7 January 2014

Andy Granatelli, 1923-2013: A supercharged life

On Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, perhaps the most versatile car owner to ever file an entry at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Anthony “Andy” Granatelli, died at age 90.

Andy was born March 18, 1923, in Dallas, Texas. He spent a large part of his adult life in Chicago, where he and his brothers Joe and Vince opened a speed shop known as Grancor. The three brothers soon had a reputation for building fast flathead V-8 Ford hot rods. Andy made most of the business decisions.

In 1946, Andy and his brothers pooled their money and entered one of the 1935 front-drive Miller-Fords at Indianapolis. By ’52, Granatelli had installed Jim Rathmann in a Grancor-owned, Offy-powered Kurtis Kraft 3000 chassis.  Jim raced hard all day, finishing in second place.

“We could’ve won this race,” Andy beamed.  “We could’ve won it — and someday, we will win it!”

In ‘54, according to Granatelli, due to some sloppy officiating by the AAA, Jim Rathmann and the Grancor roadster were bumped from the lineup. In response, he threw up both hands and left Indianapolis. His lips said he was done with Indy, but his heart knew differently.

In early spring 1961, Andy purchased what was left of the vaunted Novi racing team. For the next five years, he returned to Indy with a Novi entry. The Granatelli Novis put on some thrilling shows at the ol’ Brickyard.

In 1963, Jim Hurtubise looked like he had a shot at winning the 500.  However, he was disqualified — many felt erroneously — for leaking oil.

Off the track, Andy purchased the STP Oil Treatment from the Studebaker Corporation. He turned the thick engine additive into an overnight sensation.  Andy, the supercharged salesman, had the public thinking that their passenger cars wouldn’t run without STP. It didn’t hurt that he pulled off a deal to have NASCAR superstar Richard Petty endorse his product.

In 1967, Parnelli Jones and Granatelli’s radical turbine-powered racer —an idea Andy had considered for years — came within three laps of winning the Indy classic. With Jones well in front, a $10 ball bearing in the transmission failed.

The following year, Granatelli returned to Indy with a gaggle of turbine-powered Lotus 56 racers designed by Colin Chapman. They were blazingly fast, but failed to finish. Thereafter, for all intent and purposes, USAC ruled the turbines illegal.

In ’69, Granatelli hooked up with driver Mario Andretti and master mechanic Clint Brawner. All three men, each with his own unlucky story, were determined to win Indy. Mario drove a great race, and Brawner’s turbocharged four-cam Ford-powered Hawk performed flawlessly. No one could believe it when they pulled it off. With this victory, Andy had nothing to prove and his direct involvement in a racing team faded away, although he remained in the automotive business.

Many admired the flamboyant racer turned innovator and entrepreneur. Like anyone of his stature, he also had his detractors. Perhaps Andy summed it up best: “I can’t help who I am,” he’d say. “I was born supercharged.”

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