Mister 500 Is Still Going Strong
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.
Note: To download the Friday night episode of Trackside, click here.