He was larger than life in the term’s truest sense, a classic American salesman and huckster who made his fortune selling fuel additive STP to the masses. He was also a successful Indycar team owner, dominating most of the 1967 Indy 500 with Parnelli Jones (in the STP Paxton turbine) and finally winning the race in ’69 with Mario Andretti.
Andy Granatelli, 90, passed away two days before the end of 2013. He made STP a household name in the 1960s and ’70s, spurred largely by his efforts promoting the brand through motor racing as ‘The Racer’s Edge’. During the 1960s Granatelli rapidly expanded STP from a seven-person company with sales of $2 million to an operation employing 2000 people and sales worth $200 million. But a 1971 story in Consumer Reports claimed STP was a worthless product and the firm’s value plummeted on the New York Exchange.
The Studebaker Corporation owned more than half STP’s stock and the company bought Granatelli out in 1973. In 1976 Granatelli acquired an auto parts distributor for $300,000, selling the company 10 years later for $60 million.
Granatelli was born into poverty in Dallas and grew up in Chicago with brothers Vince and Joe. They became car mechanics and bought a small gas station, with a reputation for rapid service and repair work and soon started selling auto parts and promoting automobile stunt shows and midget races. In 1946 they entered the Indy 500 with a car for midget racer Danny Kladis, who made the field but ran out of fuel.
Through the 1950s and into the ’60s the Granatellis, with Andy at the helm, regularly entered cars at Indianapolis. Bobby Unser drove Granatelli’s supercharged Novi V8 cars at the Speedway in 1963, ’64 and ’65 before Andy built a Paxton turbine car for ’67.
Parnelli Jones dominated the race and was leading with only three laps to go when a bearing in the transmission broke. Parnelli says it was his fault for driving the car too hard from the pits after each stop but, win or lose, Parnelli and the turbine made a big mark on popular American culture that year and helped sell more cans of STP.
In 1968 Granatelli made a deal with Colin Chapman to build a trio of turbine-powered STP Lotus Indycars. Graham Hill, Joe Leonard and Art Pollard raced the wedge-shaped Type 56 in the 500, with Leonard and Hill qualifying one-two. Leonard led the opening laps and again near the end, only to drop out with just nine laps to go because of a broken fuel pump drive.
In 1969, Chapman designed a new turbo Ford-powered STP Lotus 4WD car, the Type 64, but that never raced after Andretti crashed in practice when a rear hub failed. Mario and Clint Brawner’s team bounced back to win with their tried and true Brawner/Hawk and Granatelli got the biggest media splash of his life after embracing and kissing Andretti in victory lane. It was vintage Granatelli, enabling him to write his autobiography, They Call Me Mr 500.
Granatelli lived in Santa Barbara, California, and is survived by wife Dolly and two sons, Vince and Anthony.
Doug Nye looks back on Andy Granatelli and Lotus, p129