They called him Hollywood. They thought he was just acting out some movie star fantasy, something that would look good in his studio bio some day.
He wasn’t a real race driver, they told themselves, he was a great profile. He was too good-looking, too dashing, too collegiate, too rich. He wouldn’t be serious competition, they assured each other. He just wanted to look good at the postrace cocktail parties and talk tough. As soon as he found A. J. Foyt in his rear-view mirror, he would find a way to get off the track. Quickly.
They thought of him as Danny Boy. Or even as Daniel John Sullivan III. Not too many guys with Roman numerals in their name climb into race cars. Race drivers are named Spike, or Chip, or Fireball, or Duke, but they don’t get numeraled like Popes or Super Bowls or Rocky movies.
You don’t get race drivers out of silk sheets and military schools and the Main Line, either. You get them out of garages in Torrance or dirt tracks in Texas or lube racks in Louisiana.
Danny Sullivan didn’t fit the psychological profile at all. People of his station in life didn’t race cars, they raced horses. Or chased foxes.
He had been a playboy, a college boy, a model. He should be playing croquet on Long Island, or backgammon in Beverly Hills, the race crowd figured, not dicing with death in the corners at Indy.
“What’s the matter, kid, surf not up?” they sneered.
If he wanted to race, why didn’t he just get a catamaran, like everyone else in his social set, they wondered.
Danny was steered onto a race track by a family friend, Dr. Frank Faulkner, who had been sent to New York by Danny’s family in Kentucky to see if they could get him out of a life that seemed to be leading to a career posing for collar ads, closing up supper clubs nightly or ultimate marriage to some anorexic deb with a whiskey voice, a cigarette cough and a mooring in Palm Beach.
The family friend asked him what he wanted to do. Danny could have said he wanted to become a sword swallower, a 6-day bicycle racer, a nightclub comic or President. Instead, he said auto race driver.
To this day, he’s not sure why. But the alternative was to go back to the University of Kentucky, and Danny would rather have ridden sharks.
“I never followed the races,” he says. “I didn’t really know the differences between Formula One and stock cars.”
But he does know that the minute he sat in a race car in England, it was like springtime coming to Henry. Some guys get all gooey when they see a sunset over the Pacific, the snows of Kilimanjaro, the Mona Lisa. A gearshift and a wide-open Cosworth fishtailing into a corner in front of him was all Danny needed to make his eyelids flutter.
“The minute I sat in a (race) car, I knew this is where I wanted to be,” he says.
But from sporty-car racing on the Continent to the wheel-to-wheel, brutish, ear-splitting oval racing at Indy is like the difference between a debate and a dock fight. But Danny was drawn to it like a fly to a cube of sugar.
He showed up at Indy in 1982 in an underpowered, under-financed hunk of iron that he managed to coax 148 laps out of before hanging it on a wall.
Gasoline Alley was not impressed but, in 1984, when Danny won at Pocono, Cleveland and Montreal with an Indy-type car that wasn’t considered that fast, Roger Penske was.
Penske scouts race drivers the way Notre Dame does football players and when he signed Danny Sullivan, the racing Establishment realized they had underestimated Danny Boy. Roger Penske does not sign guys just because they look good in a tux. Or date starlets.
It is a part of racing lore how Danny Sullivan won Indy after making a 360-degree spin in 1985, chasing down the immortal Mario Andretti in the last 60 laps.
“But I think the fact that Penske had faith enough in me to give me his top cars had more to do with my acceptance even than winning the 500,” insists Sullivan today.
Danny Sullivan has driven more than 900 laps at the Speedway and is as identified with that racing today as the Unsers, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears or even Foyt.
His playboy image still rides the straights with him because he still has the long-lashed, long-haired, chiseled-profile good looks, the boyish grin. But he is as dedicated a driver as any guy who came to the game off a gas pump instead of a military school.
The second-most famous Sullivan in sports history, this one can lick any man in the house, too, provided the wheels don’t come off.
Danny has just won the coveted PPG Indy Car World Series Trophy, emblematic of the national driving championship. With his win at Laguna Seca, his 4th victory--and 8th pole position--of the year, Danny cinched the trophy with a race at Miami still to go. Danny is racing’s MVP for 1988.
It’s an important award in a demanding sport.
“We have to concentrate totally for 3 to 3 1/2 hours,” reminds Danny. “No timeouts, no halftimes, no substitutions. And if we make a mistake, we don’t get a 5-yard penalty, we get life.”
Danny Boy is Dan the Man. He’ll know he has arrived when some other brash kid from the right side of the tracks takes the green flag one of these years and Gasoline Alley says, “OK. But wait’ll he gets Danny Sullivan in his rear-view mirror. Then, we’ll find out whether he’s a race driver or a playboy!”