SI Vault
 
A Hunk Hits The Road
Bob Ottum
May 14, 1984
If you don't think life as a front man for a pizza chain can be beautiful, take a careful look at Indy-Car driver Danny Sullivan
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 14, 1984

A Hunk Hits The Road

If you don't think life as a front man for a pizza chain can be beautiful, take a careful look at Indy-Car driver Danny Sullivan

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

Well, we know what it is. But maybe the best way to understand one member of this prototype of the New Breed is to back up a few years.

By the time Danny Sullivan was a teenager in Louisville, the family was pretty much resigned to the fact that a wild one had somehow sprung up in their conservative circle. Not a black sheep, exactly; more a charcoal-gray model. Big Dan, Danny's father, is a well-to-do contractor whose large-scale construction projects sprawl across Kentucky and North Carolina, a no-nonsense man who expected his oldest son to take over the business one day. "But by the time I was 18 or so," Sullivan says, "he was growing more and more desperate with me—and he finally called me in and laid down one final rule if I was to continue living under his roof. He told me, 'If you're not home from your dates by the time I get up to go to work in the mornings, that's it.' And you know, I still couldn't seem to make the deadline."

But happily there's an explanation. It wasn't mere rebellion; Sullivan is one of those fortunates whose libido walked up and whammed him over the head at an early age to get his attention, and he has been listening ever since. Says his current car owner, Doug Shierson, "It doesn't hurt one bit that he's also good-looking."

Big Dan and Peggy Sullivan raised four children—Danny's older sister, Susan, younger sister, Tracy, and brother, Tommy, now 27, who's being groomed to take over the business. All but Danny have married. Not the best student in the world, Danny was at one point hustled off to the Kentucky Military Institute, where he majored mostly in sports and trying to be, as he recalls, "the baddest guy around." By his senior year, he had lettered in swimming, track and football and had made allstate in soccer, "mostly because there weren't hardly any soccer teams in those days." Still, it was the little adventures in between that foretold the future.

For a time as a kid Sullivan had terrorized his quiet neighorhood in a homemade go-kart—and then advanced to his mom's Oldsmobile wagon. "When I was real young I used to wash the car for her," he says, "and in the process of, you know, backing it out of the garage and straightening it out in the driveway, I'd drive it around the block four or five times." And then came nocturnal trips in the Olds when the folks were away, occasionally with the cops in pursuit. They didn't often catch him, and now, this many years removed, perhaps it's safe to mention the Great Escape. "I'd jump the curb," Sullivan says, "go up and over the sidewalk, and then turn out the lights and ghost quietly through everybody's backyard on the way home, across lawns, under clotheslines and around patios, until I got to our place." Once the car was missing and reported stolen, and guess who was behind the wheel when the police caught up with it, Sullivan was 14 at the time.

Perhaps the best way to discipline a kid like this is to put him to work as a laborer in the family business, which was fine until Danny discovered the forklift in the construction shed. "Ever hear of anybody spinning the wheels on a forklift?" he says. "It can be done if you really put your mind to it. Or get a forklift into a four-wheel drift with a load of lumber. They have a tendency to get tippy."

(The senior Sullivan is now, this very minute, learning about this for the first time. Well, at least that explains the trouble with the old forklift, Dad.)

After two semesters at the University of Kentucky where he was carrying a 1.7 grade point out of a possible 4.0, Sullivan, then 19, surrendered to his instincts and left home for New York. This was in 1969. In the next couple of years he worked as a janitor, as a lumberjack in the Adirondacks, as a sod-cutter on a farm, as a hand on a chicken ranch in New Jersey and as a cabdriver in Manhattan—including the one night when, wheeling through midtown at a nice clip, he spun out the cab with a fare in the back. So much for that. Each one of these transitory brushes with employment is punctuated with the explanation, "Well, I met this girl...." And each episode, Sullivan figures, enriched his life. By 1972 he was working as a waiter at Maxwell's Plum, a fixture in New York's First Avenue swinging singles scene, knocking down $300 to $500 a week and absolutely up to here in stunning women—which is precisely what makes Maxwell's such a plum. But then, unexpectedly, Sullivan's life changed direction.

Enter Dr. Frank Falkner, now a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, an old family friend and a respected official in international road racing. Asked by the senior Sullivans to check on their wandering boy, the good doctor elbowed his way through the crowd in Maxwell's Plum and asked his key questions: What in the world is going on here? And what, if anything, do you plan to do with the rest of your life?

"Dr. Falkner is like a surrogate father to me," says Sullivan. "He knows absolutely everything. He taught me about good food, fine wines and manners. And on a whim, I told him there was only one thing in life I really wanted. I wanted to become the world driving champion."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4