March 9, 1950
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Sullivan was born to a building contractor father. He attended the Kentucky Military Institute and then the Jim Russell Racing School. He had several odd jobs before his racing career, including lumberjack, and most famously, New York City cab driver.
Sullivan was given a 21st birthday present of a course at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School at the Snetterton circuit in England. He competed in Formula Ford, Formula Two, and Formula Three. Returning to the United States, he had some success in Can-Am, made his début in the PPG Indycar series, and was recruited by the Tyrrell Formula One team for the 1983 season. Sullivan competed in the fifteen races of the 1983 season, scoring two points with a fifth place at the Monaco Grand Prix and finishing seventeenth in the World Drivers' Championship. He also performed strongly in the non-championship Race of Champions held at the Brands Hatch circuit in April, finishing second behind reigning champion Keke Rosberg. Nevertheless, he was somewhat overshadowed by his more experienced team-mate, Michele Alboreto, and was not retained at the end of the season.
For 1984, Sullivan returned to America, where he competed in the PPG Indycar series, winning the 1985 Indianapolis 500. The "spin and win" footage of his red and white Miller American spinning 360 degrees down the south short chute, between turns one and two, after passing Mario Andretti for the lead in the race's 120th lap has been played on countless motorsports programs. Recovering from the spin undamaged except for lightly flat-spotted tires, Sullivan went into the pits for new rubber, then returned to the track and passed Mario a second time twenty laps later to go on for the win. Sullivan would set the pace at Indy again in 1988, leading 91 of the first 101 laps, until a wing adjuster broke and his car drifted out and smacked the turn 1 wall. Nevertheless, he won the Michigan 500 later that summer, and went on to win the CART Indycar series title for Roger Penske that year.
In 1994, Sullivan took a sabbatical from Indycar racing, and joined ABC/ESPN as a color commentator. He also attempted to run selected events in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series that season. However, he only qualified for one race, the 1994 Brickyard 400, and finished 33rd for a very underfunded team. Also in 1994, together with Thierry Boutsen and Hans-Joachim Stuck, he was third overall at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
He returned to Indycar racing for one final year in 1995. His season ended early after a serious crash at Michigan International Speedway. While recovering from a broken pelvis and other injuries, he announced his retirement from open-wheel competition. He returned to ABC-TV for 1996–1998.
In 1986, Sullivan was a guest star on the television show Miami Vice, playing a race car driver accused of murdering a prostitute. The episode featured some short outdoor scenes in the pit lanes of the Miami Grand Prix. Sullivan had limited dialogue in the episode; his longest piece of dialogue was in a police station interrogation scene.
He and Michael Andretti were inducted into the Motorsports Walk of Fame on April 15, 2011, along the route of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which both men have won.