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.