He was part of Indianapolis 500 royalty, carried on the traditions of his father, and made waves with flashy cars and sponsors in one of the CART IndyCar Series toughest eras.
Vince Granatelli, who came into the sport in the early 1960s as a mechanic working on the Novi roadsters and turbine cars built or fielded by his father Andy, has died at 78 after a short battle with multiple respiratory challenges.
“It was really a shock to find out that Vince passed away,” said two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, who drove for Granatelli in his final years as an entrant. “I had just been in contact with his wife who said he had pneumonia and got COVID on top of it. Last year in September we went out for dinner — he always took me out on my birthday for dinner, which was great, and I would take him out for his birthday. I’m really sad because we were just good friends when I drove for him and all those years after. This is super sad.”
Like his elders, Granatelli was first drawn to the cars of the Indy 500 where his talents were put to good use through the early 1970s. With the Granatelli name fading from the Speedway, he turned his attention to another family hallmark by developing his own businesses which eventually allowed a return to IndyCar in 1987.
Under the Vince Granatelli Racing banner, the Phoenix, Arizona-based team would get its start with former Cotter Racing driver Roberto Guerrero (pictured at left, top, with Granatelli) and primary sponsorship from Cotter’s True Value Hardware stores. Another tradition was honored with the choice of colors for the cars, with the famous dayglo orange from the 1960s applied to Guerrero’s March 87C chassis, along with branding from STP.
The team was instantly competitive, qualifying second on its debut at Long Beach, winning its second race on the one-mile Phoenix oval, placing second at the Indy 500, earning a podium at Pocono, and claiming a second win, this time at the Mid-Ohio road course after starting on pole.
Vince Granatelli Racing’s remarkable CART debut concluded with the Colombian driver earning fourth in the championship, one point behind Al Unser Jr. and ahead of Rick Mears and Mario Andretti.
Their achievement was nothing less than stunning when Guerrero’s season is taken into account; days after his Mid-Ohio win he was significantly injured after a crash while testing at Indianapolis brought an end to his year of racing. Fourth in the championship was taken while sitting out the last three events as his immediate rivals scored handfuls of points.
Despite his team’s success, Granatelli went into 1988 in need of new backing after the True Value sponsorship reached its conclusion. Guerrero finished second at Phoenix with STP placed on the car, but money was short. It’s here where an interesting relationship with the Church of Scientology’s printing business, Bridge Publications, entered the frame after Roger Penske declined the company’s interest in funding one of his cars.
“That left them open to go to another team, and I was available,” Granatelli said of the introduction to the church through his friend, actor John Travolta. “I was looking for sponsorship. I was underfunded at the time and paying everything out of my pocket. So I made the deal with them. And really, technically — and I’m open-minded about this — Bridge Publications wanted to present one of their books, which was called Dianetics. Now that has really nothing to do with the church. They came to me as a sponsor and gave me a lot of money to run Long Beach, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. And I did that.”
Lingering effects from the testing crash and other struggles made it impossible for the team to improve upon its 1987 form, and after dropping to 12th in the standings, the Granatelli and Guerrero combination would come to an end. The team returned in 1989 with new sponsorship from multi-media and electronics company RCA, albeit with the unfavored Buick engine. Indy winner Tom Sneva, the late John Andretti, Kevin Cogan, and Didier Theys drove for Granatelli through 1990, all without the benefit of capturing a podium finish.
Granatelli’s swansong as an IndyCar team owner came in partnership with former funeral parlor owner Bob Tezak, who purchased the rights to the card game UNO and became a millionaire after its popularity rose in the 1980s. Tezak took ownership of the Doug Shierson Racing team at the end of 1990, and those assets and funding brought to Granatelli, Shierson’s reigning Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk was retained and with a switch to Chevrolet power, the Dutchman turned UNO/Vince Granatelli Racing into a competitive force.
A win at Phoenix was followed by a third at the Indy 500, a third at Detroit, a second at Michigan, and a final win for the team at the penultimate round at Nazareth. Luyendyk split Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti to take sixth in the standings, all while Granatelli came out of pocket to keep the program going when the relationship with Tezak turned ugly as lawsuits and injunctions saw UNO depart with six races left on the calendar.
Although the financial woes ultimately led Granatelli to shutter the team after the 1991 season, Luyendyk says all of the Tezak-related adversity had no impact on the program’s quality.
“I have always said the best team I ever drove for was Vince Granatelli Racing,” he added. “It was because of the preparation. He would always be like Penske, who would have the suspension shined up, everything had to be meticulous. Everything was so clean, if you walked into our shop, you could eat off the floor.
“One of the biggest disappointments was that we couldn’t continue in 1992. He didn’t want to keep putting his own money in because in the end, he was still a businessman. But I’ll always remember the preparation and then the way the cars were turned out, painted every other race, they always had to look nice. And when I got into that car, I knew that I would be safe and everything would be fine.”
Luyendyk was also fond of Granatelli’s firm hand when it came to the running of his team.
“Vince ran a tight ship…he didn’t take s••t from nobody!” he continued. “I mean, if somebody didn’t want to do what he wanted you to do, they were gone. He wasn’t easy to work for, but I liked driving for him. Actually, we had arguments. I’ve never really had fights with team owners. The only time I had an argument was with him. He said, ‘You were the only guy that actually started yelling back at me!’ We always laughed about it later. But because he ran a tight ship, it was a good ship.”
With Granatelli’s passing, an incredible chapter comes to an end in IndyCar and at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
His father Andy, winner of the 1969 Indy 500 with Mario Andretti and nicknamed “Mister 500,” received an annual tribute from the Speedway in the form of being given the 500th silver access badge. With Andy’s death in December of 2013, the Speedway celebrated the life of Granatelli and the other turbine entrants at the 2014 Indy 500. In a gesture that both moved and surprised his son, IMS quietly continued the tradition by giving Vince the 500th silver badge, who took pride in showing it to close friends.
Granatelli is survived by his wife Marie and daughter Grace.