Mister 500 Is Still Going Strong

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If you are into long, rambling stories that seemingly go nowhere, then Friday night’s Trackside may be for you. Their guest was none other than Andy Granatelli – otherwise known as Mister 500, along with some other choice nicknames he’s picked up over the years. Mister 500 is 88 years old now. His mind and wit are as sharp as ever, and apparently so is his gift of gab. Curt Cavin asked Granatelli about his impressions of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the first time he visited in April of 1946. Eighteen minutes and no commercials later, Granatelli was still going. If Kevin Lee was still tired from his trip to Brazil, he got a good chance to catch up on his sleep during the broadcast.

It’s ironic that someone known to be morbidly verbose like myself would accuse someone of talking too much. I wouldn’t necessarily say I found Mr. Granatelli boring – just hard to follow. He talked so fast in so many directions, I couldn’t keep up. In all honesty, I’ve never heard the word boring ever used to describe Andy Granatelli. There are many words I have heard, but that isn’t one of them.

Most people remember Andy Granatelli for bringing the turbines to Indianapolis in 1967 & 1968; obnoxious pajama-like STP pit uniforms or for planting a sloppy kiss on the cheek of Mario Andretti in Victory Lane in 1969. But there is so much more to the career of Andy Granatelli at Indianapolis, to try and cover it here is doing his career an injustice. I’ll touch on a few highlights.

As mentioned, Andy Granatelli first came to the Speedway in 1946 with his brothers Joe and Vince and their Grancor Automotive Racing Team. He explained on Trackside that he had never been to any racetrack at that time – not even to a midget track. Their driver, Danny Kladis, qualified an old Miller-Ford in the thirty-third starting spot. He lasted only forty-six laps, but that was good for twenty-first. Granatelli attempted to qualify himself in 1948, but crashed on his qualifying run and never made the race as a driver.

By the mid-fifties – Grancor Automotive had made the Granatelli brothers millionaires. In 1957, Andy Granatelli bought Paxton Products and produced superchargers. He brought the famous Novi engine back to the Speedway in the early sixties – with a supercharger, along with his now-famous STP sponsorship. Granatelli made STP a household word in the sixties and seventies.

Always an advocate for innovation, his most significant mark on Speedway history is when he hired Ken Wallis to build a chassis around a Pratt & Whitney helicopter gas turbine for the 1967 race. It employed the same four-wheel drive technology of the Granatelli Novi and was the most technologically advanced car the old brickyard had ever seen – complete with an air brake that flipped up in the back.

We all know the story of how Parnelli Jones and “Silent Sam” were the class of the field in 1967 – that is, until Lap 197 when a six-dollar bearing broke. As Jones coasted to a silent stop as Granatelli nervously watched – AJ Foyt sped by on his way to his third Indianapolis 500 victory.

Granatelli returned in 1968, with four wedge-shaped Lotus turbines – to be driven by Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Mike Spence and Greg Weld. When Clark was fatally injured at Hockenheim in April, Jackie Stewart was to replace Clark. Unfortunately, Stewart had suffered a cracked wrist in the Spanish Grand Prix and was unable to pass his physical. In the first week of practice at the Speedway, Mike Spence crashed Weld’s Lotus in Turn One and later succumbed to his injuries. The Lotus team was reeling, having lost two drivers within a month. Ultimately, the remaining three wedged turbines were qualified by Joe Leonard on the pole, Hill in the middle of the front row and Art Pollard in the eleventh starting spot. None of the three finished the race.

The bad luck seemed to follow the Granatelli team into 1969. After USAC had rendered the turbines ineffective by further restrictions, Mario Andretti was signed to pilot a new Lotus. Prior to qualifying, he lost control and destroyed their only car in a fiery crash. The team wheeled out an old Brawner Hawk as a reluctant Plan B. Mario was still badly burned when he qualified the older car in the middle of the front row. In fact, he had his twin brother, Aldo, sit in the car for the front row pictures the next day so that his burned face wouldn’t show in the pictures.

The bad luck turned to good during the race. On a day when his car was overheating, Andretti’s only real threat was Lloyd Ruby who took himself out of contention at the halfway point when he ripped out the side of his fuel tank when his car inched forward with the fuel hose still attached. There are those that say if Ruby had been around at the end to push Mario, his car would have given out. But racing is made up of “ifs” and “buts”. The fact remains; Mario Andretti and Andy Granatelli each got their first Indianapolis 500 win on a day when they really didn’t expect to. Granatelli would go on to get another win in the ill-fated 1973 race with Gordon Johncock in an association with Pat Patrick.

Andy Granatelli’s legacy at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway can be wrapped up with one word – innovation. Whether it was four-wheel drive, supercharged Novi’s or gas turbines – Andy Granatelli was a pioneer who never was one to follow the usual path. Sometimes he fell flat on his face, while other times he came within a whisker of glory – before finally reaching his goal in 1969; a win in the Indianapolis 500.

I didn’t fully appreciate Andy Granatelli while growing up. My father and brothers didn’t care for him because he was going to ruin the Indianapolis 500 by bringing those despicable turbines to the Speedway. As a ten year-old kid, I thought they were about the coolest things I had ever seen – but my opinion of Granatelli was tainted by my older family members. It wasn’t until looking back years later that I came to appreciate his innovation.

That’s the thing about innovation – it doesn’t always work. You’ve got to be willing to fail in order to achieve success. A spec series where every car looks and sounds the same doesn’t interest him. It didn’t forty years ago and it doesn’t today.

That is still his hot button. It was what really set him off the other night, when Kevin Lee asked his opinion on the owners wanting to delay the new aero kits. It’s well worth downloading the podcast just to hear his rant on the owners. This was where his spot on the show went from a rambling story about 1946 through ’48, to an articulate dissertation on how that could set the series back.

Even though we lost Tom Carnegie over the winter, there are still many living links to the colorful past of the Indianapolis 500. Andy Granatelli is still going strong at 88 and is not at all shy about sharing his opinions. I think many of today’s car owners could still learn a thing or two from Mister 500.

George Phillips

Note: To download the Friday night episode of Trackside, click here.

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11 Responses to “Mister 500 Is Still Going Strong”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Great blog George, AG much like Roger Penske certainly spiced up the show at the IMS during the 60′s and 70′s. I am just slightly longer in the tooth than you, but I also recall having some doubts about bringing gas turbines to the 500, but at the same time I had a father who worked in the aerospace field. So, while AG’s idea of bringing gas turbines to Indy may have seemed radical to some, at the same time I was living in central Florida and had a dad that was working on the Apollo program at the Kennedy Space Center. Gas turbines juxtaposed against a Saturn V rocket carrying men to the moon did not seem that outrageous, not even in the 60′s. All I can say is, it is just a good thing there are innovators like Granatelli, otherwise we would all still be watching the Marmon Wasp circle the 2.50 mile IMS. We are damned near a pure spec. series now and it looks like we may be backsliding towards the continuation of same in the future.

  2. Jack in NC Says:

    As I’ve said before, the primary reason the 60′s was such a memorable decade at the brickyard was the tremendous innovation that occurred then, and at least part of that was due to Andy Granatelli. I didn’t care for his personality – a bit too flamboyant for me, but I have to admire his strength of will and his love of innovation.

    If the series has any hope of gaining a fan base as large as NASCAR’s, they won’t be able to do it by being a spec series. The way to fire the imagination of potential fans is through innovation, particularly innovation that allows safely increased SPEED.

  3. I loved Andy Granatelli and I loved the turbines. I read his book numerous times.
    I watched the last one-third or so of the 1969 500 from the grass infield at the end of Turn Two. I was already a veteran of attending races and carefully watching the cars. This was my fifth race. Mario was running well in the lead with about 10 to six laps to go when he drifted high exiting Two and the back end started to swing around. He gathered it in and continued to his first win. Until now, he and I may have been the only two people to know how close he came to adding another late lap disappointment for Mister 500.
    By that time I already owned and was wearing an STP jacket, just like the pit suits the Granatelli team had worn a few years earlier. As I stepped out the door to work as a photographer again at either the 2001, 2002, or 2003 race, I realized it was much cooler than I had expected, so I ducked back in to find a jacket to wear. When I opened my closed door, there was that STP “pajama” jacket I had not worn in many years. I put it on and left for the track.
    Shortly after 8am, I was in the pits photographing the activities when I heard a woman yelling “Andy, Andy, look at that!”
    I looked up and to my left and a golf cart was heading North up the pits with Ms. Granatelli sitting on the rear-facing seat yelling and waving her arms and looking at me. Not sure why, I looked down and saw the jacket I had forgotten I was wearing. Andy who was seated in the front passenger seat turned, saw me and waved for me to follow them.
    When the cart stopped at the start-finish line, I caught up with it. Andy said he had to do an interview (with Channel 59, if I remember correctly) and asked me to wait while he did that.
    When the interview was over he turned to me and asked me if I would like to have him sign my jacket. I was surprised at the offer but happily accepted. He pulled out a black marker and signed just above my heart.
    I don’t remember much, if anything, about the rest of that day. I had already experienced one of my greatest moments ever at the Indianapolis motor Speedway.

  4. redcar Says:

    I listened to the AG podcast last night. Wow. That 18 minute monolouge about trying to qualify at Indy was one of the wildest, strangest, scariest stories I’ve ever heard. It was so rambling, energetic, detailed and yet surreal that I feel like I watched a really good movie. Awesome.

  5. Ron Ford Says:

    Hi George. I found the Trackside interview with Andy Granatelli both fascinating and at times hilarious. So what if he rambled a bit? You should do so well when you are 88 years young and perhaps you will.

    Like you, I particularly enjoyed hearing his response to Kevin’s question about the aero kits; well worth listening to.

    I still have a well-worn STP sticker on my tool box. Back in the day I had one on my bike, my outboard motor, pretty much anything that moved.

  6. George,

    Great post, but one correction:

    1) The Novi V8 was always supercharged since it showed up at Indy in 1941. The Granatelli’s installed a Paxton supercharger on the engine when they bought the entire Novi team (engines and chassis) in 1960.

    Growing up I read They Call Me Mister 500 and scored a hardcover copy off of e-bay a few years back. I don’t know how much is 100% true and how much is USDA grade baloney, but it’s a great read and points out not only does auto racing need innovation, it needs showmanship as well. There’s the technology angle, and the human angle. I think the reason Andy is still so popular is he fused both those divergent story lines into one person. For instance, Harry Miller is in my opinion a bigger innovator, but how many racing fans mention someone who’s innovations date back to the 19-teens? Roger Penske is a more successful car owner, but one can’t imagine Roger embracing Andy’s flamboyance.

    Auto racing is a business, but it’s also an entertainment business. The camera needs someone to focus on, and reporters need the compelliing story line to sell. We could use a bit of Andy’s razz-matazz these days, if only to garner some interest.

  7. JohnMc Says:

    I can write so much regarding my admiration for Andy Granatelli, but I think I can sum it all up in a sentance or two. I placed a big STP sticker on my guitar case when I was a youngster. I felt that it was the thing to do.

  8. Granatelli was both innovator and promoter. Just like his cars, you REMEMBER those STP “pajama” pit uni’s, you REMEMBER the day-glo cars of 1973 and beyond (about the ONLY thing memorable and good about ’73,) and I venture to guess there are still STP “Welcome Race Fans” banners up throughout Indy, a tradition started under AG in the 60′s.

    There is no one out there today who is as gregarious a promoter, (although Eddie Gossage at Texas comes close.) INDYCAR racing could use more like him.

  9. My favorite part of the interview:

    Granatelli: “[15 minute answer to first question]…so that was what happened. You still there?”

    Kevin Lee: “Yep.”

    Granatelli: “OK, so, in 1948…”

    Great interview, though. I did get the chance to read “They Call Me Mr. 500″ in college, after I found a dogeared copy in the Indiana State library that I’m sure hadn’t been checked out for years before I found it. That was a great read through April and May leading up to the 1998 race for me. It struck me as being roughly the same content level that I found Friday’s Trackside interview (30% solid gold anecdotes, 10% likely total BS, 60% self-impressed aggrandizement), but all the same, there was some great stuff in there. I’m glad Andy’s still kicking around and that he’s in tune enough with the sport to have strong, well informed opinions about what’s going on today.

  10. Hey George, very nice article. Back to your usual informative and historical style, which is great.

    This was sent to me last night by a friend, I can only assume you’ll enjoy it!

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