Obituary: Andy Granatelli / Entrepreneur who built cars that won Indy 500

March 18, 1923 - Dec. 29, 2013

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Andy Granatelli, a colorful entrepreneur who turned STP oil treatment into a national institution and built race cars that won the Indianapolis 500 in 1969 and in 1973, died Sunday in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 90.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his son Vince told The Associated Press.

In 1961, Studebaker Packard Corp. acquired Chemical Compounds, a company with seven employees and only one product: STP (for scientifically treated petroleum). Mr. Granatelli was named president and changed the company name to STP.

Within a decade, the company had 2,000 employees and was selling more than 100 million cans a year, and its annual sales of $2 million had grown to $100 million. STP decals, with the slogan “The Racer’s Edge,” were everywhere, both at racetracks and on the bumpers of family station wagons. Mr. Granatelli appeared in commercials for the product.

But in 1971, an article in Consumer Reports said STP oil treatment was actually “thick goo,” a worthless oil thickener. Mr. Granatelli denied that, but stock trading halted, and in two days, the stock, which had been at $58, fell to $38.

In 1974, STP was sold to Esmark Corp. for $135 million.

Mr. Granatelli was also involved in auto racing, and his innovations shook up the sport’s establishment. From 1961 to 1965, he entered cars in the Indianapolis 500, at that time America’s most celebrated race, with supercharged V-8 engines. Their horsepower reached 837, up from the conventional 450.

In 1967, he built and sponsored a radical new car with a turbine engine and 80 percent fewer parts than a conventional, piston-driven engine. Al Dean, a rival owner, said, “If they’re going to race airplanes, then let’s all race airplanes.”

Mr. Granatelli entered a turbine car in the Indianapolis 500 that year with Parnelli Jones driving. It led for 171 of the 200 laps and was leading by almost one lap with three laps left when a $6 transmission ball bearing broke. The car slowed to a stop.

The next year, the U.S. Auto Club, which made the race rules, ordered turbine power reduced by one-third. Still, a Granatelli car with Joe Leonard driving was leading with eight laps to go when a tiny gear broke in the fuel-pump shaft. The crowd, which seemed to prefer the traditional cars, cheered. Then came more restrictions, and Mr. Granatelli gave up on the turbine car.

In his 1969 autobiography, “They Call Me Mr. 500,” he said: “We were rather badly handled in the turbine affair. Perhaps we tried to hurry tomorrow to a group of tradition-bound people who were frightened silly at the prospect of a new dawn.”

In 1969, Mario Andretti crashed Mr. Granatelli’s new four-wheel-drive Lotus in an Indianapolis 500 practice. Mr. Andretti drove a year-old backup car with a conventional engine in the race and won. In 1973, Mr. Granatelli won the race again with a car driven by Gordon Johncock.

Mr. Granatelli last entered a car at Indianapolis in 1974. He also sponsored Richard Petty in NASCAR races, and from 1972 to 1981, Mr. Petty won four series championships and four Daytona 500s.

Anthony Granatelli was born March 18, 1923, in Dallas and grew up in the Chicago slums. He dropped out of school at 14 and worked in a grocery for $6 a week.

He and his two brothers — Vince and Joe — became auto mechanics who turned normal car engines into racing engines. When he was 20, Andy Granatelli and his brothers bought a gasoline station in Chicago and became an instant success because four or five mechanics would work on a car at once. Soon, he started marketing auto parts.

After World War II, he promoted auto stunt shows featuring drivers who did rollover and end-over-end crashes and survived, a sort of Harlem Globetrotters performance with spark plugs.

In 1946, the three brothers drove an 11-year-old race car from Chicago to Indianapolis. They slept in a garage because they could not afford hotel rooms. With Danny Kladis as their driver, they entered a car in the 500, which qualified in the back of the field, ran out of fuel and finished 21st.

By 1947, Mr. Granatelli was promoting stock-car and hot-rod races in the Midwest. In 1948, he tried to become an Indianapolis driver, using a helmet borrowed from his friend Bill France Sr., founder of NASCAR. He crashed in his qualifying run.

Mr. Granatelli’s first major business operation was Paxton Products, which made superchargers and was losing money. He bought the company in 1958, and in seven months, it was making a profit. In 1961, he sold the company to Studebaker and became a Studebaker vice president, chief engineer and driver.

His production cars set more than 400 world land-speed and endurance records. At 62, in a passenger car legal for street driving, he drove 241.731 mph over the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

Studebaker controlled 55 percent of STP’s stock, and in 1973, it terminated his STP contract because of differences with the board of directors. In 1976, Mr. Granatelli bought Tuneup Masters, an auto-parts distributor, for $300,000. In 1986, he sold it for $60 million.

He was elected to at least 24 automotive, racing and business halls of fame, including the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2001.


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