Time Capsule Tuesday - Danny Sullivan

May 10, 2016

Casting the mold for the motorsports superstar in the 1980s was Danny Sullivan. He had it all – the look, the marketing savvy and the talent behind the wheel. His was one of the most recognizable faces and names in American racing throughout the decade, and beyond, along with creating the marketing model duplicated by many young drivers hoping to follow in his footsteps.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Sullivan was given a 21st birthday present of a course at a driving school in England after which he started climbing the European ranks to Formula One racing. He competed in the 1983 F1 season before returning to his homeland to compete in IndyCar on a full-time basis the next season.

The 1985 campaign was Sullivan’s first with Team Penske and he set a tone of daring success in his first Indianapolis 500 under the Penske banner. In his team debut at Long Beach, he drove the No. 4 Miller High Life March/Cosworth to a third-place finish. The next stop on the circuit was Indianapolis where he scored his first Team Penske victory in the famous “Spin And Win” race. While completing a pass of Mario Andretti for the lead on Lap 120, Sullivan’s car spun in Turn 1, but he was able to save it from contact with Andretti and the outside retaining wall. Just 20 laps later Sullivan was able to work past Andretti to lead the final 61 trips around the 2.5-mile track en route to one of the most storied wins in Brickyard history.

The best of Sullivan’s six seasons at Team Penske came in 1988 that culminated in an IndyCar championship. Both he and runner-up Al Unser, Jr., claimed four wins over the season, but a seven to five advantage in podium finishes led to a 33-point edge in the final standings. Over the course of the 15-race schedule Sullivan earned a staggering nine poles which is second only to A.J. Foyt’s 10 in 1965 in series history. In fact, Sullivan’s average starting position for the year was 2.3 and he never started outside the top nine.

In his six-year term at Team Penske Sullivan picked up 12 wins, 25 podium finishes and 18 pole positions. All told in his IndyCar career, he claimed 17 victories and 19 pole wins. Over the course of his racing career, the charismatic wheelman competed in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and several sports car divisions in addition to his IndyCar and F1 experiences. 

Sullivan was able to parlay his success on the race track and his movie-star good looks into several cameo appearances in films and television. Perhaps the most famous is a 1986 part in the megahit television show Miami Vice. He even notched a spot on People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list.

Since hanging up his helmet Sullivan has spent time as a television analyst at ABC Sports to go along with myriad business ventures ranging from racing to aviation.