Parnelli Jones, Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti tell Robin Miller how they’ll remember one of the true legends of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Andy Granatelli in 2012, partying with Bobby Unser (LEFT) and Parnelli Jones. (Photo: Steve Shunck)
He was a racer, a promoter, a showman, a dreamer, a thinker and a master of marketing. But Andy Granatelli should also be remembered as one of the best things that ever happened to open-wheel racing and the Indianapolis 500.
“Andy did more for the promotion of Indy car racing than anybody,” said Parnelli Jones on Sunday afternoon after learning of Granatelli’s death. “From the Novi to the turbine car to all those STP commercials, he was always generating publicity for our sport.”
Bobby Unser, who got his start at Indianapolis with Granatelli (BELOW, IMS photo) and then launched his career by beating his old boss and the turbine in 1968, always marveled at his mind.
“Andy didn’t look through the same set of eyes that everyone else did, he always looked at things differently,” said the three-time Indy winner. “He was always thinking outside the box and when we were all looking at next year, Andy was looking 10 years down the road.”
Mario Andretti, who scored Andy’s only victory as team owner at Indianapolis in 1969, echoed Jones’ thoughts. “Andy was a maverick in every way but he brought so much excitement and fresh ideas (to Indy car racing) and he made his mark because he believed in himself.”
Along with brothers Joe and Vince, Granatelli went from promoting daredevil shows after World War II to building and entering a car in the 1946 Indy 500 under the moniker “Grancor Racing.” They qualified in ’46 with Danny Kladis and finished second in 1952 with eventual (1960) winner Jim Rathmann.
But even though the brothers had some moderate success in the 1950s at Indianapolis, it was the early 1960s when Andy really started making his name. He brought the popular yet ill-fated Novis, big brutish cars with lots of power but little reliability, back to Gasoline Alley in 1963 with hard-driving Jim Hurtubise (LEFT), drag racer Art Malone and a rookie named Bobby Unser. Hurtubise qualified in the middle of Row 1 and led the first lap before dropping out and Granatelli stuck with the Novis the next three Mays before unveiling a car that would establish his legend at 16th & Georgetown.
Armed with longtime sponsor STP, Andy had a 4-wheeled drive car with a turbine engine built for the 1967 Indianapolis 500 and convinced Jones to drive it.
“I tested it at Phoenix and it had some potential and then Andy started calling me about driving it at the Speedway,” recalls the 1963 Indy victor. “I asked for $100,000 and he accepted it but I really didn’t think it would be as good as it turned out. I mean I knew I’d make the race in that car but I didn’t know how I’d do in the race.”
After qualifying sixth, Jones (ABOVE, with Granatelli) jetted into the lead coming off Turn 2 of the opening lap and was out in front for 171 laps and coasting towards an easy win when the gearbox broke three laps from the finish.
“It was my fault because I was too hard on the gearbox leaving my pit and I didn’t have to do that,” said Parnelli. “I always felt as bad for Andy as I did for myself and I’ll never forget him crying like a baby back in the garage.”
Another apparent “sure thing” escaped Granatelli in 1968 when pole-sitter Joe Leonard’s turbine-powered car failed only nine laps from the checkered flag.
In 1969, his collaboration with Lotus’ founder Colin Chapman produced another innovative car, the four-wheel-drive Lotus 64, that was piloted by Andretti but a right-rear hub failure sent him into the wall during practice and into the backup car for the race, the Brawner Hawk.
“Andy tried every trick in the book to win Indy and finally winds up winning in a backup car that we had no plans to run,” said Andretti, who led 116 laps of the ’69 race and got a famous kiss in Victory Lane from his winning car owner. (BELOW, as an amused Aldo Andretti in orange shirt, looks on).
“It was a career-changer for me and I wanted it in the worst way but I also knew how hard Andy had tried for so long and that made it even sweeter.”
Four years later, now with STP as sponsor of the Patrick Racing team, the oil company’s bright orange colors were again seen in Victory Lane, as a somber-faced Gordon Johncock clinched his first win but under the shadow of a monstrous fiery shunt to his teammate Swede Savage that would eventually lead to the young Californian’s death.
A villain to some Indy fans for bringing the turbines, Granatelli’s innovative thinking wasn’t appreciated by USAC either and it seemed to do its best to try and legislate him out of racing. But his non-stop promotion of STP and Indy, combined with his 300-pound build, also made him one of the most popular and recognizable figures in North America.
“He was a big man but he had a big heart,” said Jones. “Because of his size, I was always worried he wouldn’t make it to 60 but he lived a helluva life and made it all the way to 90.”
Unser had many arguments with Granatelli over money, tires and whether the turbine belonged at Indy but he had nothing but respect for the man who gave him his big break.
“Andy loved Indy car racing and he truly believed in it,” concluded Unser. “He was a very smart man and a step ahead of everyone else and it’s a sad day because racing has just lost one of its biggest icons.”
(BELOW) STP turbine Lotus 56s of Joe Leonard and Graham Hill share the Indy 500 front row with Bobby Unser’s Eagle in 1968. Leonard’s car would fail in the closing stages of the race, handing Unser the win.