Think of it as a movie scene: the crowded lobby of an elegant Southern California hotel a few Sunday mornings ago. Dozens of lean, tanned people lounge around the lobby bar, Bloody Marys in hand, wearing racing togs—crisply pressed designer jeans and polo shirts with collars upturned, sailing sweaters draped across their backs, the sleeves knotted loosely in front. Now comes a closeup shot of two men standing slightly apart. One is Paul Newman, his Mediterranean-blue eyes concealed behind wide Porsche Design sunglasses. The other is turned out in a trim black sweat suit—correct, a black sweat suit. He's 5'11" and slender, a sweep of hair spilling across his forehead like a raven's wing. When he laughs, which is often, his teeth flash brilliantly. Everybody else in the room is aware of the two, but they are left undisturbed because, as we all know, beautiful people never bug other beautiful people.
Ah, but along comes a clutch of merely average racegoers, both the men and women wearing mesh-top TEXACO caps. They now circle the two men at a respectful distance, too timid to approach and ask for autographs, but one of the women can clearly be heard as she seizes her companion's arm and hisses, "It's him! Look at him there. Oh, god, I could just die." Then, as they finally leave after one more circle, she becomes courageous enough to shout, "Danny! We all love ya, Danny."
Danny? Not Paul? Absolutely right; that's a true story, a documentary, race fans.' Even Newman grins broadly at the irony of it.
The object of the lady's admiration at the Long Beach opening of the 1984 Indy-Car season was Daniel John Sullivan III, rakishly charming at 34, a guy who just can't escape his role in life, and heaven knows why he'd even try. We must face up to this right away. It's Sullivan's burden to be a phenomenon—a boulevardier in Indy-Car racing. What's more, Sullivan may well be the leading representative of a new breed that has infiltrated the sport—a band of drivers who are bringing a touch of the Continent to what has always been a greasy-handed U.S. property.
Suddenly, they're here, stirred right in with the good old Foyts and Unsers and Johncocks, a group of world-traveling, sleekly groomed men, articulate in a variety of accents that speak of Monaco as well as Malibu. Don't be upset; that's just the way it is. The new breed includes Teo Fabi of Milan, formerly of the Italian national ski team, holder of a degree in aeronautical engineering—and holder of the one-lap Indy qualifying record (208.049 mph); Geoff Brabham of Australia, son of Sir Jack, the three-time world champion in the '50s and '60s; Emerson Fittipaldi, himself a two-time Formula One champion and something of a national treasure in his home country of Brazil; plus such former F/1 regulars as Roberto Guerrero from Colombia; Bruno Giacomelli, an Italian who rests between races in Monte Carlo; and the French-Canadian Jacques Villeneuve. Not to mention Michael Chandler, the son of Otis Chandler of the Los Angeles Times publishing empire. Even Mario Andretti, three-time Indy-Car champion and 1978 F/1 world champion, now punctuates his speech with such throw-away lines as "if you will." Small wonder that Parnelli Jones, a Brickyard hero of the '60s, shakes his head and sighs, "Racin' ain't what it used to be."
Needless to say, Sullivan can tell an omelette aux rouelles de courgettes from an Egg McMuffin; he understands good wines and off the track drives a Mercedes 500 SEC. And while that's typical of the New Breed, Sullivan is in a class by himself when it comes to transfixing a gorgeous lady with an appraising glance across a crowded room.
"Well, it's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it," says Alan Nierob, a p.r. man who works for Sullivan. Nierob hands out a press packet that includes a release from something called Man Watchers, Inc., in which Sullivan is identified as one of the ten Most Watchable Men in the World, along with such as Richard Gere, Steve Garvey and Stacy Reach. Sullivan, therein described as "tall, dark and handsome," is the only race driver in the bunch. "And," says Nierob, "he has also appeared in Vogue Hommes in Paris."
"Look, you guys," says Sullivan, now up to his thorax in a crowd of lovely man-watchers, "none of this stuff is important. Can we just maybe talk about racing instead?"
And high time, too. Lest anybody get the wrong idea, Danny Sullivan is as gritty as anybody in the game, a driver of accomplishment and developing talent who has paid his dues through 12 lean years of sports car, Can-Am and F/1 competition. Last year on the Grand Prix circuit, he qualified for all 17 races in one of the few non-turbo race cars in the field—which is akin to driving your grandma's Nash Metropolitan in a pack of Shelby Cobras—and finished 17th in the world standings and highest of all rookie drivers. He has twice won the Las Vegas Caesars Palace race in three years on the Can-Am trail, was Rookie of the Year on that circuit in 1980, second in '81 and finished third in the final standings in '82. In his first time around in Indy Cars, in '82, he finished third in the Atlanta 200, highest ever for a newcomer. And in the Indianapolis 500, he qualified 13th at 196.292 mph and was sailing along in fifth place when he crashed into the wall on the 149th lap. Sullivan walked away from that one; as the late stock car driver and noted hell-raiser Curtis Turner once said of racing, "It is possible to crash out there, ya know."
Which brings us to the 1984 PPG Indy-Car circus, two events down, 14 to go, which is in-your-face racing of the meanest kind. Next Saturday, Sullivan will try to make the 33-car lineup for the 68th running of the Indianapolis 500 in a striking new 750-hp red, white and blue machine. His credentials are established, and yet he says, "Sometimes I get the impression that nobody takes me seriously. I don't know, maybe I seem too laid-back. But I promise you, I'm here to race. What is it? Perhaps it's just that I can do other things besides sit around all night talking about sway bars and slip angles."