Columns

2014.05.14 Indy 500 without Andy Granatelli unthinkable

By RICH FOLEY

Later this month, for probably the first time since 1941, there will be an Indianapolis 500 held without long-time team owner and sponsor Andy Granatelli present. Best known for his years of running the STP Corporation and giving away hundreds of millions of STP stickers (if not a billion or two), which wound up on vehicles all over the world, Granatelli passed away December 29th at age 90.

Andy made his first appearance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1946 as the track reopened for the “500” after missing four years due to World War II. Granatelli and his brothers then operated a hot rod shop in Chicago and decided to enter the race.

They purchased a car originally built for the 1935 “500,” added headlights and a license plate and drove it to Indianapolis. Danny Kladis finished 21st in it on race day.

Granatelli’s ancient racer was back again in 1947. Driven by a little-known rookie, Croatian immigrant Pete Romcevich, no one took the entry seriously. Not, at least, until Romcevich had the car in seventh place by lap 20. A few laps later, disaster struck.

The car developed a major oil leak and Romcevich made a pit stop after it lost oil pressure. Rules at the time prohibited teams from adding oil during the race. Andy, however, quickly had an idea.

 He shouted at his brother Joe to bring him their water bucket. Adding water was within the rules, so no one stopped him. Andy positioned himself to block the view of race officials and filled the oil crankcase with water. Romcevich and Joe watched the car’s gauges and saw the oil pressure reading return to near normal.

Romcevich was back in the race, and Andy’s little brainstorm of adding water to what oil remained kept the car going until the motor finally expired at 420 miles. Because of high attrition in the field, that was good enough for 12th place.

The Granatelli brothers entered four cars in 1948 and Andy decided to race one himself. He was fast enough to qualify, but a tire blew on his final qualifying lap, putting him into the hospital rather than the race.  At the time of his death, Granatelli was the oldest living driver to have made a “500” qualifying attempt.

Andy was a promoter even in his younger years. In 1950, he talked actor Clark Gable, who was visiting the Speedway, into posing for photos with his car and crew after qualifying. There were many more publicity stunts to come.

By the early 1960s. Andy was running the STP Corporation and made news at Indianapolis by wearing a white suit covered with dozens of STP logos, matching the outfits worn by his pit crew.

In 1967, he shocked racing purists by entering a four-wheel-drive car powered by a Pratt & Whitney turbine helicopter engine. Driven by Parnelli Jones, the car dominated the race, leading 171 laps before suffering transmission failure just four laps from victory.

Later that year, Johnny Carson, whose “Tonight Show” was often sponsored by STP, came to Indianapolis as Andy’s guest.  Carson took several laps in the STP turbine car, showing film of his experience on his show.

Andy finally won the “500” as a team owner in 1969. He garnered millions of dollars in free publicity by kissing driver Mario Andretti after the race.

One of Andy’s goals for STP Oil Treatment, the company’s flagship product, was to have it available in every gas station in America. His sales force eventually placed STP in every possible outlet but one.

The job of convincing the lone holdout went higher and higher in the organization until Andy decided to make his own sales call. Unable to close the deal, Andy did the next best thing. He bought the station, then added STP to the inventory.

Andy left STP in 1974, then bought the Tuneup Masters auto parts company in 1976 for $300,000. Under his management, he was able to sell it ten years later for $60 million.

He continued to visit Indianapolis every year, usually bringing celebrities like Michael Douglas and Priscilla Presley with him. He also presented an “Unsung Hero Award” at the “500” drivers meeting each year, and last May, made arrangements for the award to continue in perpetuity. Even though they may have to run the race without his attendance, his legacy won’t be soon forgotten.