IRL: The one and only; Andy Granatelli added strokes of color to Indy

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, May 10, 2000 -- Mention Andy Granatelli’s name, and an Indianapolis 500 fan of the past would immediately conjure some vivid visions. ~A man in a flamboyant STP suit ~Novi and turbine race cars that broke when...

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, May 10, 2000 -- Mention Andy Granatelli’s name, and an Indianapolis 500 fan of the past would immediately conjure some vivid visions.

~A man in a flamboyant STP suit

~Novi and turbine race cars that broke when victory was in sight

~A smooch the size of Lake Michigan that he planted on Mario Andretti in Victory Lane at the end of the 1969 race. Who could forget that?

~"They Call Me Mister 500.” That was the title of the book that Granatelli wrote after Andretti won the race but no insider ever heard him called that.

Gordon Johncock won for Granatelli again in the rain-shortened 1973 race.

Then after one more race, the P.T. Barnum of race car owners raced off into the sunset to meet other challenges.

It was the end of an era at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But for one day this May, those days will return. On Friday, May 19, Granatelli will be honored as a Legend of the Speedway. He will be driven around the track in the 1969 Pace Car, a Chevrolet Camaro.

Granatelli says he still has some of his colorful STP clothing. Whether he’ll wear any of it won’t be known until he walks out to the pits.

“I appreciate this very much,” said Granatelli, now 77, from his home in Montecito, Calif. “I’m the only non-driver to get this award (this year).” Actually, Granatelli was a driver. He just never officially made the race.

In 1946, he purchased one of the two-man Fords that appeared in the 1935 race. He owned a little garage in Chicago, and he and his brothers put headlights on the car and drove it down to Indianapolis to participate in the first Indianapolis 500 under Tony Hulman’s leadership. Look right in the record book. It says driver Danny Kladis and the Grancor Spl. 17th. That’s Andy’s car.

In those days he was called Antonio The Great, because he let it be known he was an Italian rocket car driver. This soon was shortened to Tony, and his driving career became even shorter when he crashed into the Turn 2 guardrail.

“We had a muffler and our own starter,” he said about the car. “When we’d go out to get food, we’d drive around the garage and out the gate. In the race, the car became the first ever to be disqualified, though it was able to run.” Departing after a pit stop, Kladis forgot to push the button to open the fuel flow, and the car stalled on the backstretch. Granatelli hustled over and saw Kladis sitting dejectedly on the rail. Andy climbed into the car, pushed the button and the car started right up. They towed it across the infield to the pits, but when Kladis tried to resume the race, Granatelli was told the car was disqualified.

Down the road a few years, Granatelli sold his Paxton supercharger business to Studebaker, which owned half of a company named Chemical Compounds. He took over as head of the firm, changed its name to the letters STP, and a legend was born. He hiked the sales of the oil additive from $1.9 million per year into the $100 million range in nine years. Granatelli did this with blatant advertising and the hard sell. He dressed himself and his crew in uniforms outlandishly covered with STP decals.

When Studebaker officials ordered him to wear a suit, he had one made that had STP imprinted all over it. Decals were everywhere you looked, and soon he had them on most of the cars. His team machines were bright red.

He also purchased the famed Novi race cars from Lew Welch. Granatelli loved them for their power and throaty engine roar and for their marketing value. One of his great thrills, Granatelli said, was watching Jim Hurtubise zoom past Parnelli Jones at the end of the first lap of the 1963 race. Hurtubise ended up 22nd due to an oil leak. “The power of the car was incredible, to pass Parnelli like that,” Granatelli said.

In 1967, Granatelli showed up at the Speedway with his famed turbine-engine car. He put Parnelli Jones behind the wheel. It was controversial, heavy, quiet and fast. And it had the race won when a bearing broke four laps from the finish. Jones led 171 laps that year. The turbine “whoosh mobile” did have side-by-side construction and four-wheel drive, and there was no changing of engines between qualifying and the race. Also, it could go anywhere Jones put it on the racetrack. Jones even spun the car during the race but recovered so quickly the yellow never came out.

“I’m not the kind of guy to look back,” he said about the near miss with Jones in 1967. “I look to the future. I always think ahead. It just wasn’t meant to be.”

Granatelli and Colin Chapman both had lighter turbines in 1968. Joe Leonard won the pole in Granatelli’s turbine car and led on Lap 192 when a fuel shaft broke. Teammate Art Pollard’s machine did likewise seconds later, with the same problem.

Finally in 1969, Granatelli hit the jackpot when Mario Andretti drove to victory. The win came in a backup Brawner Hawk because Andretti crashed in his primary car during practice. The Hawk was only in the garage because I wanted a spare garage,” Granatelli said. “We worked 24 hours straight through to get it ready. I do what I’ve got to do.”

When Andretti pulled into Victory Lane, Granatelli planted a big smooch on the side of his driver’s face. The picture of the kiss appeared in papers throughout the world. Granatelli said what actually happened was that he whispered into Andretti’s ear that Mario should tell the TV interviewer that his car had more STP in it than the other cars. Always the salesman.

Granatelli’s car, driven by Gordon Johncock, was declared the winner of the 1973 race as it sat in the pits under a pelting rain.

A year later, Granatelli ended his run at the Speedway. He returned in 1989 when son Vince entered a car, and Andy still comes back each year to attend the Indy 500 Oldtimers Club’s annual barbecue.

To his eternal credit, when Andy Granatelli was inducted into the IMS Hall of Fame he was the only person in anyone's memory who wrote a thank you letter to every one of the 500 Oldtimers expressing his appreciation for their contributions without which he could not have been so honored.

There’s never been another like Andy Granatelli.

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About this article
Series Vintage , IndyCar
Drivers Mario Andretti , Joe Leonard , Parnelli Jones , Gordon Johncock , Colin Chapman