Murto: Granatelli left a mark on racing

Andy Granatelli, one of the most colorful characters North American racing has ever known, died last weekend at the age of 90.

The man who turned STP oil treatment into a nationally known product died of congestive heart failure in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Sunday. As a car owner and sponsor, Granatelli won the Indianapolis 500 twice and brought STP into NASCAR with a 30-year relationship with Richard Petty.

The Studebaker Packard Corporation only had seven employees in 1961, and only one product — scientifically treated petroleum, or STP. Ten years later — with Granatelli at the helm — the company employed thousands and had annual sales of $100 million. The slogan, “STP is the Racer’s edge” was known far and wide.

Born in Dallas, he dropped out of school at the age of 14 and worked in a Chicago grocery for $6 a week. With his brothers — Joe and Vince — he worked as a mechanic and turned stock engines into race-ready components. Then the brothers bought a gas station, and at the age of 20 Andy Granatelli started on his career in business.

But Granatelli was more than a businessman, he was a racer. In the 1940s he suffered a serious crash while attempting to qualify at Indianapolis. He was wearing a helmet he borrowed from his friend Bill France Sr., the founder of NASCAR. The accident damaged Granatelli’s thyroid, and resulted in substantial weight gain. Though Granatelli never had the success for which he dreamed of as a driver, it didn’t keep him from the sport; his greatest mark was made as a promoter, car owner and sponsor.

In the ’40s Granatelli promoted stunt shows and stock car racing in the Chicago area. There are photos of crowds in Soldier Field for Granatelli’s stock car races that would make NASCAR Nationwide crowds of today put to shame. Reportedly, the races had staged events, such as drivers put into ambulances after a crash and then a manikin pushed out the back, much to the horror (and entertainment) of the post-WWII crowd. That was a very different time, and Granatelli knew how to turn a profit.

In 1967 he entered a radical turbine car in the Indy 500. Parnelli Jones had a lap on the entire field when a $6 part robbed him of the win with three laps to go. The following year, even after rules were changed to slow the turbine down, Joe Leonard dominated the race in a Granatelli turbine until another mechanical failure took the win away.

In 1969 Granatelli finally cemented his name in the Indy record books when his car won with Mario Andretti at the controls. The image of Granatelli planting a big, wet kiss on Andretti’s cheek in victory lane is one of the most famous photos in racing.

In 1973 Granatelli won the Indy 500 a second time with Gordon Johncock, but that race was marred by the death of talented racer Swede Savage. Driving a car fielded by Patrick Racing, wrenched by famous mechanic George Bignotti and sponsored by STP through Granatelli, Savage was one of the fastest cars at Indy in 1973. But in what many called the most spectacular single-car crash ever seen at the speedway, Savage crashed coming out of turn four and the car exploded. Savage never lost consciousness and actually joked with rescue workers as he was transported to a local hospital. He died more than a month later in Methodist Hospital Medical Center, according to his attending physician, from contaminated plasma that gave Savage hepatitis B and caused his liver to fail. It has been documented since that prior to Savage’s crash, a number of drivers reported oil on the track.

Later that year Studebaker — which still owned 55 percent of STP — terminated its contract with Granatelli following disputes with the board of directors. Granatelli then bought Tuneup Masters for $300,000 in 1976, and sold it 10 years later for $60 million.

If you can, be sure to find a copy of Andy Granatelli’s autobiography, “They Call Me Mr. 500”; it is a good read and offers a glimpse into the life of one of the most colorful people North American motorsports has ever known.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.