Danny Sullivan does not look or behave like most old boys you see hanging around Gasoline Alley these days.
Although bound to run in the Indianapolis 500 Sunday, it's easier to imagine him frozen on some billboard off a back road in his native Kentucky, standing above a great field of corn or alfafa and gazing down on the workaday world as if it were a place he might like to visit some day.
You picture him this way: in a black velvet tuxedo, with a ruffled shirt front trimmed in devil's red, bringing a solid-gold wedding cup to his lips, and mumbling something like, "Goes down smooth," to anyone who's ever understood the complexities of a fine Southern blend.
At a media gathering this afteroon, somebody said all you heard about in the hours before the big race was how mechanics go about fine-tuning race cars. The fellow wanted to know how the drivers stayed fine-tuned, and Sullivan, affecting a funny expression, said, "A lot of sex."
Then: "I have a training program, and that's the serious part of the training program."
Sullivan, 35, finished his first full season of Indy car racing only last year, but already has emerged as one of the most competitive and colorful drivers running in the CART/PPG Indy Car World Series. Although he lived in Europe between 1972 and 1977, and won more than 20 races in Formula Ford and Atlantic 2 and 3 series competition, Sullivan continues to carry on with a drawl that is perfectly Southern, one full of moonvine and honeysuckle.
Stories of his life off the track appear now and then in adult magazines, and it's widely reported that he gets around in a Learjet and owns a condominium in a Colorado ski resort.
On top of that, you're always hearing stories about his important friends -- Paul Newman, Jill St. John, Christie Brinkley, Susan Anton, Cheech and Chong, Dudley Moore and others -- and stories about his days cleaning under pens on a chicken farm.
You hear how his father, unable to motivate the boy, sent young Danny off to a high-brow military academy, where he lettered in swimming, track, football and soccer in his senior year, and later, to the University of Kentucky, where he lasted only two semesters before dropping out and leaving home for good.
In 1969, when he was 19, Sullivan moved to New York and took on practically any kind of work he could find to support his enormous taste for the nightlife. He cut sod on Long Island, lumberjacked up in the Adirondacks and drove a taxicab.
He was working as a waiter at a singles bar off First Avenue in Manhattan -- making between $300 and $500 a week at a place called Maxwell's Plum -- when Dr. Frank Falkner, an old family friend now a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, stopped by and asked what on earth the lad planned to do with his life. Turns out his family in Lexington had sent Falkner north to find their son, and that's when Daniel John Sullivan III announced his intentions to become a world champion racecar driver.
Around Indy, you hear chatter from old boys, most of whom consider racing a life awarded only to those monstrously blessed by their maker, that generally ends with a sorrowful nod of the head and this unqualified prayer: "It ain't everybody gets to make a living doin' what he really wants to be doin'."
But that's what happened to Danny Sullivan, who was only looking to grow up. Dr. Falkner went out and paid his tuition to the Jim Russell Driving School at Snetterton in England. That was on Sullivan's 21st birthday, 11 years before he would make his first run in the Indianapolis 500 and finish 14th, after driving his machine into the fourth turn wall on the 148th lap.
"The thing about this place," he has said more than once about Indy, "you do your best to get through the first 400 miles, and race it home the last hundred."
Many European road racers, he said, never would attempt to drive on oval tracks with concrete walls, and especially not at speeds of about 210 mph. "But there's no real way you can ever make this type of car safe on this type of track," he said. "Even if the speeds dropped 20 or 30 miles an hour, the difference wouldn't matter when you run into the wall with that kind of impact . . . "
In 1984, after taking a year off to drive Formula One cars, Sullivan won three major races in a Lola owned by Doug Shierson: the Cleveland Grand Prix, the Sanair Indy in St. Pie, Quebec, and the Pocono 500.
At the Indianapolis 500 last year, he started at the rear of the field and was moving up at a happy clip when he slammed into Roberto Guerrero on the tail end of the big Patrick Bedard crash. He finished 29th in the 33-car field but won more than $57,000, his second-largest purse of the year.
Now, driving the No. 5 Miller American March 85C for the Roger Penske race team, which includes defending Indianapolis champion Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr., a three-time winner, Sullivan earned a spot in the middle of the third row after qualifying at 210.298 mph. He said the pressure of driving for Penske, who has dominated Indy racing over the last 10 years, is a "different kind of pressure" than he knew last year.
"With Penske," he said, "though he tries to keep it low key, you have the very best equipment and you're expected to do well. Last year, I was still into being one of the new kids on the block. But with those three wins, I'm much more established and people expect more of me now."