Monday, December 30, 2013

R.I.P. Mr. 500

Another icon from my youth passed away yesterday. Andy Granatelli was the CEO of the STP Corporation. He used auto racing as a vehicle to promote his “Scientifically Treated Petroleum” oil additive. He had a colorful personality that came across in print interviews, as well as later when television began to cover auto racing. Under his leadership, the spheroid STP logo became ubiquitous as a decal on race cars everywhere.

Although he had been around as a car owner earlier in the ‘60s, I first became aware of him in 1967 when he brought a turbine powered car to Indy, driven by Hall of Famer Parnelli Jones. I was fascinated with the concept of using a jet engine to power a race car. The mid-‘60s had brought a lot of changes to the venerable Brickyard—most notably the rear engine revolution, beginning with Jim Clark’s 1965 victory. The “times they were a-changing” as new technology was making the front engine roadsters obsolete. A turbine powerplant was, to use a modern phrase, “way cool” in my young mind.

My dad had been a racer, and then served as manager of a local speedway. I had grown up listening to “the greatest spectacle in racing” on the radio every Memorial Day (same day television coverage didn’t come along until the ‘70s, and live coverage only arrived in 1986). Often our Memorial Day was spent washing the car in the driveway and then waxing it under the apple tree in the side yard, with the race coverage blaring from a radio. To this day, there is only one other state song I know besides “The West Virginia Hills”—and that is “Back Home Again in Indiana.” This song is part of the pre-race ceremony and was often sung over the years by Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle). [“…When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash, then I long for my Indiana home.”]

Because of my fascination with the “Whooshmobile” (one of the various nicknames given to Parnelli’s turbine, because it sounded so different from the traditional engines), I was very excited for the 1967 broadcast. However, rain interrupted the race before half-way that year, and it was to be resumed the next day—which unfortunately was a school day for me.

Since I was a die-hard race fan, and thoroughly consumed with Mr. Granatelli’s turbine car, I snuck a transistor radio and earphone (only one earphone back then) to my elementary school that day so I could listen. I snaked the wire under my shirt and hoped the teacher wouldn’t notice.

Parnelli Jones led most of the race, and appeared to be heading to an historic victory. Incredibly, with only four laps to go, a $6 transmission bearing failed, allowing A.J. Foyt to win the race for his third time. The next year, Mr. Granatelli brought three turbine cars to the Brickyard. The new wedge-shaped turbine racers were fast—Joe Leonard qualified his on the pole and dominated the race, but another minor problem caused him to drop out while leading with only ten laps left, allowing Bobby Unser to win. In 1969, Granatelli finally made it to Victory Lane at Indy with Mario Andretti in a traditionally powered car.

In the early ‘70s, Granatelli branched out to NASCAR and entered into a long-time sponsorship with my favorite driver, Richard Petty. Lots of folks today probably don’t realize that NASCAR was not as famous as the Indy car racing back then, but Granatelli recognized the beginnings of a surge in popularity for stock car racing.

I never got to meet Andy Granatelli, but he was a larger-than-life character in my formative years. Granatelli later wrote an autobiography entitled “They Call Me Mr. 500.” Rest in peace, Mr. 500, and thanks for the great memories!

[Pictured is Parnelli's 1967 turbine with the side cover removed (to see the turbine) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum. I highly recommend this great museum that I visited years ago.]

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