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Trip Down Victory Lane: Danny Sullivan's spin to success

Curt Cavin,
Published April 21, 2016 | Updated June 12, 2016

(Photo: Curt Cavin / IndyStar)

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – It’s while approaching Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s oceanside eighth hole, which Danny Sullivan once aced with Vice President Dan Quayle as vhis partner, that Sullivan's good life comes into focus.

Thing is, it’s not by accident. Or is it?

In 1985, Sullivan was in his second IndyCar season, and on the 120th lap of that year's Indianapolis 500, he took the lead from Mario Andretti. Goodness lasted all of about 100 yards.
Everyone but Andretti celebrates the rest of the story, arguably the most magical moment in 500 history. Sullivan’s car not only did a complete spin exiting Turn 1, it hurt nothing but his pride.
“I’m sitting in the car and I’m so (mad) at myself,” Sullivan said earlier this week. “That was the first time I’d (passed for) the lead at Indy, and I blew it.”

Danny Sullivan, who passed leader Mario Andretti, spins and then wins the 1985 Indianapolis 500. (Photo: Keith Pritchard / The Indianapolis Star)


Or he thought he had. As the tire smoke cleared, Sullivan’s eyes located the Turn 2 suites, and that brought clarity to his situation: no harm, no foul.
“I took my foot off the brake and said, ‘Let’s go,’ ” he said.

History records that after pitting for new tires, Sullivan went on to pass Andretti again on Lap 140, and he led the rest of the race for his first and only Indy victory. Often omitted from that moment is the fact Sullivan, then 35 years old, nearly lost control again in the seconds after the spin. Turns out he wasn’t in the right gear – he still doesn’t know which of the five he grabbed – and it caused his car to lurch sideways. Even he notes the luck of it all.

“Just like that hole-in-one, I could go out with a bucket of balls and never in my life do that again,” he said of last year’s 195-yard shot on the Shore Course known for hosting the PGA Tour’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
But here’s the difference: Sullivan was prepared for the moment.

Long before building a brand was considered a thing, Sullivan knew the importance of it from watching Jackie Stewart capitalize on being a three-time Formula One champion by hiring a proper agency, which tied him to Ford, Rolex and other major corporations. Sullivan considers being recommended to famed Hollywood publicist Alan Nierob a turning point in his life.

A photo displayed in Danny Sullivan's home shows the Indy 500 winner with Michael Jordan. (Photo: Curt_Cavin_/_IndyStar)


Unlike the other Penske drivers of the mid-1980s, Sullivan was eager to execute the opportunities presented to him, and proof is shown in photographs in Sullivan’s home. There is his meeting with President Reagan and wife Nancy in the White House. There is golf with Michael Jordan and Don Johnson, a tennis match with Martina Navratilova, a movie with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.

He has photographs with South African President Nelson Mandela, with golfers Greg Norman and Nick Price, with tennis player Chris Evert, with actors Paul Newman, Samuel L. Jackson and Sharon Stone, with Tiger Woods when Tiger was Tiger.

There are magazine covers featuring Sullivan, ads where he's promoting Ray-Ban and Alberto V05, evidence of glorious ski trips and shots from A-list parties, most taken after the 1985 500.

Even Sullivan's wife, Brenda, is something of a spin-and-win product. They were introduced by casino magnate Steve Wynn, who gave the Las Vegas strip many of its signature stops.

Get the idea?

“It was all about getting more impressions and how I could make myself more marketable, and the spin made a big difference in that,” Sullivan said. “A race car driver is obviously going to be (featured in) the racing publications, but it was important for me to be in People, USA Today, things outside the (racing) box.
“After the Indy win, I wasn’t just on (ABC’s) 'Good Morning America,' I was on all three national morning talk shows. Not many people have done that.”

The benefits are still pouring in, and it’s possible Andretti is the only one-time Indy winner more of a mainstream celebrity than Sullivan. He has 10 official acting credits to his name.

It’s worth noting that in recent years, two other Indy winners have approached Sullivan for his recipe for post-win success, but he said neither was willing to make the same financial investment to Nierob, whose juicy client list includes Beyonce, Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington, Mel Gibson and Caitlyn Jenner.

Danny Sullivan's Indy 500 plaque displayed inside his California home. (Photo: Curt_Cavin_/_IndyStar)


Today, at age 66, Sullivan regularly plays golf against a Pacific coast backdrop, although he’s dropped from a 7-handicap in his prime to a 12. He remains a part-time F-1 race steward to keep his international connections intact. Both help him in business.

Sullivan is eight years into his senior advisor role with Tempus Jets, an aviation company specializing in defense contracts, but his latest project is, which aims to monetize social media.

The Sullivans have two dogs — Dino, a Belgian shepherd, and Sadie, a German shepherd — at their three-plus hillside acres above Pebble Beach Golf Links. Their 120-degree view of the Pacific Ocean is breathtaking.
The home is simple and stately, with gorgeous artwork, including prints created by Mandela. Sullivan’s favorite piece is an encased display of his Indy-winning plaque. The centerpiece downstairs is a pool table where Brenda, who is a skilled player, still can’t beat her husband with regularity. No surprise there. Sullivan knows how to spin ‘em.

Follow IndyStar reporter Curt Cavin on Facebook and Twitter: @curtcavin