Spin Cycle

Danny Sullivan on track in 1988 when he won the season championship driving for Team Penske. When he began driving in what is now the NTT IndyCar Series, the infield section – turns 3 through 5 – had not yet been added to Laguna Seca.

On lap 120 of the 1985 Indianapolis 500, Danny Sullivan forced his car inside of Mario Andretti as they entered Turn 1 in a bid to take the lead. It did not end well, at least for the moment.

Coming out of the corner, Sullivan lost control and the car went into a vicious spin, disappearing into a cloud of smoke. Yet the former Pebble Beach resident was fortunate that afternoon. The car did not slam into the wall and Sullivan managed to get it pointed in the right direction. He would eventually make the pass and take the checkered flag – the famous “spin and win.”

Sullivan had no inclination to be a race car driver. “My family had two station wagons, so it wasn’t in my DNA,” he admits.

He worked a series of manual labor jobs after high school while hoping to avoid being drafted to service in Vietnam. Sullivan was waiting tables at a restaurant in New York when his parents sent a family friend, Frank Faulkner, to give him some guidance. “I think they were hoping to convince me to go back to school,” he says.

For Sullivan’s 21st birthday, Faulkner presented him with a course at a racing school in England. The result was 17 wins in the IndyCar series along with the 1988 season title, a stint in Formula 1 – even an appearance on Miami Vice.

Weekly: How often do people ask you about the spin and win?

Sullivan: I’ve told the story a lot, much to the chagrin of my wife – “Oh, no. He’s telling it again.” I didn’t intend to spin. I did intend to win, that was the point. I would have liked to have a boring race. But nowadays it’s fun. I’m proud of winning the championship, the 500, all the people in racing – Chip Ganassi, the Andrettis, Penske. You look back and, in the scheme of things, I got to do what I wanted to do. Or what I stumbled into doing.

You obviously did well at racing school.

That was the easy part. The hard part was making it happen. It’s connections, hustle, keeping your nose to the grindstone. You can go through money awfully fast. There’s no gentle path to racing, no guarantee. If you get in at the wrong time, if there are no seats open – there’s no easy way to do it.

Do you still watch races?

Oh yeah. And I try to make some of the races. I was at Indy this year. I watch Formula 1, IndyCar, quite a few of the NASCAR races. We live in Florida now, so I drove to Daytona for the 24 Hours. I’m a fan.

Why did you leave the Peninsula?

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We were going to downsize. I had a big house in Pebble Beach and there are only two of us and a dog. We couldn’t find a place to buy. We couldn’t find a place to rent because we had a dog. The funny thing is, a lot of [landlords] were dog people. It’s one of those things.

Do you miss the area?

Oh god, I love it there. The Peninsula has so much car stuff. We have a lot of friends there. And the weather – once you get used to Pebble Beach weather, it’s hard. But I’ve been blessed. I’ve lived all over the world.

How have the cars changed since you were driving?

It’s hard to compare unless you’ve actually driven both. If a car is good, they’re a lot of fun to drive. If it’s not good, they’re still a beast. It’s all relative. If you think about a race car, it’s still a matter of finding mechanical balance and aerodynamic balance. Race cars are still race cars. But I would imagine they’re more refined to drive.

What do you think of Laguna Seca?

Laguna is one of the special tracks. With the Corkscrew and the Hairpin, it’s got diverse challenges. It’s hard to get everything perfect. That’s why so many people want to race at Laguna.

Add in all the places to eat on the Peninsula, the scenery, the weather – even my European buddies, they all think it’s a special place.

The other great track is Spa Francorchamps [in Belgium]. You’ve driven both.

I did one of my last professional races there in a Ferrari GT car. I was 54 years old and running fourth and had just come through Eau Rouge and I thought, “man, this is cool.”

When you started racing, did you have a favorite driver?

My mentor, Frank Faulkner, introduced me to Jackie Stewart and Francois Cevert. Jackie helped me to understand what it takes. He was the first truly professional driver.

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