Clash of the Titans

When Indy 500 entrant Andy Granatelli teamed up with Colin Chapman, sparks were inevitable

Andy Granatelli’s death on December 29 closed a remarkable chapter in motor racing history. The 90-year-old’s exploits and impact upon American track racing as would-be driver turned promoter, constructor, entrant and all-round entrepreneur had tremendous resonance upon the British audience during the 1960s, when he turned to Colin Chapman and Team Lotus to unlock his life’s ambition – winning the Indy 500.

In fact the relationship between Granatelli and Chapman was fairly typical of a marriage of convenience between two almost equally self-confident, successful, assured, determined and ultra-competitive alpha males who had first come together simply because each needed what the other could provide.

After winning the 1965 Indy 500 with Jimmy Clark driving the Ford-financed quad-cam V8-engined Lotus 38, Colin had been less than delighted by Ford’s decision not to extend what had been their three-year support contract (1963-65). Colin had always been keen on finding a high-profile commercial – rather than technical – sponsor and Andy Granatelli’s approach to purchase a Type 38 for USAC racing through 1966 opened that door. Andy’s brother ‘Big Vince’ had visited Hethel, essentially seeking advice on how to improve the handling of their STP Novi-Ferguson four-wheel-drive car. Negotiations went well and the STP-Lotus partnership was announced for 1966 with the forthcoming Lotus Indycars wearing vermilion STP livery – the in-your-face hue that Colin christened ‘Granatelli Green’.

Lotus’s long-serving – and long- suffering – manager Andrew Ferguson later recalled: “I found Andy Granatelli one of life’s rich characters. Along with his brothers ‘Big Vince’ and Joe, and Andy’s son ‘Little Vince’, they presented the very essence of Italian-American immigrants who had ‘made it’ in the New World…” Through garage and motor trade businesses, Andy had parlayed their family enterprise into a saleable proposition, which he had sold in 1957 to retire as a millionaire aged 34. He then used his newly freed wealth to buy the ailing Paxton supercharger concern, which he and his brothers turned around and earned a 1962 contract from Chrysler’s Studebaker division to produce the Paxton-supercharged Avanti model. From 1961 they ran recently acquired supercharged Novi V8s in various chassis at Indy and in 1962 Andy became president of Studebaker’s STP Division, which had 13 per cent of the world’s gasoline and oil treatment market. Within four years that share had boomed to 60 per cent.

STP Team Lotus’s plans for 1966 were to enter five cars of three different types – STP running its lone front-engined Novi-Ferguson with Paxton-blown 837bhp V8 engine, while Lotus would prepare two BRM H16-engined Lotus 42s and two updated Ford V8-engined Lotus 38Bs. But the BRM H16 programme became bogged in basic Formula 1 development issues and the 4.2-litre Indy unit was delayed until ’67. Consequently, Clark lined up for Indy qualifying in an STP Lotus-Ford 38B, troubled by the car’s transmission having persistently jumped out of gear during the warm-up.

Andy Granatelli liked to check ‘his’ driver’s seat belts before ostentatiously waving them out onto the Speedway. Jimmy was sitting in his car awaiting chief steward Harlan Fengler’s signal to start his qualifying run when Andy attempted to check his belts, only for the Scot to grab his hand in a vice-like grip and imperceptibly shake his head.

Granatelli then realised that Jimmy’s left-leg strap had parted, and he had hidden it away from Fengler’s gaze under his leg. If the free belt had been spotted they would have lost their chance to qualify in that day’s session, and waiting for the following day would have denied them – regardless of pace – the chance of a front-grid start. Despite that left-side strap lying free, Jimmy then qualified second and averaged 164.144mph for his four laps.

The 1966 500 became the one Graham Hill scooped for Lola-Ford, with Jimmy second after believing he had won (despite spinning the STP-Lotus twice). Colin and his RAC timekeeper Cyril Audrey were convinced the USAC officials had made a terrible error until a cross-check persuaded the Brits otherwise. Yet Andy Granatelli was never convinced and, when reminded of that race in later years, would famously complain, “How can we put men on the moon and yet be unable to track one little old race car?”

The 1967 STP-Lotus assault upon Indy was in contrast a total flop, the cars for Jimmy and Graham Hill holing pistons. That year’s foray was better remembered for Graham’s blue-tinged prize-giving speech, which lasted 20 minutes longer than his race.

The star of that year’s 500 had been another Granatelli entry – the STP-Paxton with four-wheel drive and Pratt & Whitney gas turbine power, driven by Parnelli Jones. It outran all opposition and was leading the race comfortably until a $5 bearing failed with barely 10 miles to run. Granatelli loved the turbine’s economy. It cost $30,000 to buy against $26,000 for a Ford quad-cam V8, but life between overhauls was 1200 hours against 6-10 hours for the Fords, whose rebuilds cost up to $9000 a time.

Following the STP-Paxton turbine’s lead, for 1968 Lotus chief designer Maurice Phillippe finalised the Lotus-Pratt & Whitney Type 56 to take the turbine 4WD Indy concept to a new level, combining a Lotus hull, Ferguson FF four-wheel drive and the helicopter-derived P&W gas turbine engines administered by the manufacturer’s senior engineer ‘Flame-Out’ Fred Cowley.

It was during development of this programme that Andy Granatelli visited Lotus at Hethel. As Colin drove him in his American Ford Galaxie to lunch at the Lansdowne Hotel in Norwich, they were passing through the village of East Carleton, with Andy sitting in the front, when a hunting party carrying shotguns suddenly appeared on the road ahead.

Back-seat passenger Andrew Ferguson wrote how Andy – sufficiently agile, despite his enormous size, to go flat on the seat and slide below dashboard level – gasped, “Jesus Christ!” He commented that he had not come all this way only to be rubbed out by the Norfolk Mafia: then, not for the first time, he made a comment that stung Chapman’s well-developed self-esteem: “Still, at least if you die with me, Colin, it will make you famous…”

On another occasion Andy was on a Chicago-Indy flight when the airline had to turn back and make an emergency landing, Andy complaining, “I’ve lived by the turbine and now it looks as if I’ll die by it.”

In March 1968 Clark tested the first STP Lotus 56 at Indy. A month later he died at Hockenheim. Andy Granatelli was as heartbroken as any. In May practice at Indy Mike Spence was then killed when he crashed one of the new 56s. In that year’s race Joe Leonard and Art Pollard seemed set for an STP-Lotus turbine 1-2 until Pratt & Whitney phosphor-bronze fuel pump driveshafts failed within sight of the finish on both cars. Graham Hill had earlier crashed out when his car’s right-front suspension let go – and his car had been fitted with a steel quill-shaft that even P&W’s ‘Flame-Out Fred’ had described as being “rather well made” – and might not have failed quite so desperately.

By that time the Chapman-Granatelli relationship was disintegrating, Colin referring dismissively to ‘Groticelli’. When he read of Andy declaring that “Colin Chapman built (the cars) all right, but he built what I told him to build” – Chapman wrote furiously demanding that Andy should “desist from this totally erroneous impression you are trying to create. The only alternative would be, of course, for me to call a worldwide press conference and acquaint them with the true facts…”

Typically quixotic, Colin also dispatched a matte-black fuselage model of the Type 56 to the STP chief, inscribed “To my very dear friend Andy, from Colin.”

The final STP-Lotus divorce followed in 1969 when the most-complex Indy Lotus cars ever created – the four-wheel-drive, turbocharged quad-cam Ford Type 64s – had to be withdrawn pre-race after rear hub failures occurred too close to the race to allow new parts to be perfected. Ironically Mario Andretti – bearing facial scars from a fiery crash in the suddenly three-wheeled Lotus 64 – at last secured Andy’s long desired maiden Indy 500 win in the team’s Hawk-Ford. It would not be repeated, but for any enthusiast from that era Andy Granatelli’s name and personality live on.