Oh Danny Boy, It Was Your Day

Danny Sullivan threw a 360 into the Indy equation and he survived to defeat Mario Andretti in the 500
June 02, 1985

It wasn't simplywinning Sunday's Indy 500 that made Danny Sullivan a star, it was what he didthe first time he passed Mario Andretti to take the lead. That was on Lap 120,and Sullivan held that lead for all of one second—one heart-stopping second.For 10 laps Sullivan had been closing in on Andretti. Sullivan crept up in hisMarch-Cosworth—if a 200-plus mph car can be said to creep—and on the frontstraight, in clear view of scores of thousands of the 400,000 spectators, madehis move. He ducked inside Andretti's Lola-Cosworth, and needless to say,Andretti kept his foot down. The two red cars peeled off for Turn 1 at about200 mph. Sullivan was committed—and stuck down on the apron below the yellowline that marks the theoretical inner boundary of the racing surface. It was alast-ditch sort of maneuver better suited for the end of a race—and there werestill 80 laps to go. "Rather weird" is how Andretti would describe thetiming of Sullivan's move. "I thought there were just 12 laps left,"Sullivan admitted later. "I'd read the pit board wrong."

Sullivan also kepthis foot down and reentered the racing groove ahead of Andretti, and that waswhen his March turned into a squirrel. It twitched and spun to the right, itsrear end sliding past the wall in a cloud of blue smoke, its left side fillingAndretti's doubtlessly wide eyes. Mario dove to the left, leaving Sullivan toexecute a 360-degree loop. "When the smoke cleared, I was facing Turn2," said Sullivan. And, he might have added, Victory Circle. He, and thecar, had come through unscathed.

Roger Penske,Sullivan's car owner, put it about right. "When it's your day, it's yourday," he said.

It had been a saneand clean start, the drivers wisely wary of the turbulence created by 33four-wheeled rocket ships blasting off. Bobby Rahal had jumped into the leadfrom his starting spot on the outside of the front row, closely pursued byAndretti, who soon took command. Mario won the race in 1969 and has beenchasing a second victory ever since, but they've just kept dancing away fromhim. He felt that he had his best chance this year. After the first 40 laps,Brazil's Emerson Fittipaldi, twice the world driving champion—now racing inAmerica and loving it—lurked consistently within a few car-lengths of thelead.

Rahal suddenlydropped back on Lap 49 and then eventually out. "It went sick when Sullivanwent by me," he said of his engine and his gut. Sullivan had started eighthand was just getting warmed up. And so was Tom Sneva, of whom little had beenheard in the month of May. He had been spending his time trying to get DanGurney's new Eagle car to fly, and now it had soared to within strikingdistance. After a few pit stops and 250 miles—halfway—the order was Andretti,Fittipaldi, Sneva, Sullivan.

Carl Haas, whoco-owns Andretti's Lola with Paul Newman, has a ritual. Before a race, hesometimes kneels over the shiny red nose of the car and moves his lips as ifchanting. Maybe he'll add a loving pat on the tail. It's his way of giving thecar a little encouragement. And it may help. Something certainly sparedAndretti when Sullivan made his corkscrew in Mario's path on Lap 120.

The yellow flagcame out after that incident, and both Sullivan and Andretti ducked into thepit to change tires. Fittipaldi took over the lead. The fans—as many people aslive in Cincinnati—hadn't even sat back down when a crash took out Sneva. RickVogler and Howdy Holmes had touched wheels, which sent Vogler into the Turn 1wall. Sneva spun and crashed trying to avoid the shrapnel from Vogler'sdisintegrating car.

After the wreckagewas cleared, Andretti took off in the lead once more, pursued again bySullivan. Undaunted by the previous close call, Sullivan showed his stuff bymaking more moves on Mario, causing the fans to wonder if they were about tosee a replay of his earlier pirouette. But Sullivan got it right this time,taking Mario on the 140th lap, down the front straight and into the first turnas before. "I knew I had a few more laps this time, and I didn't want toscrew it up again," Sullivan said. And when he got in fresh air undisturbedby the backwash from Andretti's Lola, he ran off, turning laps of 202,203 andthen 204 mph.

The competitionbetween Sullivan and Andretti is particularly keen. Andretti has helpedSullivan a good deal, mostly with advice and references to car owners. But lastyear, when Andretti had a competitive edge with the only Lola on thecircuit—one he had helped develop—Haas sold a spare Lola to Shierson racing,Sullivan's team at the time, and Danny promptly won three races. Andrettididn't hold it against Sullivan, but he fumed at losing nonetheless.

Now Andrettiseemed to be struggling with his Lola's handling. Fittipaldi moved into second,10 seconds behind Sullivan with 40 laps remaining. Fittipaldi pitted for fuel—ahuge break for Sullivan. One lap later John Paul Jr. slammed into the Turn 2wall after a wheel broke off his car, and the subsequent caution light allowedSullivan and Andretti to make their final fuel stops while the field was sloweddown. But it became a moot point for Fittipaldi; on Lap 188 he retired withengine failure, ending another strong, smooth and consistent run, the kind forwhich he was renowned in Formula One.

If race driverscould afford the luxury of frustration, Sullivan should have been feeling it;every time he built a cushion over Andretti, another yellow would come out.With eight laps remaining it happened again when Bill Whittington tagged theTurn 3 wall. Andretti trailed Sullivan by 9.1 seconds at that point, but oncemore he closed up, although two non-contending cars actually separated him fromthe leader. Whittington's car was removed and the green came out on Lap 197,bringing the 500 down to a three-lap dash. But Sullivan was untouchable, and hestreaked away unchallenged. Amazingly, his fastest lap of the day was his nextto last, at 205 mph. "When you start getting conservative, that's when youstart getting into trouble." Sullivan explained. He beat Andretti to thefinish by 2.5 seconds.

"I ran as hardas I could all day, and I ran everything out of the car every lap,"Andretti said. "We just flat got smoked today, that's all."

And smoked by adriver who lately has been living with the nickname Hollywood. Sullivan, 35,likes the glitter. He's a bachelor who divides his time between Los Angeles(his girl friend's house). Aspen (his own apartment) and Manhattan (wheregossip columns note his disco moves with Susan Anton). And he brought his ownstaff from L.A. to Indy—a secretary, a press agent and Dan Isaacson, thetrainer who whipped John Travolta into shape for Staying Alive. Isaacsondragged Sullivan to the Nautilus Fitness Center every morning at 7:30.

And before therewas the glitter, there were the dues: racing Formula Fords in England andliving in the back of an old van from race to race. Before that, jobs as awaiter, cabbie and chicken farmer.

It was a victoryfor others besides Sullivan, of course; motor racing is a team sport. There wasthe crew chief, a quiet, confident Scot named Derrick Walker. And of courseRoger Penske, the most successful owner in Speedway history. He now has twowins in a row and a total of five. The Penske method: Work (and spend) thecompetition into submission. He prepares so thoroughly that he bought cars fromboth Lola and March (at about $125,000 each) before the season, and tested eachto determine which to campaign. Penske himself jogged on the Speedway's infieldgolf course at six each morning and could often spend half the night in theteam's garages. This year Penske Racing entered three cars. Al Unser Sr.finished fourth in one—behind Colombian Roberto Guerrero—and Rick Mears, the1984 Indy winner, was working his way up in the field when transmission linkageproblems ended his race.

This is Sullivan'sfirst year with the Penske team. "I've been run ragged since R.P. signedme, but it's what I've always wanted," Sullivan says. "We tested allwinter and spring at tracks all over the country. You finish one test, get tobed at 3 a.m., and Roger's jet is waiting at 9 a.m. to sweep you off to thenext test." Sullivan figured he ran 1,000 miles just practicing forqualifying.

"Boy, did Imake a good move when I hired him," Penske says. And now Sullivan has madea couple of spectacular moves of his own to win racing's most prestigiousprize.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERSullivan's matinee-idol looks win him fans, while his right foot wins races. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDMANN[See caption above.] PHOTOKEITH PRITCHARD/INDIANAPOLIS STARSullivan's first try at passing Andretti ended in a cloud of tire smoke and a 360-degree detour that Mario (3) somehow avoided. No harm done, both motored swiftly on.
PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERIn the same spot where he'd spun, Sullivan dove low and got by Andretti on Lap 140. PHOTODAVID HUTSONJohn Paul's car lost a wheel, then found the Turn 2 wall and a ride home on a hook. TWO PHOTOSGEORGE TIEDMANNPenske (left) owns the winner's car as well as Al Unser's fourth-place March (below).