Sullivan starting racing in Europe, eventually ending up back in the 'States in 1980. He made his CART debut in 1982 and in 1983 he became an F1 driver with Tyrrell however he was back in CART in 1984. In 1985 he won the Indy 500 and the CART title in 1987.
Daniel John Sullivan III, the son of a building contractor from Louisville, Kentucky, attended the Kentucky Military Institute and then went on to the University of Kentucky before dropping out and heading off to New York where he worked in a variety of different jobs including as a janitor, cab driver and even as a waiter.
He also worked as a lumberjack and a hand on a chicken ranch. Eventually a family friend, the internationally renouned paediatrician, Dr Frank Falkner, who was an old racing pal of Ken Tyrrell and John Cooper, gave him a 21st birthday present of a course at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School at Snetterton in England.
That led to a season of Formula Ford in England in 1972 moving into F3 in 1974 where, despite a limited budget he distinguished himself by never finishing worse than third in a total of 12 F3 races. He moved from F3 to European F2 in 1976 and in 1978 he moved to New Zealand to compete in Formula Atlantic finishing 4th overall. He also tried his hand in Formula Atlantic in America that year, coming 8th.
Eventually with his single seater options running out, he headed back to the United States and in 1980 began to make an impression in CanAm driving a Lola.
The 1981 season saw him win his first CanAm event at the Caesar's Palace event in Las Vegas and he was fourth in the series behind Geoff Brabham, Teo Fabi and Al Holbert.
Backed by Garvin Brown and Paul Newman he finished third in CanAm in 1982 and made his CART debut with an impressive third place in Atlanta with the Forsythe-Newman team.
For 1983 he went back to Europe. Benetton were keen to have an American driver in the Tyrrell and Sullivan fitted the bill. As team mate to Michele Alboreto he made a big impression in the Race of Champions battling World Champion Keke Rosberg for victory but he struggled with the underpowered car for most of the year, picking up fifth place at Monaco by virtue of being still running at the end, although he was two laps behind the winner.
At the end of the year Sullivan went back to the United States and joined the Domino's Pizza-sponsored Shierson team. By the midseason he was winning races and he collected three victories that year and ended the year fourth in the CART series. It was enough to get the attention of Roger Penske and Sullivan was signed to drive for Penske Racing in 1985.
He won the Indy 500 and the "spin and win" footage of his red and white Miller American doing a 360 down the south short chute (between turns one and two) after passing Mario Andretti for the lead on the 120th lap has been played on countless motorsports programs. Recovering from the spin undamaged except for 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. He added another win at Miami at the end of the year. He was once again fourth in the CART standings.
He went one place better in 1986 with wins at Meadowlands and Cleveland to finish third in the standings. That same year he made his acting debut on American TV in the popular show Miami Vice playing a racing driver accused of murdering a prostitute..
The 1987 season was a big disappointment but the following year he set the pace at Indy again, leading 91 of the first 101 laps, until he drifted out and hit the wall in turn 1. Nevertheless, he went on to win the CART series title for Roger Penske with 4 wins and 9 poles in a totally dominant season. In 15 races, he recorded 11 top 5 finishes and 182 points.
In 1989 he broke his arm in a big crash at Indianapolis but returned later in the year to win at Pocono and Elkhart Lake.
The 1990 season was to be his sixth and last with Penske but he ended on a high note winning his last race for the team at Laguna Seca, his second win of the year. He went (with Miller backing) to the Patrick Racing Alfa Romeo team but by the end of the year had had enough and switched to Galles-Kraco.
In 1992 he won at Long Beach and added another win in 1993 at Detroit. It was to be his last (of 17) CART victories. He could not find a drive in 1994 but kept himself busy with races in the DTM in Europe and shared a Porsche to third place in the Le Mans 24 Hours and working as a commentator for ABC/ESPN.
In 1995 he tried to make a CART comeback with PacWest but the results did not come and his season ended with a big crash at Michigan, which left him with a broken pelvis.
With that his racing career drew to a close at the age of 45. Since his retirement Sullivan has split his time between the United States and France but in 2002 he re-emerged in the spotlight, organising the Red Bull-sponsored scheme to find a young American driver for Formula 1.