4 tires and a full tank of fuel both times, for a total of 24 seconds--more than 5 seconds quicker than Michael Andretti’s two stops.