Black Sunday

When I come back from my Christmas break, I usually like to begin the new year by writing about light-hearted items. Unfortunately, that is not the case as we begin 2014.

Last Sunday, while sitting comfortably by the fire and watching the NFL playoff picture come into focus, I was checking Twitter from time to time on my phone. Somewhere in that afternoon, I began to see reports trickle in that seven-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher had been involved in a skiing accident in the French Alps. At first, the reports did not sound too ominous and I didn’t pay that much attention to them. I figured he had torn up his knee and would spend New Year’s hobbling around in a cast.

As the day progressed, more reports started coming in that indicated Schumacher’s condition was much worse than originally thought. Suddenly, the Packers-Bears game was diminished in importance as I surfed the web to try and find any positive news on the F1 great. There was none. As time went on, the news seemed to indicate that we might expect to hear the worst before the night was out.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. The updates in the days since then have been slightly encouraging, but it is obvious that the German legend has a long road ahead of him. We all need to keep Michael Schumacher in our thoughts and prayers in his long recovery.

As I was grappling for any updates I could find on that cold Sunday night, I stumbled upon more troubling news. The great Andy Granatelli had passed away that same day at the age of ninety. While it’s not as unnerving for someone to pass away at that age, as watching the forty-four year-old Schumacher fight for his life – it was still a shock nonetheless.

By the end of the terrible day of Sunday December 29 – I couldn’t help but wonder what else might happen. Fortunately, that was it. We can still hope that Michael Schumacher will continue to show improvement. In the meantime, it’s appropriate to look back on the amazing life of Mister 500 – Andy Granatelli.

Throughout the history of the Indianapolis 500, few that have been involved with the race can rival the passion and intensity that Andy Granatelli brought to the Speedway.

Granatelli and his brothers, Vince and Joe, had been involved with the race since the mid-forties. They were always trying new things, but always came up short. Then in the early sixties, Granatelli brought the famous powerful Novi engine back to the Speedway by buying the company. His efforts always came up short, but long-time fans always appreciated his efforts to revive the unique sounding engine. I am lucky enough to have heard the distinctive ear-splitting sound of the Novi, when I went to my first race in 1965. The Novi driven by Jim Hurtubise lasted only one lap, while the one Bobby Unser drove went out on Lap 69 and finished nineteenth.

Even though I was only six years old that day, my memories of that race are fairly vivid. One of the most vivid memories of that day was the sound of that Novi engine as it went past our seats in Stand J. That was the last time a Novi would ever appear at Indianapolis. Fans had Andy Granatelli to thank for reviving that famous sound from the late forties and early fifties. The name of Andy Granatelli meant nothing to me that day, but that would change in a couple of years.

After missing the 1966 race (my father took his father and brother instead of us kids), we all returned in our new seats in Stand A for the 1967 race. We even attended Pole day for the first time ever. It was a cold dreary day as we sat in our seats across from the entrance to Gasoline Alley to watch the cars roll out to the pits. Suddenly, I spotted the brightest color I had ever seen on a car that looked something like a beast. It was the STP turbine-powered car that was to be driven by my favorite driver at the time – Parnelli Jones.

My father and older brothers hated it. It represented a threat to the traditional piston engines that had ruled the Speedway for years. They were still somewhat in shock that front-engine Watson roadsters were no longer en vogue. Being an eight year-old kid, tradition meant nothing to me. I thought it was the coolest car in the paddock and I wanted it to win.

In a two year span, Andy Granatelli brought one of the loudest cars and then one of the quietest cars to ever run at the Speedway. The car was nicknamed “Silent Sam” and the “Whoosh-mobile”. It was powered by a huge Pratt & Whitney helicopter turbine that ran alongside the driver. When it started up, it sounded just like a jet on the tarmac. When it rushed by the stands, spectators heard more of a rush of wind with a slight high-pitched whine than the roar of an offy. While the rest of my family was cringing, I was convinced I was seeing (and hearing) the future of the Indianapolis 500.

We all now know that Jones, Granatelli and the turbine did not win the race that day. The car that Granatelli managed to build in total secrecy was failed by a $6.00 transmission bearing, while leading with three laps to go.

Undaunted by the failure in 1967 and changes in the USAC rules for 1968, Granatelli returned the following year with an armada of turbine powered Lotus 56’s. To this very day, I consider the wedge-shaped Lotus 56 turbine to be the most innovative and beautiful car to ever run at the Speedway. The four cars were originally assigned to the super team of Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Mike Spence. Clark would lose his life at Hockenheim in April, while Spence would be fatally injured at IMS during practice in the Month of May, destroying his car in the process. Stewart would withdraw due to a previous wrist injury. That left Hill as the only remaining driver for the Lotus. Granatelli would sign veterans Joe Leonard and Art Pollard to drive the other two remaining turbines.

Leonard put his Lotus 56 on the pole, while Hill would qualify alongside. Pollard would start in the middle of the fourth row. Hill crashed his turbine early in the race. Then on a late race restart with nineteen laps to go and Leonard leading with Bobby Unser second – Leonard and Pollard both suffered “flame-outs” with their turbines. Leonard described it as like someone reached up and turned the key off. For the second year in a row, Granatelli watched his turbines slowly coast to a stop from the lead, while other drivers went on to claim an Indianapolis 500 victory.

The rule-makers rendered the turbines virtually obsolete after the 1968 race. Not to dwell on his misfortunes, Granatelli showed up with three secret weapons in 1969 – Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt and Mario Andretti to drive a piston-powered Lotus 64. The car proved to be a bear to drive. After Rindt spun and Andretti suffered facial burns from a crash due to a broken hub, the Lotus was withdrawn. A year-old Brawner Hawk was rolled out for Mario, while Hill and Rindt never made a qualifying attempt. Fighting over-heating issues all day, Mario won an improbably victory and was promptly greeted with a kiss by an over-joyed Granatelli in Victory Lane.

For 1967 & 1968, I was pulling for the Granatelli turbines from the stands. In 1969, I was no longer enthralled with the day-glo orange cars and I was pulling for either Dan Gurney or rookie Mark Donohue. Gurney finished second, while Donohue finished seventh in Roger Penske’s debut at the Speedway.

For reasons still unclear to me to this day, our family stopped going to the Indianapolis 500 after the 1972 race. I didn’t return for twenty years in 1992. When I missed my first race in 1973, Granatelli had sold his team, but was still sponsoring cars through his STP Corporation. Gordon Johncock and owner Pat Patrick gave STP victories in 1973 and again in 1982.

I never met Andy Granatelli, but I can remember seeing him across the track. One of the most common phrases I’ve heard to describe Granatelli this past week is “larger than life”. From what I could see from my seats, that was certainly true. I feel honored that I was there to witness Andy Granatelli. He was an innovator, showman, shrewd business executive and he loved the Indianapolis 500 more than anything else.

I can remember hearing Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee interview Mister 500 on Trackside two or three years ago. He was as lucid, energetic and opinionated as ever. After hearing his enthusiasm come through that interview, you were almost convinced he would live forever.

Unfortunately, on Black Sunday, we were reminded that no one lives forever. After losing Andy Granatelli on that dark day, let’s hope that day only served to scare us about Michael Schumacher and that he will make a full recovery, over time. That would serve as a better start to 2014.

George Phillips


10 Responses to “Black Sunday”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Great column George..

  2. Such a great example of what mady Indy Indy. Innovation. Courage. Makes spec racing even harder to endure. What’s sad is another Granatelli would not even have the opportunity to try new ideas like this today.

    Skiing is a very dangerous sport. The number of people who are injured or killed by head injury is kind of stunning. I hope Mr. Schumacher will recover fully.

  3. I loved Andy and his turbines. My first 500s were 1963, 65, and 67 after which I didn’t miss another race until 1996. I saw and heard the Novis run and, of course the turbines.
    I was in the J Stand in ’67 (Turn 4 exit) and I saw that bright red car go to the outside entering turn one and didn’t expect to see it again. I looked across the infield to the back stretch and was amazed to see the turbine turn into Turn 3 and reach the short chute before I saw Mario on the entrance to Turn 3.
    From the same seat, the next day, a saw Parnelli coast slowly into the pits and saw Andy run out, put his hands on the car as it was still rolling, and talk to Parnelli.
    I read his book several times. I finally met him in front of Victory Lane on race morning 2001, 2, or 3. It was cool when I left early that morning to cover the race so I reached into my closet and grabbed a jacket I hadn’t worn in more than 20 years-the white one with all the STP logos, like the ’60s pit suits.
    As I was walking in the pits I heard a woman yell, “Andy, Andy, look at that!” It was Dolly and she was pointing at me from a passing golf cart on which she and Andy were riding. He turned and saw me and waved me to follow them to a television interview. He asked me to wait while he was interviewed, then signaled for me to come over to talk to him. He offered to sign my jacket, and did.
    He will be missed, but not forgotten.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    In addition to the on-track innovations he championed, Granatelli and STP were also pioneers in using auto racing as a central part of a modern national advertising campaign.
    He clearly loved the sport and Speedway, and put his time and money where his heart was about as much anyone could. I hope that spirit will live on in others, I’m sure Andy does as well.

    • It is the STP advertising that I remember the most. I was just a kid. Couldn’t believe that Andy was 90. He didn’t look it. I saw a video of Andy and his wife touring an automotive museum in the midwest. He signed his cars, which I thought was cool. Will see if I can find it and will send a link. Mr. G was larger than life and I mean that in spirit and energy. Thanks for a great posting, George.

      I am holding on to the hope that Michael will pull through and will not suffer any long term disabilities. Really a tragedy.

  5. Those were some exciting days. Every May it was fun to speculate on what new innovation might show up at the track. Does anyone remember some of the so-called “ground effect” cars such as Jim Hall’s 1970 Chaparral with the two rear mounted exhaust fans and side “skirts”?
    When I first heard the whoosh of the turbine I tried to imagine all 33 cars making that sound (or lack therof) compared to the raucus clattering of the traditional pushrod engines. Now today I am trying to imagine a race with all electric cars. I would not pay to watch that unless each car could be made to sound like a Novi. Maybe they have an app for that.

    I recall that my buddies and I were always adding various STP additives to our engines. We believed in that stuff. Looking back I don’t think they did much good, but in retrospect I am happy that we helped to fund Andy’s racing career by buying STP products.

    I certainly miss Andy and the ideas, energy, and showmanship he brought to the sport. Pizazz if you will. Not much of that to be found these days. (with apologies to “one take only”)

    Good to see you back George.

  6. Back in ’66, ’67, ’68 and ’69, you would have thought that STP and Goodyear ruled the city. I couldn’t wait to get my first car and set it up with Goodyear tires and STP gas and oil treatment. However, until that day I was content with being a fan of the products and collect the souvenirs, inserts and decals. Unlike Goodyear, however, STP had an innovative team owner who was solely focused on Indy. Seeing him in his red STP jacket had me wanting one, too, but I never got one. He had the greatest drivers and when he lost it was spectacular. Nobody wanted to win the Indianapolis 500 more and I wish we would someone like him in the garage once again. That would be a shot in the arm.

  7. Does anyone else remember when Jimmy Clark drove the red STP Lotus in the 500 and finished second after spinning? At the awards banquet he revealed what STP stood for – “Spinning Takes Practice.”

  8. James T Suel Says:

    Andy Granatelli was a great loss to the racing world! I was lucky enough to meet Andy twice, in my many trips to the speedway,1960 to present. I loved the NOVI and the Turbines. But after his book came out, wrote a letter asking more about the novi and why he did not keep them going. To my surprise I got a letter from him,hand written and a hardbound copy of his book signed!!

  9. Doug Gardner Says:

    Another great post George. The Granatelli book”They Call Me Mister 500″. I really good for a racing nut. I don’t think many know that Andy was a driver at one time at Indy. Great Race promoter, car builder, innovater, land speed record holder and was more than the commercial face of STP. Pretty good read. But, I will read anything about the 500

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