The one that got away
Danny Sullivan: 1988 Indianapolis 500
He had the best team, the best car and the beating of Indy’s best driver. Then a dodgy wing sent him wailing into a wall, he tells Adam Cooper
Danny Sullivan earned a special place in the Indianapolis 500 history books with his famous spin-and-win success of 1985, but three years later he had a chance to add a second Indy victory to his CV. But this time luck was not on his side, and he ended his day against the unyielding concrete wall through no fault of his own.
Sullivan was part of a stellar Penske line-up that included Rick Mean and Al Unser Snr. Not only were all three past winners of the event, they had each won with Penske within the previous four years. It was without a doubt the strongest three-car squad ever fielded at the Speedway, and when the new PC17 hit the track at the start of May, rivals knew they were in for a tough month.
“Roger’s teams were always good,” says Sullivan. “It was a well-oiled machine that was very well run, and they had such a history at Indy. Plus this was my fourth season with them.
“The PC17 was really good. It was the first car from Nigel Bennett, and it was really a super car. If you’re quicker through the corners, you’re always going to be quick down the straightaways. I actually broke the track record when I qualified, and everyone was jumping up and down. I kept saying to them, ‘Wait until Mears goes out.’ For me, he was the best guy ever at the Speedway. If you look at his record, not only did he win, but he had poles and God knows how many seconds.
“Roger always concentrated on Rick, but I don’t mean that in a negative way. Roger is one helluva competitive guy, and his whole focus was on doing the best for Rick. In some ways you were competing against him!”
Mears did indeed go faster and bump Sullivan down to second, while Unser Snr took third to make the front row a clean sweep for the PC17. Although he had lost out in qualifying, Danny remained confident that he could beat his team-mates in the race.
ABC TV thought the same, and followed Danny’s preparations through the month, creating a lot of extra interest in his progress.
“Very rarely in your career do you have a car that is so close to perfection. And that car in 1988 was. I got a little bit better start than Rick, and I just went away. With that car I could go anywhere I wanted to go, I could pass anybody wherever I wanted to. The car had no faults at all.”
By lap 13, Sullivan was lapping traffic, and by lap 20, he and Mean were 10sec ahead of the field. Life was made even easier when Mario Andretti, one of the most likely challengers, hit trouble. Then handling problems dropped Rick right back, leaving Sullivan on his own.
“I had a lap on the field at one stage, and that’s just unheard of. We weren’t even at half-distance. That’s just how good it was.”
The race was notable for a large number of accidents and yellows, and Sullivan himself had a narrow escape at a restart when Ludwig Heimrath Jnr spun across his bows, and they avoided contact by a matter of yards. It seemed his spin-and-win luck was still holding.
The interruptions kept costing Danny his hard-earned advantage, but each time he’d streak away again. Then his perfectly balanced car began to understeer. A yellow caused by a stray beer can on the track gave him the chance to pit.
“I had a little handling problem, and I came in. They discovered there was a problem with the front wing mount They had a little hole where they could adjust it up and down with a speed wrench. That had started to give up, and my crew chief taped it up. ‘Big Al’ Unser had already had the same problem, but his crew poked a punch in the side and then taped it up to keep it in place.”
Buick-powered Jim Crawford now unexpectedly became the first Briton to lead the Indy 500 since the Clark-Hill-Stewart era. Behind him, after his early problems, Mears had unlapped himself and worked back up to second. Sullivan was now third, but he wasn’t too worried.
“I didn’t think anything about it when they fixed it. You lose ground because you stop out of step with the others, and it just takes you time to get back the lost ground. And Penske’s guys were so damn clever. So I wasn’t worried about it, because the car was so damn good.”
However, on lap 102, Sullivan’s race came to an abrupt end. As he headed into Turn One, the temporary front-wing fix gave up and he speared hard into the wall. It was one of the most spectacular incidents yet caught by an on-board camera.
“Normally, let’s say you’ve got 10-15 degrees on the steering wheel, and now you’ve got about 30 — and you’re going towards the wall. It’s obvious that something has gone wrong when the car just stops turning, and I guessed what it was because we’d had the initial problem.
“You’re not thinking about getting hurt. Even when I spun in 1985,I was just so pissed off. It’s like, ‘Damn! Why has the race just got away from me?’ You’re just really upset about what could have been.
And then you hit the wall, and that brings you back to reality pretty quickly.
“Luckily, it didn’t do it going into the turn, it did it halfway through, so I was already pretty much turned. Still, it was a pretty big hit, but I was more mad than anything else. They took me to the infield medical centre and checked me out, but I was fine.
“When I spoke to Roger, it was just, ‘These things happen.’ Roger was a great guy to drive for in that respect. If you made a mistake he didn’t come down and beat on you for it, he was a racer himself. If something broke on the car he got to the bottom of it very quickly. I’m sure he had those pieces made bullet-proof so there wasn’t a problem in the future.”
Sullivan thus watched from the pits as Mears scored his third 500 victory, ahead of Emerson Fittipaldi and Unser Snr.
“It wouldn’t have mattered so much, only I had such a good car that day. If that thing had never broken, possibly I could have won the Indy 500 by the largest margin ever. There was no problem with the car: Rick proved that, and Al finished as well. The car was so good, and in fact we went on to win the Michigan 500 and the CART title that year.”
Sullivan might have missed out at Indy, but his televised shunt did at least help to earn a major prize for a friend.
“Don Olmeyer of ABC was the king of sports TV direction. He was just brilliant. He called me that night and said, ‘I owe you thanks.’ I said, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘You’ve probably just won me an Emmy.’ And I had!”