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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
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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

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Sullivan says this while sitting on the Long Beach pit wall, admiring the race car that he hopes will carry him to the next plateau in his career. As Indy Cars go, it's appropriately handsome, winged front and back, wedge-shaped to cleave the wind, just 31 inches high and powered by a raucous turbocharged Cosworth V-8 engine. If it had a hood ornament—or a hood—it would read DSR-1 (for Douglas Shierson Racing). It's an entirely new car created by British engineer Ian Reed, who back in 1980 was the design chief for the March organization and creator of its extremely successful March 81C Indy Car. And it's quick. For a few dizzying moments at the Long Beach Grand Prix, on April 1, the DSR-1 and Sullivan were the fastest combination on the course, hauling some 186 mph down the straightaways and gaining on pole sitter Andretti, who was somewhere far out in front winning the race from door to door (SI, April 9). But the brakes heated, then failed, and Sullivan spun out on his 22nd lap to be credited with a 24th-place finish. The next weekend on the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval, Sullivan qualified 19th and charged up to finish sixth. This is called "shaking the sucker down," and the DSR-1 is expected to be in fighting shape for Indy qualifying. Sullivan already is.

It isn't easy to reminisce with gorgeous girls breathing down the back of one's neck, so Sullivan retreats to the other side of the car and stands with one foot up on a tire. He's wearing his flameproof red driving suit, a color that particularly suits him, with his blood type, ORH+, stitched over one pocket. Between friendly little waves, winks and acknowledgments of random man-watchers, he contemplates the events that brought him here.

In their meeting at Maxwell's Plum, Falkner hadn't been put off by the fact that Sullivan's principal racing experience had been spinning the wheels on a loaded forklift and dicing with clapped-out Impalas on the way to LaGuardia Airport. "As my 21st birthday present," Sullivan says, "he sent me off to England to the Jim Russell Driving School." The school at Snetterton Circuit, 50 miles north of London, has a long history of producing race drivers who go on to become giants—Fittipaldi, for instance. It's a no-frills place where good looks count for nothing, and for maybe the first time in his life, Sullivan began to bear down. The faculty at Russell was impressed enough to pronounce him potentially one of the best, and, racing license in hand, he began to roll. First year out, in 1972, racing a just-off-the-drawing-board Elden Formula Ford, he ran 53 races and finished sixth in the championship standings. He gained a reputation for smoothness in cars that were little more than rolling junkyards, and he scrambled for sponsors along with the rest of them, slept in his van like a Gypsy and at times went hungry.

Which isn't to say he had lost any of his natural charm. For a time Sullivan boarded with F/1 team owner Ken Tyrrell, running errands and doing odd jobs for his keep—but eventually he went apartment hunting. "I saw this ad in the local paper," he says. "Three single girls were seeking a fourth girl to share the rent on their house. So I went up and knocked on their door. One of them came out and looked me over. And I said, 'Look, I'm not a girl, but....' And she said, 'You'll do just fine.' "

By 1975 Sullivan had advanced to Formula Three and better sponsors, and he wound up second in that European series. Whatever it was, rolling junkyards included, if it had wheels and a chance of making the field, Sullivan was available to drive it in Europe or North America. "Gimme a Volkswagen," he would say, "and we'll try and put it on the pole."

Then came the Can-Am campaigns, road racing in the biggest and fastest sports cars ever built. Indeed, when Fabi climbed out of a Can-Am car owned by Paul Newman, Sullivan was immediately signed for the next season. That ride, however, came in a new car, less than affectionately known as the U.S.S. Budweiser because of its carrier-class size and weight. Nonetheless, Sullivan stepped in and raced it successfully in 10 events—and he and Newman have been pals ever since.

The most colorful of Sullivan's sponsors—no contest—has been another Kentuckian, Garvin Brown, artfully disheveled and hugely wealthy. Brown is a scion of the Brown-Forman family, famous for various liquid products, notably Jack Daniel's. It was Brown who spotted Sullivan as a talent years ago and, over drinks in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel—where else?—signed him to race the 1980 Can-Am season. And it was Brown who arranged and put up the money for Sullivan's Grand Prix campaign last season in Tyrrell's F/1 car.

"It's been said that good drivers are either born or made," Brown says, "but Danny's got both elements at once. Look into his eyes. That tells you a lot. Listen, I once had him checked by a sports physiologist. Reflexes terrific. Agility wonderful. But his vision is something else. 'Damn,' the physiologist told me, 'this guy's got better peripheral vision than any goalie I've ever seen.' Well, Danny wants to be world driving champion and I'm going to help him do it."

This season, between Indy-Car races, Sullivan will drive Brown's spanking new 800-hp, 2.65-liter Porsche 962 in the World Endurance Championship series while the two of them keep an eye on the Grand Prix scene, watching for the chance to make the move into a competitive car.

The Indy-Car push will stretch through next November at Las Vegas, and Sullivan and crew are poised to attack. Team captain Shierson will have three new DSR-1s ready for Indy, and there's a touch of irony, certainly poignancy, in the fact that Sullivan's teammate will be three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, who'll drive just the three 500-milers on the circuit. Thus does the New Breed move in. And here's why:

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