Sullivan still basks in Indy glory

May 27, 2010
Ryan McGee
ESPN Senior Writer

Danny Sullivan used his 1985 win in the Indianapolis 500 to propel a career that is still going strong. AP Photo/Michael Conroy

As he checks in at the hotel front desk, Danny Sullivan looks like just another of the thousands of businessmen who file through uptown Charlotte each and every day. He could be just another banker, real estate developer or entrepreneur toting his briefcase, garment bag and business cards.

The woman on the other side of the desk has no idea that this particular patron is also an Indianapolis 500 winner, Indy car champion and Formula One racer. That he was once the most recognizable name in American motorsports, the man who created the career model copied by every young racer since, including a few he discovered, is lost on her and everyone else in the lobby. It makes one want to jump over the desk, shake her and say, “Excuse me! This guy did a guest spot on ‘Miami Vice’!”

Instead, she just wants to know whether he has enrolled in the hotel’s points and rewards program.

“Incognito is fine by me,” he says, flashing the smile that has sold everything from video games to pizza. “I don’t get recognized a lot these days, at least not away from the racetrack.”

That’s about to change, at least for the next few days. Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of Sullivan’s 1985 Indy 500 victory. To celebrate, he is headed back to the Brickyard for a dinner in his honor and to work the crowd on Carburetion Day.

“People here at Indianapolis get so excited to see Danny come back,” says Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson. “It is easy to forget now, but he was quite the polarizing figure in the sport. And his ‘Spin and Win’ is one of the most enduring images in the 100-year history of this race.”

Spin and win

If the circumstances surrounding Sullivan’s Indianapolis win were written into a movie script, Hollywood producers would reject it because it was too outlandish.

At the height of the Indy 500’s popularity in America — remember, 1985 was still the realm of A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and the Unsers — no star was bigger than Mario Andretti, still on his fruitless post-1969 quest for a second 500 win.

Well into the second half of the ’85 race, Andretti led but was suddenly being challenged by Sullivan, who had just arrived in CART (at the time the governing body of American open-wheel racing) after a rough two-year stint in Formula One. Aside from a points-paying finish at Monaco and an amazing second-place run in a non-points event in England, his time with the Tyrrell team was largely notable only because of typical off-track F1 soap opera chatter.


“I probably get too much credit for the spin and win deal. I looped it, looked up, saw the suites in Turn 2 and took my foot off the brake. Aside from that, I’m not sure how much skill is involved in the few seconds that all of that took place in.” — Danny Sullivan


But now, in the short chute between Turns 1 and 2, he was down on the apron and almost in the grass, passing the most famous racer on the planet for the lead in the Indianapolis 500. What happened next forever cemented Sullivan’s place in American motorsports history.

“It might have been the paint they used for the white line. It might have been the camber in the car. It might have been the fact that we didn’t run hardly any wing in those cars then. I don’t really know. What I do know is that the car came completely around and I went around with it.”

When he says around, he means 400 degrees around — at 220 miles per hour — with another car riding a few feet off his car’s rear end. Somehow, Sullivan kept his Penske machine off the wall in the deceptively narrow short chute, got it pointed in the right direction and continued on. With new tires taken under the caution, he was able to come back and catch Andretti again, this time making a clean pass, then held off the living legend on a furious final restart to seal the win and sip the milk.

“I probably get too much credit for the spin and win deal,” Sullivan says. “I looped it, looked up, saw the suites in Turn 2 and took my foot off the brake. Aside from that, I’m not sure how much skill is involved in the few seconds that all of that took place in.”

Then he winks and laughs.

“But if people want to keep patting me on the back for it, who am I to stop them?”

Hero-Maker, Inc.

Sullivan might shy away from credit for what happened on May 26, 1985. But what he did after that win was nothing less than a game-changer for him and all the racers who came behind him. It had long been the norm for the Indy 500 champion to convert his victory into a little cash. But what Sullivan managed to do with it was racing’s version of Lewis and Clark.

“Danny Sullivan was everywhere,” recalls Jeff Gordon, who in ’85 was a tween-age sprint car racer living outside Indianapolis. “Every talk show and every news show, he was on there. Every magazine either had a story about him or an ad with him in it. And I know I played his video game, what was it called?”

That would be “Danny Sullivan’s Indy Heat,” which started as a stand-up arcade game and eventually moved into homes via Nintendo and Atari.

Sullivan was named one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, did guest spots on soap operas, played a cop in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors,” and, yes, there was that hit on “Miami Vice,” when he played Grand Prix racer Danny Tepper, who was accused of murdering a prostitute. (Don’t worry, Sonny and Rico got to the bottom of it and Tepper raced on.)

Danny Sullivan became the model for how other drivers would market themselves to fans and sponsors. US Presswire

Along the way, he became a bit of a touchstone for race fans. As Gordon’s would do in NASCAR a decade later, Sullivan’s success split the fan base down the middle. He brought new fans to Indy car racing, including legions of young people and women. Meanwhile, the old-school fan base that still loved Foyt and Andretti viewed him as a preppy pretty boy.

He didn’t care about all of that. His goal was simple.

Says Sullivan: “None of what I did was about, ‘Hey, look at me!’ My goal was to keep on racing. The way you kept a job, especially back then, was to bring sponsorship. You brought sponsorship by being out there and making yourself sellable, by being as appealing as possible for those potential sponsors. Not a lot of racers were really being aggressive about that back then. They didn’t really know how to.”

These days, they all do. And they aren’t shy about where that multiplatform promotional model began.

“We absolutely studied every aspect of what Danny Sullivan did,” explains John Bickford, Gordon’s stepfather and business manager. Bickford started mapping out his stepson’s ladder to racing success when Gordon was barely out of kindergarten. As a preteen racer struggling to find funding, Gordon was in need of new ideas to increase his exposure. “We found that in the things that Danny and his people were doing. It was like a light went on for everyone in racing. Like, ‘There really is a lot out there we aren’t doing and should be. We really need to start branching out.’ ”

Adds Roger Penske, “That’s really Danny’s legacy. 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.”

After the spin

Sullivan’s final Indy car start came in 1995. He still jumped into an occasional sports car race, did a quick run through NASCAR and did a lengthy stint as a color commentator with ABC Sports. But soon his focus shifted back overseas, particularly toward Europe, where he had moved up the racing ladder as a young man and still kept a home. He wanted to see an American back in Formula One.

Inexplicably, only two American-born racers — Eddie Cheever and Michael Andretti — had been given a crack at F1 since Sullivan’s final start for Tyrell in 1984. So, seizing the momentum of the newly reinstated U.S. Grand Prix, Sullivan teamed with Red Bull to identify and develop an American racer for a Formula One ride. You know him as Scott Speed.

Scott Speed made it to F1 with the help of Danny Sullivan. Speed is now in NASCAR. Gilles Levent/DPPI/Icon SMI

“That was not easy,” Sullivan says with a shake of his head. “A lot of people doubted it from the start, but we accomplished what we set out to do, even if for only a little while.”

These days, he still hovers around any and all U.S. pushes toward F1. He was never formally involved in the struggling Charlotte-based USF1 effort, but team principal Ken Anderson was Sullivan’s engineer at Penske and there were certainly more than a few conversations between the two as the team was put together.

“One day, the right Formula One program is going to come along and it’s going to work long term despite some people’s best efforts to keep it from happening,” Sullivan said. “When it does, it will be huge.”

In the meantime, Sullivan continues to diversify, flirting with the idea of race team ownership and holding down a vice presidency with Orion Air Group. Orion designs and implements commercial and government aviation services, whether it’s moving tons of equipment or hundreds of people in and out of every corner of the globe.

In one of his first meetings with Orion, he listened to a room full of former military leaders and captains of industry as they struggled with devising a flight plan for a super-remote region of Africa. Suddenly, Sullivan spoke up and started rattling off a plan that would stage the mission out into segments with supply vehicles in tow and stationed along the route. The room grew silent as they looked over at the race car driver to say, “How do you know about all of this?”

“Easy,” Sullivan replied. “This sounds just like running the Baja 1000.”

Living legend

On Sunday, Danny Sullivan will not be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. He will be at his home just off legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links, sitting with wife Brenda, an accomplished investment banker, and watching on TV just like the rest of us. Sort of.

The rest of us don’t have a pair of blinged-out championship rings in the family safe, jewelry he admits “does come out occasionally.” And chances are that if you’re reading this story, you don’t have a baby Borg-Warner Trophy sitting on the mantel over the living room fireplace.

“I do like going back to the speedway,” the 60-year old says. “The reception I get from the fans there is still just unbelievable, even 25 years later. But it is nice to kick back and watch the race broadcast from home.”

A broadcast that undoubtedly will be showing the replay of the “spin and win” over and over again, as it has every year since 1985.

“They can replay that all they want,” he says, with one more wink and one more million-dollar smile. “People ask me if I get tired of seeing it. No. No, I do not.”

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of “ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History.” He can be reached at