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Andy Granatelli – They Called Him Mister 500

Andy Granatelli poses with the legendary Barney Oldfield with seated in his Grancor Rocket car in 1946.  [Photo courtesy of the Steve Zautke Collection]

Big Bend, WI (December 30th, 2013) – They don’t make ’em like Andy Granatelli anymore.  Given the state of affairs in motorsports today, they can’t.  The hefty Italian was bombastic, blustery and driven. Always looking for an edge, if you said you couldn’t, he found a way to prove you wrong. He was probably the world’s best salesman. He also loved innovation and how to apply it in auto racing.

Anthony “Andy” Granatelli passed away Sunday, December 29, 2013 in Santa Barbara, California at the age of 90.

After World War II he thrilled State Fair crowds as “Antonio Granatelli” with his jet powered race car.  Later, Andy became a brilliant promoter. His Hurricane Racing Association hot rod shows at Soldier Field were entertaining, thrilling and admittedly, run somewhat as hippodromes. But they put fans in the seats.  It wasn’t unusual to see 50,000-plus fans crowd into Soldier Field for one of their shows.  Those shows also went on the road in the Midwest and had successful shows at tracks like the Wisconsin State Fair Park Speedway.

Andy also drove at Indianapolis in 1948, crashing his modified Miller-Ford in practice.  Two years earlier, he would make the race as an owner with his brothers, Joe and Vince, and fellow Chicagoan, Danny Kladis as their driver.

Before Indy, in 1945, Granatelli started Grancor Automotive Specialists. Grancor became one of the first companies to start mass merchandising performance add-ons, what was to become “hot rodding” your engine.  In 1958, Andy purchased Paxton Products, which included a failing line of superchargers. In seven months, the supercharger line was turned around and through better promoting and products, Paxton become very profitable.  By the time he was 30, he was a millionaire.  By the time he was 40, he was a multi-millionaire. As the story is told (via Automotive Hall of Fame), “In 1961, Andy sold Paxton Products to Studebaker Corporation and stayed on as Paxton’s CEO. Two years later, Studebaker management wanted Granatelli to work his magic on an under-performing division called Chemical Compounds Corporation. Chemical Compounds had only one, little known product . . . STP Oil Treatment.”

In the mid-1960’s living close to the corporate headquarters of STP in Des Plaines, IL, Andy headed one of the greatest self promoting efforts ever.  From roughly 1964 to the mid-1980’s, you could nary go to a garage, racetrack, or see a toolbox, kid’s bicycle, lunchbox or skateboard without a red STP decal.  Millions, perhaps even a billion decals were given out.  The STP star, the STP Andretti decal, and STP Richard Petty decals were everywhere. They were a part of Americana.

In 1961 he purchased the popular Novi Racing Team, engines, cars and equipment from Lew Welch for $111,000.  Andy received two aging race cars, three engines, two trailers and lots of spare parts. They missed the race at Indianapolis in 1961 and 1962, but in 1963 they set the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on its ear when fan-favorite Jim Hurtubise put the popular day-glo red Novi on the front row.  Success was hard as the Novi never did win.  However the earth shaking roar of the V-8 Novi’s thrilled the crowds and are still talked about by railbirds today.

Andy’s sponsorship of Jimmy Clark’s Lotus in the “500” for 1966 got him close with a second place finish.  Nevertheless, that wasn’t good enough.  In 1967 Andy came to Indianapolis with the revolutionary turbine and the legendary driver, Parnelli Jones. Heartbreak came on the 197th lap when a minute gear piece broke ending their chances of victory. In 1968, he came back to the “500” with four Lotus-56s and plans for drivers Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart to be headliners.  However, Clark was killed at Hockenheim, Germany in April and Stewart broke his wrist before the track opened in May.  Lotus brought in BRM driver, Mike Spence, to drive one of the Lotus turbines.  But tragedy struck early in the month when Spence, driving Greg Weld’s No.30 car hit the first-turn wall and was struck by the right-front tire, causing fatal head injuries.  Eventually, drivers Joe Leonard and Graham Hill started the “500” on the front-row in positions 1-2.  Art Pollard also started the race in the third Lotus-Turbine.  Leonard was leading with nine laps to go when once again mechanical woes ended his chances to win.  At the end of the 1968 season, the United States Auto Club (USAC) revised engine specifications, effectively outlawing Granatelli’s turbine car.  It seem like Andy would never win the “500.’

The following year Granatelli purchased Mario Andretti’s team headed by legendary mechanic Clint Brawner.  The team (the former Dean Van Lines team) after Al Dean’s death in 1967 was financed during the ’68 season by Firestone.  Returning to Indianapolis with a conventional car, Andy proceeded to win his first Indianapolis 500 with Andretti at the wheel and planted that famous kiss on Mario in victory lane.  Four years later, in 1973, Andy won his second and last Indy 500 with a STP-sponsored Eagle-Offy driven by Gordon Johncock.  Earlier that year Andy kissed NASCAR-legend Richard Petty in victory lane after he won the Daytona 500 driving the famous Petty blue and day-glo red No. 43 STP Oil & Gas Treatment Dodge Charger.

Andy loved the prestigious Indianapolis 500.  In 1969, he wrote the autobiographical book, “They Call Me Mister 500,” his Indianapolis Motor Speedway pit badge was numbered “500.”  He embodied everything good in racing, promotion and progress that won’t be seen again for some time.

I like what Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles wrote on the passing of Andy Granatelli, “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.  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.”
Godspeed Andy.  You were one of a kind and will be missed.

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Steve Zautke
Steve Zautke, a Milwaukee, WI native, was raised in the sport of auto racing. His father, Bill, was a movie photographer that shot racing footage at tracks such as the Milwaukee Mile and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 1960's and 1970's Steve's first professional job in racing was as an Emergency Medical Technician at tracks such as Angell Park and Hales Corners Speedway (1988-1991). Steve has also worked for the Milwaukee Mile as videographer, in media relations and historian (1993-2011). Steve also has worked as a reporter for Racing Information Systems (RIS) and has written features for 'Vintage Oval Racing' and 'Victory Lane' magazines. Most recently, Steve has written a book on Road America for Arcadia Publishing. ( http://www.amazon.com/Road-America-Nascar-Library-Collection/dp/1467111457 ) Steve co-hosts "Sparky's Final Inspection" a motorsports-based radio show with hosts, Steve "Sparky" Fifer and "NASCAR Girl" Summer Santana on Sports Radio 1250AM in Milwaukee and is also available on the internet at www.Sportradio1250.com. A member of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame Induction Committee, Steve follows all types of racing from the dirt tracks to Formula One.