He was, without doubt, one of the most dominant and iconic personalities in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
An innovator, tireless promoter and public relations genius, the flamboyant, larger-than-life Andy Granatelli succumbed to congestive heart failure Sunday, December 29th, 2013 in a Santa Barbara, California, hospital. He was 90.
“Andy Granatelli – known appropriately as “Mister 500″ – understood better than anyone the spirit and challenge of the Indianapolis 500 and had a remarkable ability to combine innovative technologies with talented race car drivers to make his cars a threat to win at Indianapolis every year,” said J. Douglas Boles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway President. “Andy leaves a legacy of historic moments that will live forever in Indianapolis 500 lore including his famous turbine that dominated the 1967 Indianapolis 500, the Lotus 56 of 1968, and giving the great Mario Andretti a kiss on the cheek in victory lane after his 1969 win. Our thoughts and prayers are with Andy’s family, friends and legion of fans.”
Granatelli’s lifelong passion for motor racing was unquestioned. A car entrant in the “500” over a span of almost 30 years from 1946 until 1974–typically with multiple entries–there is no question that the combination of his very choice of equipment and his flair for publicity introduced the sport to thousands upon thousands of individuals who might not otherwise have paid any attention.
While twice the winning “500” entrant during his tenure as president of the STP Corporation (with Mario Andretti in 1969, and in collaboration with the Patrick Racing Team and Gordon Johncock in 1973), Granatelli is most likely best remembered for fielding the only gas turbine-powered cars ever to qualify for the “500,” and to an only slightly lesser degree for extending by several years the tenure of the ear-splitting and exceedingly crowd-pleasing V8 Novi racing cars.
And those STP decals! They were everywhere, distributed by the millions, even to the point of having been included in a hardly inexpensive advertisement in Hot Rod Magazine in which there was a small pocket containing a decal. The philosophy? One would instinctively peel off the back and stick it on something, the result being that they might show up on a kid’s bicycle in Des Moines, a motor scooter in Sweden or a smoke-belching truck in Afghanistan.
The images come flooding forth: Andy passionately kissing a mildly protesting Andretti on the cheek in Victory Lane in 1969; Andy strutting down the IMS pit lane in the mid-1960s in an outlandish white suit emblazoned with dozens of STP logos; Andy walking toward the TV camera, pitching STP while dressed in a light-colored rain coat; and Andy looking north to Turn 4 and rubbing his hands in anguish as Parnelli Jones glides silently into view after a transmission failure with the turbine while leading within three laps of the finish in 1967.
That “kiss on the cheek” for Andretti was not all that unique, it having been a standard Andy procedure for years, Jim Rathmann, Freddie Agabashian and others all being subjected to a similar exuberant gesture following successful qualification runs in the 1950s.
Born March 18, 1923 in Dallas but raised in Chicago, Granatelli already was a force by the mid-1940s with the opening of a thriving speed shop on Chicago’s north side in collaboration with his older brother Joe and younger brother Vince. Grancor (for Granatelli Corporation) equipment became legendary in the hot rod world, leading the brothers to seek further notoriety by entering a Grancor-sponsored car in the 1946 “500.”
Having obtained one of the 10 aesthetically pleasing but less-than-successful Ford V8 Miller entries built for the 1935 “500” by Harry Miller for Edsel Ford and team manager Preston Tucker, the Granatellis installed a Mercury V8 outfitted with a Grancor head, hung headlights and license plates on the car and then proceeded to drive it down from Chicago.
Driven by Danny Kladis, the car qualified for the 33rd position and was rolling along steadily when Kladis lost power in Turn 2 immediately following a pit stop on Lap 46. After the car was towed through the infield and back to the garage area, Andy realized that the fuel switch – turned off during the stop for safety reasons – had not been turned back on. When the car came out to the pit gate, engine running once again, officials would not allow it though, ruling that the car had “left the race course” and was therefore out.
The following year, Croatian-born immigrant Pete Romcevich ended up 12th in one of two Grancor entries, his run extended to 167 laps thanks to some quick thinking on the part of Andy Granatelli. The car had earlier run low on oil, the rule for many years being that none could be added once the race had started. But there was no rule against adding something else, and Andy’s claim was that he positioned himself in such a way that officials would be unable to see him to pour water into the lubricating system in order to successfully squeeze out a few more laps.
The Granatellis entered a mixed bag of four cars for the 1948 race, Andy attempting to qualify one himself. He was well on his way to accomplishing that goal when a tire blew, causing him to hit the wall on the final lap of a last-ditch attempt when his average speed for the first three laps had been good enough to “get in.” At the time of his passing, Granatelli remained the oldest living driver to have made a qualifying attempt, with his 1948 run being the earliest by any living driver.
In the meantime, the Granatellis had formed a sanctioning body for “hot rod track roadsters,” West Coast imports Pat Flaherty, brothers Dick and Jim Rathmann and others racing in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the Hurricane Hot Rod Association at Soldier Field, Rockford, Illinois, and other locations against numerous Chicago-area drivers who would later compete in AAA and USAC Stock Car events. Future “500” winners Flaherty and Jim Rathmann both took “rookie” tests in Granatelli-owned or sponsored cars, as did a forever grateful 1950 winner Johnnie Parsons in 1948.
Flaherty was “bumped” in 1949 with a Grancor-Ford (chief mechanic: A. J. Watson). But when Flaherty qualified a Granatelli-entered Kurtis/Offy in 1950, Andy, in typical fashion, managed to talk Hollywood legend Clark Gable into posing with the crew in the post-qualification photos. The team ended up 10th in the rain-shortened affair.
By far the best finishes during this period were second in 1952 with Jim Rathmann and fourth with Agabashian (Paul Russo in relief) in 1953.