The Fast Life of Racing Ace Danny Sullivan
updated 06/24/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 06/24/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Actually, Mario Andretti didn't really say that. At least not in public. In private, though, deep down in his heart of hearts, Mario might be thinking something like that. So might A.J. Foyt and Al Unser. And who could blame them? After all, they've been blasting around the racing circuits for years, and suddenly this young whippersnapper Danny Sullivan spins to a win in last month's Indianapolis 500 and barely stops his March-Cosworth long enough to pick up his trophy, his wreath of roses and his cut of the $500,000-plus prize money before zooming off to a Hollywood movie debut.
Danny Sullivan, 35, is not your average race car driver. He doesn't even look like your average race car driver. First of all he dresses differently. Forget the greasy T-shirts. Sullivan swaggers around L.A. in white moccasins (without socks, of course), white slacks (starched, of course) and a purple and black striped Polo shirt (collar up, of course). On his left wrist, where most veteran drivers like to wear their deep-down transmission fluid stains, Sullivan sports a gold Cartier watch. Then there's his face—the dark hair, the hazel eyes, the leading-man smile. And, of course, the teeth. "I think he has the best teeth in the world," says Lisa Hartman, the bouncy blonde star of Knots Landing. "And the best ass too."
That statement illustrates another big difference between Sullivan and other race car drivers—the nature of their fans. A lot of gas pumpers are loyal Mario Andretti rooters. Quite a few prominent body-and-fender guys are die-hard Al Unser partisans. But Sullivan tends to attract Tinseltown glitterati. Victoria Principal is "just glued to the TV set" when he races. Billy Joel reports that Christie Brinkley gets "all upset" when Danny has a bad day at the track. Paul Newman likes to race around freeways with him. And producer Jerry Weintraub signed him up to star in a racing flick called Yankee Lady. "He's the first to come along in 20 years who is not going to be just a name but a face as well," says Weintraub. "He'll do for racing what Ali did for boxing, Palmer did for golf and Connors did for tennis."
Meanwhile, Sullivan has earned the reputation of a womanizer. He doesn't exactly deny that he is a playboy—"It's a terrible job," he jokes, "but somebody's got to do it"—although he does lament the effect of an amorous image on his three-and-a-half-year relationship with interior decorator Julie Nini, 31. "Julie is sensitive about this playboy stuff," he says. "She read that I owned a condo in Vail and was dating Susan Anton. She knew I didn't have the condo, but since I'm away so much, she wasn't sure about the Susan Anton part."
Aside from that problem—if such a thing can be called a problem—Danny seems to be taking his sudden celebrity in stride. "I'm an overnight sensation after a 13-year struggle," he says dryly. "It's easy to get wrapped up in this unreal world. Jim Garner said to me, 'Hey, pal, you've got to remember where you came from and what got you here.' And he's absolutely correct. Every racer knows you've got to prove yourself every weekend. You're only as good as your last race."
Sullivan is loyal to racing, which makes sense because it was racing that saved him from a comfortably humdrum life as an heir to a Kentucky construction company. That was the future that his father, Dan Jr., now 61, a Louisville construction company owner, had mapped out for his son. The boy balked. A lusty, adventurous lad, he preferred such diversions as fast women and fast cars. He once whacked into a tree in his older sister's auto and later borrowed the family Oldsmobile for nocturnal drives through neighbors' backyards. During his brief (one year) career at the University of Kentucky, he "majored in partying," he says. "It was party hearty all the way. I liked having a good time, going out drinking, carousing and chasing women." That life-style didn't sit well with Daddy, and in 1970 Danny fled the family for the perpetual party that is New York City. Says Danny, "We didn't have much contact for a long time after that."
In New York Danny drove a cab—he once went into a rather harrowing skid in Central Park with a terrified customer in the back seat—and worked as a waiter in Maxwell's Plum, a trendy Manhattan watering hole. Worried about Danny, an old family friend, noted academic pediatrician Frank Falkner, kept an eye on the boy. "He was a charming young man, but very lost," Falkner recalls. At 3 o'clock one morning Falkner popped that $64,000 philosophical question: "What do you want to do with your life?" Danny replied, "I want to be a race car driver."
Falkner, once an amateur driver and international racing official, made a deal: He would treat Sullivan to an eight-day course at the Jim Russell School of Driving in England if Danny agreed to return to college should the Russell faculty decide he had no aptitude for racing. At the school Danny took to race cars like, well, like women take to him. "What a feeling! What a rush! I fell in love," he says. In May 1971 Falkner took Danny's racing coach aside. "I want a really straight answer," he said. "Does Danny have any talent?" The teacher gave him a straight answer: "He told me that Danny was one of the best pupils he'd ever had."
Despite his talents Sullivan struggled for a decade on the racing circuits in Europe and the United States. In 1979 he was so disgusted that he seriously considered quitting the sport. "When I was 28, 29, 30, I didn't have a lot going for me," he says. "That's a pretty late stage in life to know you're not going to cut it as a race car driver." But Sullivan persevered and in 1980 he started making serious money. Since 1981 he has earned at least $100,000 every year. In late 1984, after Sullivan won three major races, Roger Penske, the legendary racing-team owner, hired him. And then, this May, after a heart-stopping 360 degree spin at more than 200 miles per hour, he rallied to beat Andretti and win the Indy. "The Indy is a jewel," he says.
The Indianapolis victory whetted Sullivan's appetite for more triumphs on the asphalt. "I probably want to win now more than ever," he says. "I've worked so long and hard for this that I don't want to give it up for anything." Not even for Hollywood stardom: Sullivan vows that he won't let acting interfere with racing. But, confident as ever, he is sure that he can combine the two without undue effort. "I am a lucky guy," he says. "I know this isn't a rehearsal and that every day can't be lived again. They all count and I'm out to enjoy them."
Even Sullivan's father, who has long since reconciled his differences with Danny, can now enjoy his once wayward son's high-speed life-style. "I guess my life has been very dull compared to Danny's," he says. "If I was 35, I'd sure envy him."