The man who facilitated Danny Sullivan’s rise to motor racing stardom has died of cancer at his home in Milan, Italy. Garvin Brown, whose great grandfather founded the Brown-Forman Corp. that produces Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey, and who’s best known in automotive circles as the patron who enabled a struggling young racer from Louisville, Kentucky to break into racing’s upper echelons, was 67.
“I sit in my office,” says Sullivan, “and look at the shelves with trophies and some of the memorabilia, a picture of Garvin in the pit lane in Monaco, and I think, none of this would have happened without Garvin. He really made my career by putting his money where his mouth was.”
Sullivan was working three jobs, getting tired of chasing after money to fund his racing efforts and about ready to give up when Brown, whom he’d met previously, decided they should join forces to tackle the Can-Am series in 1980. After showing his stuff in the Can-Am, Sullivan and Brown moved into Indycars for 1982 in partnership with the Forsythe Brothers, but then he was recruited by apparel house Benetton to drive for their Formula One team, Tyrrell, in 1983. Returning to Indycars with Doug Shierson’s team for 1984, he won three races and attracted the attention of Roger Penske, who hired him for ’85. Sullivan proceeded to win the Indianapolis 500 with his infamous spin-and-win move on Mario Andretti that year, and subsequently won the U.S. National Championship with Penske in 1988, but none of it would have happened had Brown not stepped up when he did.
“When I did the deal with Garvin,” Sullivan remembers, “I said: ‘OK, look, you’ve got 25 percent of anything I earn for five years.’ That was easy to do because I wasn’t earning anything, but every racer believes that success is just around the corner. We all do, otherwise it would just be total frustration and you’d never get anywhere. Anyway, I signed the contract, had success, got picked up, did F1, drove for Doug Shierson, and the fifth year was when I won Indy for Roger. So I said to Garvin, ‘I need to total up and settle up,’ and he said, ‘Nah, don’t worry about it.’ It wasn’t whether he was going to get his money back, he did it because he felt, here’s a guy, a fellow Kentuckian, let’s do it, let’s have some fun.”