VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — Auto racing lost one of its biggest icons with the passing of Andy Granatelli Dec. 29 at age 90.
There wasn’t anything half-baked about him. He was “all-in” his entire life. Sometimes he was a bull in a china shop, but the sport certainly benefited from his involvement in it.
Racing was always there for him. After World War II, young men came home from the war and began “souping up” cars. Andy and his brothers opened a speed shop in the Chicago area. Business was brisk.
The Granatellis decided the Indy 500 would be a good place to sell their wares. They got a hold of an old Miller chassis and stuck a full race flathead Ford V-8 in it, a hot rod engine.
To save money, they put lights on it, registered it and drove it to Indianapolis! There was no way a set up like this would have any chance to make the 500.
Andy never had the word “quit” in him. He put local favorite Danny Kladis in the car. There was a 115 mph minimum to qualify.
This seemed daunting, but it wasn’t. Kladis qualified the stock block at almost 119 mph, taking the 33rd and final spot on the grid. This combination was an instant fan favorite.
Kladis managed to knock off several cars, but it stalled on the 59th lap. A helpful tow truck pushed the car, but that was against the rules and it was disqualified.
In 1948, Andy decided to make the race as a driver. He had a bad crash in practice and was seriously injured. He decided to give up driving. He was back in 1950 with Pat Flaherty at the wheel. In the rain-shortened race, Flaherty finished 10th. In 1952, Jim Rathmann drove the Grancor car to second place in the 500.
Granatelli had other coals in the fire. He promoted “hot rod” races at Soldier Field in his hometown. Success was enormous. Sometimes 80,000 fans would fill the place. In his autobiography, “They call me Mr. 500,” he wrote there was so much money to be made, competitors left the payoff window with so much cash, it was falling out of their pockets.
Andy stood in the background for several years, but in the 1960s he got involved with the Studebaker car company and a new oil additive — STP.
This brought him back to Indianapolis. He purchased the famed Novis from Lewis Welch in 1961. His car was the fastest in practice, but it blew an engine. In 1963, he had three entries but they all failed to finish. This was when STP was evident.
In 1964, he entered a new Ferguson chassis with the Novi engine and Bobby Unser driving. The car was fast but was wrecked in the second lap accident. He tried again in 1965 with no luck. What he did was bring STP to the forefront with the crew adorned with STP stickers.
In 1967, he turned the Indy world upside down by entering a turbine powered car. The car was beautiful and fast. Parnelli Jones led with only four laps to go when a ball bearing malfunctioned and caused one of the biggest heartbreaks in Indy 500 history.
Meanwhile the piston-engined crowd was upset. USAC put intake restrictions on his 1968 turbines. It didn’t matter. He had three of them in the race. With Joe Leonard and Art Pollard running 1-2 late in the race, both cars suddenly quit with 10 laps to go. USAC all but outlawed the turbines before 1969, so Granatelli purchased the Dean Van Lines team.
With Mario Andretti at the wheel, the team had a new English chassis, which Mario totaled in practice. Quickly, the previous year’s car was put into service. Mario handily won the 500 and was greeted with a kiss on the cheek from the boss.
Granatelli signed Richard Petty to a “lifetime” contract. The famed Petty blue No. 43 was mated with STP’s red. Andy had the sport’s two most popular drivers helping him sell STP.
Andy did amusing radio commercials. This was by far the most aggressive and successful ad campaign, involving racing.
He sponsored Pat Patrick’s team and won the 1973 Indy 500 with Gordon Johncock driving. It was bittersweet as a crew member was struck and killed by a fire truck during this very tragic race.
He then ran Plymouths in NASCAR with another Chicago buddy, Fred Lorenzen, driving. STP continued its sponsorship for many years.
Andy got out of the car owner business and did consulting work.
Happily for me, he was a longtime column reader of this column and we talked on the phone and exchanged emails. I loved his frankness, as he always was aware of what racing needeed.
He was one of a kind and will be missed. RIP.