Months of May: 1985 – Danny Sullivan Spins and Wins


In the build up to the 2014 Indianapolis 500, The Checkered Flag is looking back on significant races that have contributed to the glorious history of the 97 500s that have been and gone.

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We end our week of with a look at the 1985 race and the ‘Spin and Win’ for Penske Racing’s Danny Sullivan.

The fifth win for Roger Penske, and the only win for Danny Sullivan, was special for the miraculous recovery made by Sullivan to recover from a massive spin and take the race lead – and victory  – only 20 laps later. It would also be the last time Mario Andretti finished on the Indy 500 podium before he retired in 1994 thus carrying on the ‘Andretti Curse’ which has seen Mario, sons Michael and Jeff as well as nephew John and grandson Marco only win the race once – in 1969.

The Month of May began with legendary driver/team owner AJ Foyt attempting to break the 10,000 mile barrier in single seater competition. It was also the first year that an African-American racer tried to qualify for the race – Willy T. Ribbs took part in Rookie Orientation but couldn’t get up to speed and withdrew, fortunately – or not – his time came in 1991 where he completed just five laps before his engine failed.

In qualifying it was Buick power that led the way with their newly developed stock block V6 securing Pancho Carter and Scott Brayton a 1-2 start and speeds in the 212mph range – a four lap average record for the time and the start of an engine revolution in the series.

On the outside of the front row – which is three abreast at the speedway – was Bobby Rahal in the Truesport March-Cosworth who managed to shut out Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi – both of whom started on the second row.

There were 14 drivers who failed to qualify for the 500 mile race, some because they were bumped, some – like Jacques Villeneuve (uncle of the future Indy winner of the same name) – because they had crashes in the numerous practice sessions building up to the race on Memorial Day.

Into the race itself and Rahal managed to get a jump on the two Buick powered cars to lead in the first lap and Andretti made a magnificent assault to claim second as the field came across the bricks for lap two. Pole sitter Carter had slipped to fourth by the end of the first lap and on lap six he retired with an oil pump failure. In doing so he became only the second Indy 500 polesitter to suffer the ignominy of leaving the track credited with a last place finish.

It seemed that whilst the V6 stock block engines marked something of a speed revolution, their reliability was much to be desired as Scott Brayton would also retire after only 19 laps with cylinder wall issues. However, it could be argued that many of the other teams suffered the same amount of unreliability – six other retirees are listed as been afflicted with engine issues.

A surreal incident marked the first half of the race, AJ Foyt came into the pits struggling with a mishandling racer – attributed to a broken front wing. A heated Foyt stalked around the car, hit the fueler which in turned spilt fuel and caused a fire to start in the pit area.

Sullivan mid-spin, avoiding all that came near
Sullivan mid-spin, avoiding all that came near

The second half of the race was centred around the now legendary spin, Andretti was leading as Sullivan tried for a pass on the flat apron going into turn one. The apron’s roughness caused the Penske to pitch into a spin in front of Andretti, thankfully Sullivan missed the Italian-American as well as the wall. Indeed it was fortunate that the driver kept going, Sullivan’s engined had stalled during his 360 degree spin but fortunately he was quick enough to get it back in gear and get going again.

One driver who did hit the wall though, and bucked the trend of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway being a dangerous place to crash out, was Rich Vogler. He tangled with Howdy Holmes going into turn one and both hit the wall, Vogler – driving a March-Cosworth – had to be airlifted to hospital to treat his injuries.

Twenty laps after Sullivan was span out, he pulled an almost identical move on the leader, still Andretti, but this time made it stick – and carried on to take what was his only 500 victory.

After the victory it was reported that Andretti didn’t speak to Sullivan for a year after the incident. Others, including veteran US broadcaster Sam Posey, believed this 500 to be a changing of the guard – shifting away from veterans like Andretti, Unser and Foyt to the new blood like Sullivan.

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