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It wasn't simply winning Sunday's Indy 500 that made Danny Sullivan a star, it was what he did the 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 his March-Cosworth—if a 200-plus mph car can be said to creep—and on the front straight, in clear view of scores of thousands of the 400,000 spectators, made his 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 about 200 mph. Sullivan was committed—and stuck down on the apron below the yellow line that marks the theoretical inner boundary of the racing surface. It was a last-ditch sort of maneuver better suited for the end of a race—and there were still 80 laps to go. "Rather weird" is how Andretti would describe the timing of Sullivan's move. "I thought there were just 12 laps left," Sullivan admitted later. "I'd read the pit board wrong."
Sullivan also kept his foot down and reentered the racing groove ahead of Andretti, and that was when his March turned into a squirrel. It twitched and spun to the right, its rear end sliding past the wall in a cloud of blue smoke, its left side filling Andretti's doubtlessly wide eyes. Mario dove to the left, leaving Sullivan to execute a 360-degree loop. "When the smoke cleared, I was facing Turn 2," said Sullivan. And, he might have added, Victory Circle. He, and the car, had come through unscathed.
Roger Penske, Sullivan's car owner, put it about right. "When it's your day, it's your day," he said.
It had been a sane and clean start, the drivers wisely wary of the turbulence created by 33 four-wheeled rocket ships blasting off. Bobby Rahal had jumped into the lead from his starting spot on the outside of the front row, closely pursued by Andretti, who soon took command. Mario won the race in 1969 and has been chasing a second victory ever since, but they've just kept dancing away from him. 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 in America and loving it—lurked consistently within a few car-lengths of the lead.
Rahal suddenly dropped back on Lap 49 and then eventually out. "It went sick when Sullivan went by me," he said of his engine and his gut. Sullivan had started eighth and was just getting warmed up. And so was Tom Sneva, of whom little had been heard in the month of May. He had been spending his time trying to get Dan Gurney's new Eagle car to fly, and now it had soared to within striking distance. After a few pit stops and 250 miles—halfway—the order was Andretti, Fittipaldi, Sneva, Sullivan.
Carl Haas, who co-owns Andretti's Lola with Paul Newman, has a ritual. Before a race, he sometimes kneels over the shiny red nose of the car and moves his lips as if chanting. Maybe he'll add a loving pat on the tail. It's his way of giving the car a little encouragement. And it may help. Something certainly spared Andretti when Sullivan made his corkscrew in Mario's path on Lap 120.
The yellow flag came out after that incident, and both Sullivan and Andretti ducked into the pit to change tires. Fittipaldi took over the lead. The fans—as many people as live in Cincinnati—hadn't even sat back down when a crash took out Sneva. Rick Vogler and Howdy Holmes had touched wheels, which sent Vogler into the Turn 1 wall. Sneva spun and crashed trying to avoid the shrapnel from Vogler's disintegrating car.
After the wreckage was cleared, Andretti took off in the lead once more, pursued again by Sullivan. Undaunted by the previous close call, Sullivan showed his stuff by making more moves on Mario, causing the fans to wonder if they were about to see 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 turn as before. "I knew I had a few more laps this time, and I didn't want to screw it up again," Sullivan said. And when he got in fresh air undisturbed by the backwash from Andretti's Lola, he ran off, turning laps of 202,203 and then 204 mph.
The competition between Sullivan and Andretti is particularly keen. Andretti has helped Sullivan a good deal, mostly with advice and references to car owners. But last year, when Andretti had a competitive edge with the only Lola on the circuit—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. Andretti didn't hold it against Sullivan, but he fumed at losing nonetheless.
Now Andretti seemed to be struggling with his Lola's handling. Fittipaldi moved into second, 10 seconds behind Sullivan with 40 laps remaining. Fittipaldi pitted for fuel—a huge break for Sullivan. One lap later John Paul Jr. slammed into the Turn 2 wall after a wheel broke off his car, and the subsequent caution light allowed Sullivan and Andretti to make their final fuel stops while the field was slowed down. But it became a moot point for Fittipaldi; on Lap 188 he retired with engine failure, ending another strong, smooth and consistent run, the kind for which he was renowned in Formula One.