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JIM MURRAY

A Winner Like This Is Almost Indy-cent

May 27, 1985|JIM MURRAY

INDIANAPOLIS — The winner of the Indianapolis 500 is nobody's idea of a race driver. Well, maybe Louis B. Mayer's. MGM's. The Warner Bros. This is no guy off a lube rack. This is Errol Flynn stuff. This is what race drivers look like in movies, not in cockpits.

First of all, there's no limp. No burn scars. He's got all his feet and fingers. Shoot, he's even got all his teeth and hair.

You figure a director will appear any moment waving a megaphone yelling "Cut!" And then call for the hairdresser--and someone to do the car scenes.

This is the race driver from Hollywood and Vine. This is from the "Let's take lunch at Ma Maison" set. He looks like a guy who might say "Ciao" when he's leaving.

Even the name Danny Sullivan is right out of the Screen Writers Guild. Or something dreamed up by the William Morris Agency. It's a wonder he's not called Rock Hudson. Or Rip Torn. In fact, you figure even Hollywood might not buy it. "Shouldn't he have at least a little broken nose?" Any directory would send him to makeup to at least get his hair mussed.

You don't win Indy your third time around this track. You know how many times Johnny Rutherford ate everybody's oil before he finished better than 18th? Do you have any idea how many times Bobby Unser hung it on the wall before he got the hang of it? Danny Sullivan has now won exactly as many Indy 500s as Mario Andretti who has been trying every year since 1965.

How can a guy win Indy who's never broken a leg or caught fire here? A guy who never changed a tire or checked the oil? Danny Sullivan never drove anything more dangerous than a New York cab until he was almost 30 years old. His friends thought his only future was as a dance instructor.

He's probably the only guy in the field who went to military school. Most people figured the girls would never let this hunk get in a race car. It's like letting Tom Selleck put out oil-well fires.

People figure he became a race-car driver because his polo ponies got sick. Or the sailing was bad off Montauk that summer. They were sure he'd go back to designer jeans and no socks the first time his nose bled.

Most race drivers get pictured and profiled in Road & Track magazine. You find Danny Sullivan in Penthouse. Most race drivers don't answer their phones. Danny Sullivan has a Hollywood press agent. The people he pals around with have never been to Indianapolis in their lives and have no idea where it is or what people do there.

Danny beat the flower of American racing at their own game Sunday. He won the most brutish, hard-hat kind of racing there is and A.J. Foyt or any Unser never won it in any more overpowering fashion. The Establishment couldn't have been more shocked if a playboy won a dock fight.

First of all, it was the fastest field ever put together. Every car in it went more than 200 miles an hour. The cars were balky, sullen, cantankerous. They went into the corners like a biplane going through Mach One. The vibration was so intense one guy's helmet kept flying off. Sometimes, the rest of the car tried to join it.

Danny Sullivan went after Mario Andretti 140 laps into the race. That's like knocking a chip off Jack Dempsey's shoulder. Mario Andretti is about as easy to get by as the IRS. Mario does everything but open fire. You can get to him. You can't get by him. Danny Sullivan even spun his car a complete 360 degrees in trying.

Once past Andretti, your troubles are hardy over. Having Mario Andretti in your rear-view mirror is like having a funnel on the horizon. It breeds anxiety.

Not too many guys with Roman numerals after their names get to keep Mario Andretti in their rear-view mirror wheel-to-wheel racing. Sullivan found it as easy as driving a cab in Central Park. At least, you know it isn't going to end up in a stickup. If you get killed at least it's an accident.

Danny Sullivan became a race driver because a friend of the family tried to keep him from becoming a ski bum or a head waiter. He sent him to England to learn how to drive something without a meter in it.

But, if the family friend made him a driver, Roger Penske made him a champion. Penske is an owner who has now won five Indys, largely because he can spot a race-car driver as unerringly as Vince Lombardi could spot a football player. A meticulous, computer-accurate engineer, Penske puts cars on the track that are the automotive equivalent of Man o'War. Or Carl Lewis. Whatever can be dialed in for success is in there. And this includes the equipment holding onto the steering wheel. Penske, like any good coach, never likes to turn his offense over to a scatter-arm quarterback or a guy who rattles easily.

Penske put three cars in the field and turned the Miller American March-Cosworth, the part of his entry bankrolled by the Miller beer conglomerate, over to Sullivan. Sullivan not only had to beat the Foyts and Andrettis, he had to outdrive the guys in the same garage.

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