In this edition of Speedway Media’s First Seasons columns, we talked with former IndyCar driver and champion Danny Sullivan to learn more about his early days in IndyCar.
During the interview, Sullivan talks about how he raced in CART along with racing in Formula 1, getting the opportunity to drive for Doug Shierson, memories about his first win at Cleveland in 1984 and so much more.
SM: You began racing in the CART Series at the age of 32 in 1982 before moving to full-time in 1984 after spending a year in F1 in ‘83. Can you talk about what it was like making your debut at that age and how you made the connection with Douglas Shierson in ‘84 that led to your first full-time ride?
DS: “I had raced Formula Atlantic back in 1978 in the states,” Sullivan said. “Doug (Shierson) ran an Atlantic team and I knew him over the years from racing. I didn’t know many people in the states that well, because most of my background was all in Europe. I did Formula 1 in 1983 and had some good races, scoring my first world championship points, but Ken (Tyrell) informed me that Benetton may be leaving. Ken later told me that I may have to break your contract for ‘84 and ‘85 due to sponsorship issues.
“So, on my way back to the states, I stopped in Colorado. I went to Phoenix for the last IndyCar race of the season for them. I was walking around and went up to Doug (Shierson) because I had known him. He said, ‘You had a good year in F1’ and asked me what I was doing for next year. He said, ‘I’m looking for a driver,’ so we had a chat and everything and I called Tyrell and asked him if we were going to have a deal or not? He (Ken) said, ‘Look I’m not going to be able to make a decision until February.’ Back in those days, if you did not have a ride in February, you were done.
“I ended up calling Doug and asked him, what’s the deal? That’s how our deal came together. We started testing and he had the DSr1. Doug was a great guy to race for.”
SM: I want to briefly touch on your F1 ride. Was it difficult for you to flip back and forth between both series after spending a year in F1 and then going back to CART? Was CART just better suited for you?
DS: “No, I mean I had good results in F1,” he said about racing in F1. “The team wasn’t a top-tier team, but I had good results in Monaco (Formula 1’s biggest race of the year). Monaco was only my fourth or fifth race and I started last and finished fifth to score my first championship points. At the Brands-Hatch race, I was battling for the win on the last lap, but I was edged over to the grass on the last lap. I had spent so many years in Europe, so I was comfortable with the tracks that we were racing in F1. To be honest with you, if there wasn’t a hiccup with Ken Tyrell and Benetton, I may not even have done the IndyCar deal.”
SM: After briefly competing for three races in 1982 and racing the full season in 1984, what kind of expectations did you have at the beginning of the season? Were winning races and championships on your mind or was it more, take it race by race and maybe manage your expectations at the halfway point?
DS: “The latter,” Sullivan jokingly says about managing expectations. “Part of it was the rude awakening. Doug had built a nice car, the DSR-1 and the car was nicely made, but the car was slow on the ovals and it had no straight-line speed. When Doug got the Lola, the car was spot on and we had great engineers and Doug ran a great little team. Once, we got the car at Portland, we were competitive everywhere we went. However, when we were five races in the season, I never thought about the championship. I was never thinking about the championships, I focused more on winning races.
“What you have to do is keep doing what you’re doing. If everything falls its way, then maybe you’ll have a shot at the championship.”
SM: Your first official race with CART was at Atlanta in 1982 driving for Gerry Forsythe. You qualified 11th and finished third, but seven laps down. Despite being seven laps down, what was it like in the weeks leading up to your first IndyCar start? Were you anxious or nervous or were you ready to just get going?
DS: “Leading up to (your debut), you’re very nervous because you’re excited about your first start,” the 1985 Indy 500 champ said. “In qualifying, I was out to lunch and practice as well. I was way off the pace and they had the cars lined out for qualifying. Believe it or not, I was coming out of the porta-potty and I saw big Al (Unser Sr, former IndyCar driver) and he and I had always been friendly.
“I had asked Al a question and said, ‘I’m lost. I don’t know how to get this car around here fast. He said, ‘Well, you’re making the mistake that most road racers do and I asked back, ‘what’s that?’ He said, ‘You come up on the first banking and you do what road racers are doing, you roll out and turn down on the braking. On the oval, you roll out of the throttle and do not need the brakes.’ He said, ‘I wouldn’t tell anyone to do that but I have confidence in you.’
“I had asked Wally Dallenbach (race director at the time) for an extra warmup lap. On the first lap, I went around at 7,000 RPM and carried the throttle down on the first corner and rolled out of it, and got back in it. On the second and third laps, I was at 8,000 and 9,000 RPMs. I finished third in my first IndyCar race and I was ecstatic. The last thing you want to do is stick it in the fence and you want to keep your nose clean. It was a big learning curve and a huge bonus to finish third.”
SM: Touching on your debut, were you satisfied with your IndyCar outing? Anything you thought you could have done differently to have a higher finish or was it just not meant to be?
DS: “Oh yeah absolutely,” Sullivan said about finishing third in his first race. “Look, you always want to run quicker, but to come away with a third place in my first experience and the car in one piece. What I learned was to drive a little bit more on an oval. Atlanta is fast. Back in ‘82, we were averaging 210 mph in a race, that’s wild. I was really pleased with everything.”
SM: In the 1984 season, you had finishes of 24th at Long Beach, sixth at Phoenix, 29th at Indy, 16th at Milwaukee and 23rd at Portland. When you were racing your first full season, was there ever a learning curve for you or was there ever a moment where you got comfortable with learning the car?
DS: “Early on in the season, we had a terrible car, the DSR-1,” he said. “You want to start looking at the results from after Portland. After Portland, we were a lot more competitive and scored three wins. However, I think there was a learning curve, but we were also competitive. I knew more of the tracks, but if you come away with a season with three race wins, that’s a really good season. Overall, it put Doug and me on the map.”
SM: Speaking of Indy, this was your first Indy 500 experience. With the exception of finishing 14th due to a crash in 1981, what was the experience like being in the garage area on race day, pre-race ceremonies, pace laps before the green, etc.?
DS: “Two things that happened – Yes (Indy) is daunting because the track is so massive,” Sullivan said. “Back in those days, you were at Indy for three and a half weeks and you’re driving day in and day out. To be honest, you’re a little bit tired. In qualifying, there were a couple of thousand people there and you’re getting an early taste of what race day is like. From that perspective, (Indy) is pretty spectacular. Indy is its own place. Once you got in the car, you don’t even think about the fans that are in the seats and you’re more worried about staying out of trouble.”
SM: Eventually, your first win would come at Cleveland after starting fifth and leading seven laps. What does that first win still mean to you to this day and have you ever had a chance to re-watch that race?
DS: “I haven’t watched that race back in a long time,” the 1988 CART Series Champion said. “When a new team wins, it’s just special and it adds to the victory when everyone is there. (Winning) is such an adrenaline rush, but afterward, you are a little deflated because you already start thinking about the next week. To get the victories at Pocono and Saniar were special. To get a 500-miler win at Pocono and beat Rick Mears (former IndyCar legend) where we raced nose to tail on the last lap and split the car on the last lap, I went on to win and beat him by a nose.
“(Winning Pocono) was really special. One, I didn’t inherit the win and the other, I beat Rick Mears. To win against Mears, you start thinking okay now I can do this, and winning those races builds your confidence as you go along.”
SM: I know this has been asked about and talked about. But, in 1985 at the Indy 500, you had your spin on Lap 120 and then eventually rebounded to win that race. Even though you won, when it happened, did you think that you could still win that race?
DS: “At first, I thought I was done because I thought I hit the wall,” Sullivan recalled about the 1985 Indy 500 race. “To have come through that (not hitting anything) and when it (the spin) first happened, I thought shit. I’m going to hit the wall and I was pissed. Luckily, I got the car back together because you just didn’t have time to dwell on those certain kinds of things. Otherwise, you’re just going to make a mistake if you think about it too much.
“After the spin, I radioed in to Derrick Walker (Sullivan’s crew chief at the time) and made my comments, it was just one of those deals. Later in the race, Howdy Holmes and Tom Sneva (former IndyCar drivers) go into Turn 1 by themselves. I started to roll out of the throttle because I knew at the time, Howdy didn’t have much experience racing on an oval, and eventually, both he and Sneva tangled. Howdy goes up and hits the outside fence and Sneva goes down the other way.
“Meanwhile, I’m closing in on both of them and I just barely missed (Tom) Sneva. You can’t jump on the brakes because now you’re going to crash. I just missed Sneva and the yellow had already come out at the time. You’re thinking ‘Okay, that was lucky.’ But again, you have no time to dwell on it. When the spin happens, you may think about it for five seconds, but eventually, you have to get back in the groove.”
SM; After 1984, you went on to win 17 races, earned 40 podium finishes and won the championship in 1988. However, are there any races where you wish you had another chance at or a do-over? If so, which race stands out the most and why?
DS: “Two races and there’s nothing I can do about (changing the outcome) because I was leading,” he said. “I was leading the Indy 500 in ‘88 by a good margin and had a lap on Rick Mears. Unfortunately, the front wing mount broke and that put me in the fence. That car during that race was one of the best cars I ever had in my entire career.
“The second one was ironically that year at Pocono. Mario (Andretti) was leading and I was right behind Mario and he still had his last pit stop to make and I had already made mine (pit stop). There was no pressure to pass Mario and we went into Turn 3 and I should have been smarter, but he got tangled up with Dick Simon (former IndyCar driver) and crashed. Of course, when he got tangled up, I got on the brakes and wound up hitting the wall.
“When I look back on the racing, we can say ‘Gosh, I wish I hadn’t done this or that, or signed with this team.’ But when I look back, I could have won more races and easily could have won less and I had a good career. I won at Indy, Pocono, Michigan and the championship in ‘88. I got hurt, but not too bad. I’m happy with my career and I’ve got no complaints.”
SM: Out of winning 17 races, with the exception of the Indy 500, which trophy out of your collection means the most to you, and why?
DS: “I’m not so sure if I could narrow it down to one race, but that Pocono win beating Rick (Mears) was an important milestone to me and my career,” Sullivan said. “Winning that race really made Roger Penske stand up and notice. My last race with Penske at Laguna Seca, winning that one by leading flag to flag was an important one.
“One of the other victories was Long Beach with Galles Kraco Racing. That was a good race because I had battled with my teammate Al Unser Jr.”
SM: It’s hard to believe your CART debut came 39 years ago. However, what would a 71-year-old Danny Sullivan tell a 32-year-old Danny Sullivan? Is there anything you would do differently?
DS: “Yes, I would probably say, stay more focused and take every opportunity when you can,” the former CART driver said. “When your racing career stops, there’s nothing you can do and it’s hard to replace a racing career. There’s nothing quite like a racing career and I would say make the most of it while you can.”
In Sullivan’s career, the Louisville, Kentucky native has earned 17 victories and 40 podium finishes along with 19 career pole positions in the CART Series and he won the 1988 CART Championship. In addition, Sullivan has made 15 Formula 1 career starts, 11 IROC starts, one NASCAR and ARCA Series starts.
Special thanks to Dave Furst of IndyCar for helping with this interview and many thanks to Danny Sullivan for taking the time out of his schedule to conduct the interview.
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