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INDY 500 PROFILE: : THE DEFENDING CHAMPION : Life in Fast Lane Suits Him Just Fine, but He Has Remained Committed to Racing : DANNY SULLIVAN

May 19, 1986|SHAV GLICK | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Every night this month, on just about every TV channel around here, Danny Sullivan does his "This is how I won the Indy 500" trick, a 360-degree spin in front of Mario Andretti that defies logic, racing luck or traction.

Every time you see it, the feeling is the same: It can't be true. No one spins at close to 200 m.p.h., comes out heading in the right direction, and wins the world's most important race against no less than the great Andretti himself.

Sullivan has been in a spin ever since.

"My life will never be the same since I won the 500, that's for sure," Sullivan said in a quiet moment while preparing to defend his Indianapolis 500 title next Sunday.

No one's life is ever the same after winning the Indianapolis 500, but on the other hand, no winner's life has ever been like Danny Sullivan's, either.

Sullivan has taken the Borg-Warner trophy, the diamond-studded ring, the back-to-back swigs of milk and his sponsor's beer, and all the adulation given a champion and parlayed them into a year-long personal appearance.

Always with a captivating smile that comes as easily as recovering a spinning race car; always lit up by a pair of penetrating hazel eyes that can melt anyone from across a room or spot an unseen hole on a track clogged with race cars, and a set of teeth that are right out of a toothpaste commercial; always with a hint of a swagger, a heritage perhaps from his Kentucky upbringing, a modern day Rhett Butler.

"I work at my image," Sullivan said matter-of-factly. "I wanted to push into areas where race drivers had never ventured. I think of myself as one of today's new breed of race driver. Sponsors have become extremely important in our sport and they want more than a race driver, they want a face out in front that is recognizable and available.

"Look at it another way. What if I got hurt and my racing career suddenly ended. I'm 36 years old and have no college degree. I need other things to fall back on when my racing days are over. What race driver my age could retire at my life style?"

On the other hand, what other race driver could survive his life style. Sullivan's image has been exploited in Playgirl, Penthouse and People magazines as a Hollywood playboy. True, he has partied with Christie Brinkley, Cheech and Chong and Catherine Bach. He has been linked romantically in the gossip columns with Susan Anton, Victoria Principal and Princess Caroline of Monaco. You can find James Garner, Paul Newman and Christopher Cross hanging around his car. But, still, the real Danny Sullivan is a workaholic.

How else could one handle what he has programed this week. Between signing autographs, posing for pictures, shaking hands and giving on-the-run interviews everywhere he goes, this is Sullivan's pre-500 schedule:

Today--Fly to Chicago to appear for three hours at his sponsor's Miller American booth at the National Restaurant Owners convention. Tape interview with Bill Macatee of the "Today Show" for a series on star athletes, including baseball's Dwight Gooden, basketball's Michael Jordan and skating's Debi Thomas.

Tuesday--Fly to New York to appear on David Letterman's late night talk show. Meet with a Brian Grazer Production Co. representative about possible TV show. Profile interview with Newsweek.

Wednesday--Appear on "CBS Morning News." Interview with People magazine for feature on Most Eligible Bachelors in America. Fly back to Indianapolis for Indiana National Bank reception and taping for CBS's "West 57th St." show.

Thursday--Carburetion day at the Speedway for final shakedown of Cosworth-powered March he will drive on Sunday. Cameo appearances at Miller infield party in the afternoon and Front Row dinner in evening with teammate Rick Mears, the pole-sitter, and Michael Andretti.

Friday--Up early for ABC's "Good Morning America" show from the Speedway. Attend Queen's Ball, a black-tie affair at the Convention Center.

Saturday--Attend drivers' meeting at the Speedway. Ride in 500 Festival parade through downtown Indianapolis. Have quiet dinner with team owner Roger Penske and team drivers Mears and Al Unser.

Sunday--The race.

"It is a little bit of madness, isn't it?" he said, grinning that infectious smile after outlining his schedule.

After a race, most drivers like to wind down, relaxing at home, playing golf, going fishing or just sitting around tugging on a beer.

Not Sullivan. He runs as fast after a race as he does in it.

Take the 24 Hours of Daytona, for instance.

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