Danny Sullivan in victory lane after winning the 1985 Indianapolis 500. (IMS Archives)
Danny Sullivan in victory lane after winning the 1985 Indianapolis 500. (IMS Archives)

Danny Sullivan: Indy Car’s Glamour Boy

Danny Sullivan represented the Glamour Era of Indy car racing during the 1980s and ’90s.

He dated models and actresses such as Christie Brinkley and Lisa Hartman and did a bit of his own modeling for Town & Country Magazine.

Sullivan’s appeal was so strong, he was cast in an episode of the iconic 1980s television show “Miami Vice,” playing a race car driver accused of murdering a prostitute.

He played golf with the greats of the game and struck up a friendship with Greg Norman that continues today.

Sullivan was an A-List celebrity and the epitome of what many believed a race car driver should look like. 

But Sullivan was a true racer who took a long path from Louisville, Ky., to stardom.

He attended his first Indianapolis 500 with some of his Kentucky Military School buddies in 1968. He moved to New York City in 1970 where he waited tables at the famed Maxwell’s Plum on 64th and 1st Avenue, briefly drove a taxi and had an even briefer time as a lumberjack in the Adirondack Mountains.

Sullivan never planned on being a race car driver. But things changed when he took a course at the Jim Russell Racing Driver  School at the Snetterton Circuit in England, as a 21st birthday present.

What followed was a long stint in the Formula Ford, Formula 3 and Formula 2 ranks before Sullivan began showing promise.

“To borrow a phrase that was uttered by someone else, I was an overnight sensation that took 11 years,” Sullivan told SPEED SPORT from his Florida home. “I think it was Tom Selleck who said that.

“None of that stuff was easy.”

Danny Sullivan in 1984. (IMS Archives Photo)
Danny Sullivan in 1984. (IMS Archives Photo)

It wasn’t easy for Sullivan to achieve success. He worked hard to get there, but without the help of Garvin Brown, Sullivan admits he may have never gotten to experience a successful career in racing.

“We all need help along the way,” Sullivan recalled. “Even Rick Mears got help from Bill Simpson. He was a big fan of Rick Mears.

“It’s hard to get there on your own. Somebody had to help. But as R.P. (Roger Penske) said, you still have to put numbers on the board. You have to back it up with something. I was lucky on both sides of it and had good people help me.

“I’m very grateful to be sitting in the chair I’m sitting right now.”

At 71, that chair is at his home on a golf course in Palm Beach Gardens where he lives with his wife of 26 years, Brenda Bosveld. 

From 1984 to 1995, Sullivan won 17 Indy car races, including the famed “Spin and Win” Indy 500 in 1985. He also won 19 poles and the 1988 CART Indy Car World Series championship.

Although his career came to an end after a serious crash at Michigan Int’l Speedway in 1995 left him with a broken pelvis and other injuries, Sullivan’s fame continued. He worked for ABC from 1995-’98 and focused on his business interests and investments, which included Danny Sullivan Lexus in Jacksonville, Fla.

In racing, he was involved in the Red Bull Driver Search program that helped promote Scott Speed to Scuderia Toro Rosso in 2006 and remains a drivers’ representative on the Formula 1 stewards’ panel.

“I wanted the recognition so that I could attract the sponsors. I wanted to be considered for the Wheaties box because that meant you achieved something in your career that meant something to the public.

“I was a finalist and got voted out of it by Michael Jordan. Hell, I would have voted for Michael Jordan.”

There are four men in particular who helped Sullivan become successful. 

The first was Brown, an international race team owner who became a major proponent and benefactor to Sullivan.

“Garvin saved my career,” Sullivan admitted. “Garvin was a Kentucky guy. He was an heir to the Brown-Forman Distillers, that produces Jack Daniel’s whiskey. I knew the family, but I didn’t know Garvin because he was four or five years older than I was.

“I got to know Garvin when I moved back to Kentucky and I was struggling to find a ride. I was about to quit. I found a job opportunity to work on a crab boat in Alaska. I was fed up with chasing money and being broke all the time and working a couple of jobs. 

“Garvin asked if I had anything going and I told him I had been asked to do a Can-Am deal at Riverside, Calif. I told him I couldn’t afford the plane ticket and Garvin paid for it,” Sullivan explained. “I went out there and wasn’t able to do the deal because it was so late in the game. 

“Mario Andretti told Garvin to help this guy and before I left the hotel, I cut a deal with him and he put me on a retainer. That is when we started looking around and began putting together some deals. The Can-Am deal was a bit of a disaster, but it morphed into other things that worked out. 

“Garvin was a very, very important part of my career. Without him, it would have never launched into eventually becoming a success,” Sullivan continued. “He owned a piece of me including when we won the Indy 500 in 1985. I asked, ‘Who do I make the check out to?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just consider it paid in full.’

“I sit in my office and look at the shelves with trophies and some of the memorabilia, a picture of Garvin in the pit lane in Monaco, and I think, none of this would have happened without Garvin,” Sullivan recalled. “He really made my career by putting his money where his mouth was.

“Garvin was a big part of saving my career through all that. Big kudos to him. I’m sorry he is gone.”

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