Andy Granatelli (1923 – 2013)

Andy Granatelli at IMS in 2005 (photo: Ron McQueeney)
Andy Granatelli at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2005 (photo: Ron McQueeney)

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.

Granatelli kissing Mario Andretti after victory at the 1969 Indy 500
Granatelli kissing Mario Andretti after victory at the 1969 Indy 500

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.

Jim Rathmann finished 2nd in the 1952 Indy 500 driving a Granatelli entry
Jim Rathmann finished 2nd in the 1952 Indy 500 driving a Granatelli entry

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  1. I met Andy as a college student through my then boss, Bill Maloney, host of the Chicago based “Motorsports International” TV show. When I was in the U.S. Army I got Andy to “sponsor” my Chattahoochee (GA) river “race” canoe in a 20 mile canoe race…..STP stickers were all over my winning entry. I visited Andy in his Woodland Hills offices when I moved to California, where he told me how he came to take over his then latest enterprise,Tune-Up Masters. Andy told me he approached the Tune-Up Masters owner and said….”I will work for you and Tune-Up Masters as spokesman and marketing honcho for free…..if I double your business in that one year, you will make me your partner and co-owner….if I don’t you will owe me nothing”. The rest, as they say, is history….Andy went on to not only double their business, he made many more millions for himself as owner. He was truly one of a kind! RIP

  2. In 1966, our “fire suits” were ridiculous – just cotton coveralls dipped in 20 Mule Team borax and boric acid solution. They were good for 4 or 5 seconds in a gasoline fire. Andy and J. B. Hinchman, that year, gave Nomex suits from STP to every Indy 500 driver. I drove sports cars, but I became an instant believer. I bought a Hinchman suit and a big face scarf, and used them religiously. My “USAC” suit even had clod-shield pockets on the chest, for dirt track racing. There weren’t any Nomex sox or gloves or balaclavas yet, but they came along eventually. I was one of the first sports car guys with a Nomex outfit, and I did demo’s in the pits with a Zippo lighter. It was a big hit and, although I never had to be saved by that suit, plenty of guys did, and I’ll always be beholden to Andy Granatelli and Hinchman and their foresight. Larry

  3. This is a terrific article. I have been a life-long fan of Andy and remember the turbine days well. I can tell you there are a lot more people today waxing nostalgic about those great machines than there were in the stands on pole and race days in ’67 and ’68. Back then it was pretty divided and, I think, there were more people against them (no engine sounds, “cheaters,” airplanes, too costly, etc.) than for them. But I LOVED those things! And no one can argue that they did not create a buzz – like almost everything Andy did. The kids loved those decals, sticking them everywhere! I am sure it drove the IMS facilities people nuts having to peel them off walls, trash cans, seats but they went on car bumpers and kids’ bikes, school notebooks, everything as well. What great promotion. It was such a simple tactic that was so brilliant I am surprised nobody does it today. I also learned from this piece, like Andy’s role with Wagner-Lockheed. I simply did not know and I’m pretty familiar with Andy’s career and racing in general. My only complaint, and it appears you guys got this article from the Speedway, is that if IMS is quoted on the passing of heroes it should ALWAYS come from Hall of Famer Historian Donald Davidson. This new president of theirs seems to use any excuse to get his name in print or his face on videos and it is a bit disgusting when it comes in association with someone’s passing. The Speedway should make comment on these somber moments but this person’s desire to position himself as some kind of industry personality – which he isn’t – is pretty transparent and very disappointing. Keep up the great work, I love your articles and photography!

  4. When I think of GREAT AMERICANS … I think “Washington” “Patton” “Adams” “Lee” “Jackson”
    and ” Mr 500 ” Andy Granatelli .. Some people think PT Barnum was the greatest showman, Ha ..! Ole’ Andy made every kid on the block rolling advertisements … Maybe we were different here in Louisiana, we plastered anything and everything with STP stickers….
    Pick up a copy of the book “They call me Mr 500” it is a page turning fantastic read.
    I would also like to point out the fact that Granatelli donated tens of millions of dollars to charities over the years.

  5. And STP worked in extremis! Although I’ve known the occasional fastidious mechanic who’d say :STP will NEVER touch any of my engines,” it, in a crankcase full of Phillips Trop-Artic multigrade, left the bearings and rings of my BMC-powered Lotus 7A in perfect condition after over 15 miles of racing with no water in the radiator and 17 pounds of oil pressure. I don’t think the motor oil would’ve done that alone.

  6. I well remember being in the Lotus garage at Indy, in 1965, & hearing the wail of the V8 Novi as came down the front straight! Andy was a perfectionist with his engines, he would fit a new engine & send his driver out for 4 laps (10 Miles), he would then remove all spark plugs & peer down at the piston crowns, if the tops of all pistons were not dry (rings fully bedded) he would wheel the car back to the garage & re-hone the bores & fit new rings!

    1. are you the jim smith who hung around with toly arutunoff and bill and donna pryor at the ‘ring in ’63? if so, please get in touch! toly

      1. Sorry but no! I was a Team Lotus mechanic from Aug ’64 til Aug. ’65! After 1 F1 race, at Solitude, I moved to the Indy team & looked after 38/1 for Jimmy.

        1. Jim, awesome history. I’d love to hear the stories. I grew up in the Chicago area idolizing Clark. All my friends were into baseball, and I folllowed F-1 through Road & Track, and occasionally Wide World of Sports on TV. I was a lonely fan.

  7. I grew up in Des Plaines, IL, about 15 minutes from the STP offices on Oakton Street When I was 11 (1967) I wrote to them to ask for STP decals for my bike. I never heard from them, so my mother drove me down to ask for one. Mr. Granatelli wasn’t there that day, but the receptionist was very nice and said she would be sure to tell him I’d stopped by. I got my stickers, and my Dad’s 1967 Ford Galaxie had a bumper sticker when leaving the parking lot. .

  8. I worked for Tuneup Masters in Santa Monica as a trainee then moved up to Manager of a shop by 405/LAX
    I met Andy at a breakfast on the Queen Mary in Long Beach,he was already at the table I sat down at I did not see him as I said hello to the other working guys. Andy then spoke to me saying how proud he was to see one of his men join a table and show good manners and humour to the guys already there. I was amazed and said back to him ” how unusual for a guy like me to sit down at a table with a man as high a profile as him” I was proud he was my boss and could see how he had succeeded with his business expertise but still maintaining the interest in everybody around him.

    Great businessman and humble guy who deserved all the success he had.

    RIP Mr Granatelli you made a difference in my life.

  9. My twin brother Bill Castle, went to work for Tuneup Masters back in 1985, fresh out of trade school. Those 5 or so years, cemented the work ethic and love for the automotive industry he carried all his life. I have a picture of him and Andy back in those early days. Along with a TM t-shirt, Satin jack and his District Manager coveralls. I am sporting a TM tie and tie tack today as well. When he passed away a year and a half ago, I found a stack of TM decals and pledge decals and patches in his tool box. Andy and TM was a huge part of his life. Hopefully they are looking down on us all and sharing a few laughs.