One of the most famous people in the Formula One paddock for the May 8 Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix will not be steering a car, supervising engineers or providing breaking news for the international broadcasts.
Danny Sullivan, 72, a Palm Beach Gardens resident and the 1985 Indianapolis 500 champion, will instead be serving as the sanctioning body Federation Internationale de l’Association (FIA) Drivers Steward at the Miami International Autodrome at Hard Rock Stadium. There, his duties include helping to officiate the highly-anticipated Formula One race.
Beyond this formal role, however, Sullivan is a natural ambassador for the sport of auto racing, whose ultimate-level, internationally-based Formula One Series immediately sold-out for its upcoming “Mother’s Day” debut in South Florida.
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It will be the first of two U.S.-based grand prix this year – also including Austin’s Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in October. Next year, the American slate is expected to grow again with an additional race announced for Las Vegas in November, 2023 – marking the first time the United States has hosted three Formula One races in a single season since 1982 (at Long Beach, Calif., Las Vegas and Detroit).
All the excitement – the near instantaneous sellout of the Miami grand prix and the anticipation of three American races in the same year – is largely because Formula One is enjoying a huge surge in popularity stateside. Sullivan attributes a large portion of this new interest to the Netflix original series, “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” which is a behind-the-scenes, candid and often spellbinding look at this international series from the inside out.
Sullivan remembers a recent dinner with friends and their teenage daughters who were so taken in by the documentary-style series, they didn’t want anyone to spoil upcoming episodes about the 2021 season. They did not want to know who won the championship – even though Oracle Red Bull Racing team driver Max Verstappen hoisted the trophy last November in Abu Dhabi.
“I think what we’ve seen with the success of “Drive to Survive” is that it’s really brought a lot of different people into the sport, fans that watch and think it’s great,’’ Sullivan said.
“I have a good friend who has been in racing forever, won Pikes Peak (Hill Climb), is a director for car commercials and has two daughters,’’ he continued. “The girls never followed his sport even though he’s raced. Now they watch (Drive to Survive) and now they’re diehard Formula One fans.
“It’s had a huge impact.”
Sullivan was popular driver in 1980s, ’90s
The same could be said about Sullivan’s career in the 1980s and ’90s as auto racing was enjoying a warming American reception and Sullivan was becoming a household name.
Renowned for his driving skills and considered one of the racing’s most beloved athletes, Sullivan competed in Formula One driving for the Benetton Tyrrell Team in 1983 and earned his only grand prix points with a fifth-place finish at the most-celebrated venue on the schedule – the streets of Monte Carlo in Monaco.
The next season, Sullivan returned to the United States and took the green flag for a celebrated American-based open-wheel career – in fact, winning the inaugural IndyCar race held in Miami’s Tamiami Park in 1985 with a race lap record that still holds today.
His victory earlier in that 1985 season in the Indianapolis 500 – which included his legendary “spin and win” – is still an iconic moment in racing for the diehards and casual fan alike. Just after passing Mario Andretti for the race lead with 80 laps remaining, Sullivan’s car got loose and spun all the way around – a full 360-degrees. Although he maintained control and didn’t hit anything, he had to pass the iconic Andretti again 20 laps later and went on to win the race.
In only 12 full seasons, Sullivan earned 17 IndyCar victories and the 1988 CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) IndyCar season championship driving for the legendary Roger Penske.
Not only is Sullivan known for his work behind the wheel, he’s had high profile time in front of the camera too – appearing in a “Miami Vice” episode and serving as a highly-respected racing announcer for years after his racing career ended in 1995.
So it is of little surprise that Sullivan finds himself in a highly-respected role again, this time as a FIA Driving Steward – a position he’s held for the last 15 years. The job includes 5-6 grand prix and requires him to work alongside a handful of other stewards – racing’s version of referees – to make penalty calls when necessitated during the running of the race weekend, from practice to qualifying to race.
It’s incredibly intense and the calls he and the other officials make can have major impacts on not only that specific race but on the season championship as a whole. They could issue 5 or 10-second penalties for an infraction or it could even be a disqualification – all with potentially huge effects in a series where millions of dollars separate positions in the championship standings.
“The problem is, best case scenario, you’re only going to please 51 percent of the people, so there’s always going to someone that’s not happy with you,’’ Sullivan said with a laugh, adding, “We’re not the most loved people.”
Through a decades-long career where he’s accelerated behind the wheel, in front of the camera and now, in the official’s booth, Sullivan has also remained committed to helping other American race drivers try to break into the Formula One ranks. The only two Americans to ever earn F1 world championships were Californian Phil Hill (1961) and Andretti (1978), who immigrated to the U.S. from Italy as a child.
Sullivan has been instrumental in working with the Red Bull Driver Search program that helped launch Californian driver Scott Speed’s opportunity to race in Formula One in the 2006-07 seasons. The last American to compete in the series was current IndyCar star Alexander Rossi, who made five starts in 2015 for the Manor Marussia F1 team and then returned to America to win the 2016 Indy 500.
“It’s not so simple,’’ Sullivan conceded. “The number one name that comes up now is (IndyCar driver) Colton Herta. He’s talented and Colton drove for (Red Bull Formula One Team Principal) Christian Horner’s GP2 team back in the day. So he knows a bunch of the circuits.”
But, Sullivan reminded, it can be a long, arduous process to get the approval, funding and go-ahead.
“I just saw an article this morning that it will take [German] Mick Schumacher three years driving with Haas before he’s ready to drive for Ferrari,” he said. “And here’s the biggest issue. Americans will follow somebody, but if you really want to get results and a fan following going crazy for the driver, then he needs to be in a pretty good car to start off with. He can’t go around running last every weekend and expect any nationality, Americans or anyone else, to get enthusiastic about it.
“So I think with this change and the new car and we’ve already seen the cars can race closer to each other.’’
South Florida drivers show promise in Formula One
A pair of South Florida drivers, 23-year old Kyle Kirkwood, of Jupiter, – currently in his rookie season driving for A.J. Foyt in the IndyCar Series – and also 19-year old Max Esterson, a New York native who relocated to Palm Beach, are other names heard in racing circles that show promise of perhaps getting a shot in Formula One.
“A lot of it is hitting the right team at the right time,’’ Sullivan acknowledged.
Talent, timing and tenacity – three tenets that have served Sullivan well in a lifetime of racing success both on and off the course.
Read More: Danny Sullivan to serve as steward