By on December 31, 2013

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Andy Granatelli died this past Sunday at the age of 90. He was a man worthy of note in the world of cars and the world of business. His sponsorships via the STP oil additive company changed the way automotive product companies used motorsports and vice versa. A larger than life personality, and a genuine character, Granatelli’s two Indy 500 wins as an owner were in many ways overshadowed by the near misses at Indy of his revolutionary turbine powered racers. A man of considerable accomplishments in racing and in business, no doubt. It seems to me, though, that his most enduring influence on the automotive world (and the basis of some of the longest enduring automotive speed records) was his popularizing of forced induction, specifically superchargers.

Granatelli and his brothers Joe and Vince had been part of the American racing scene since they first entered a car in the 1946 Indy 500 race, finishing in 21st place. Andy himself tried to qualify for the 1948 500 but he crashed and broke his arm. He was a much better promoter than race car driver, having some success putting on stock car and hot rod races in the 1950s. Then, in 1958 he bought a financially distressed maker of belt-driven superchargers, Paxton Superchargers.

Andy Granatelli showing off a new Paxton supercharger model.

Andy Granatelli showing off a new Paxton supercharger model.

 

Though Paxton had already had some success getting Kaiser, Studebaker and then Ford to offer superchargers as either factory or dealer installed options, by 1958 the company was losing money. Granatelli bought it and in barely more than half a year he had turned the company around, making it profitable. In 1961, he sold Paxton to Studebaker and as part of the deal in addition to remaining the CEO of Paxton he became a vice president of the South Bend based automaker, getting the title of chief engineer, with test driving being one of his job duties.

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The radical Avanti sports coupe was about to be launched, taking on Chevy’s Corvette and Jaguar’s E Type. Granatelli supercharged that launch with serious performance bone fides. In late 1962, a supercharged R3 stage V8 equipped 1963 Studebaker Avanti with Granatelli at the wheel set 29 speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats. At the age of 62, in a street legal car, he drove at 241.731 miles per hour on the ancient lake bed.

Red Paxton supercharger on R3 Studebaker V8 in 1963 Studebaker Hawk GT. A small number of Studebakers left the factory with twin superchargers.

Red Paxton supercharger on R3 Studebaker V8 in 1963 Studebaker Hawk GT. A small number of Studebakers left the factory with twin superchargers.

Granatelli would return to Utah with his blown Studebakers and in all his supercharged Studes set more than 400 world land speed and endurance records for production cars. Some of those records stood for decades. It was after his success promoting the Avanti that Studebaker put Granatelli in charge of a subsidiary chemical company that made an oil additive that was named Scientifically Treated Petroleum, STP.

Andy Granatelli was a master marketer. Here he is with comedian Johnny Carson when he arranged for the Tonight Show host to take hot laps at Indy in the STP Turbine car.

Obviously, superchargers had been used before Granatelli organized the Avanti’s Bonneville based PR stunts. Duesenbergs, Cords and Graham Paige automobiles could be ordered with superchargers back in the 1930s and, as mentioned, more mass market companies like Ford, Kaiser and Studebaker offered blowers in the 1950s. Blowers were also popular at the dragstrip but one rarely heard their distinctive whine on the street. Granatelli’s production speed records stood for years. The records actually survived Studebaker (and so did STP). For a long, long time, car enthusiasts knew that the speed record for a factory built car was held by a supercharged Studebaker.

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Andy Granatelli was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2003. It’s appropriate that his memorabilia on display at the AHoF is near that of Richard Petty and Mario Andretti. Richard Petty’s race team still carries the STP logo and Mario Andretti’s only Indy 500 win was at the wheel of one of Granatelli’s cars. All the pictured items were donated to the AHoF by the inductees. Yes, that’s Carroll Shelby’s black hat (a pair of his famous overalls are just out of the frame).

Andy Granatelli and his brother Joe also had a role in the creation of a very small number of notoriously fast Cobra Super Snakes made by Carroll Shelby that featured twin Paxton superchargers, as well as 28 GT350 Mustangs that came from the Shelby factory with a single Paxton blower. Things like that stick in people’s heads. Granatelli’s revival of Paxton, his embrace of superchargers and use of them to set speed records, and his later contributions to some of the most badass Shelbys ever made  helped to lay the groundwork for forced induction’s general acceptance decades later.

If they made reproductions of Granatelli's suit and the team apparel, I bet it would sell.

A master promoter at work. If they made reproductions of Granatelli’s suit and the STP team’s apparel today, I bet they would sell.

In 1963, almost every production car had a naturally aspirated induction system feeding fuel and air to the engine. Half a century later, companies like Volkswagen anticipate a time soon to come when none of their production engines will be naturally aspirated. While it’s true that most forced induction engines these days use exhaust gas driven turbochargers as opposed to mechanically driven superchargers, blowers have become more popular and it should be noted that the most powerful Corvette ever sold, the ZR1, has a supercharger, as do Jaguar’s most powerful engines. Somewhere in automotive heaven, Andy Granatelli is driving a supercharged Avanti, smiling at the thought of his former competitors embracing forced induction and supercharging.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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23 Comments on “Andy Granatelli, R.I.P. – A Supercharged Life...”


  • avatar
    seabrjim

    I still remember the commercial when I was a kid of Andy challenging someone to hold a screwdriver by the tip when dipped in motor oil. The the same screwdriver was dipped in STP and it could not be held without slipping and falling.

  • avatar
    snakebit

    I’ll remember Mr. Granatelli as the consummate promoter of the product STP. I started writing automotive news in the early 1970′s, and I don’t think a week went by during that time that I didn’t receive at least three press releases at my desk from STP about Richard Petty or Mr. Granatelli. He was very good at keeping his product and the drivers he sponsored in the forefront of writers minds.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Ronnie, this was a really nice piece of work. Thanks for the effort!

    Some of this I already knew; but much of it was news to me.

  • avatar
    lmike51b

    R.I.P Mr. Granatelli. STP – The Racers Edge!

  • avatar
    jdhall

    I don’t think Andy Granatelli was 62 in 1962. If so, he didn’t pass this weekend at age 90.

    A great obit, nonetheless. Thanks!

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve seen that age in a couple of sources. It wasn’t clear so I’m guessing that run was at Bonneville in 1964. Just now when checking I saw that the 241.7 mph run was done on pump gas!

    • 0 avatar
      LarryR

      Actually he was 62 in 1985. About that time he drove his 4 door Chevy Caprice on the Bonneville Salt Flats at close to 200 mph with passengers on board. I had the great privilege of working for Andy producing training videos at Tuneup Masters. One time we were using the Caprice as a prop in a video and it had to be moved. He handed me the keys and said “Be my guest but don’t step on the gas.” Needless to say that was the most careful I ever was in moving a vehicle.

  • avatar
    sideshowtom98

    I remember a time when the value of adding STP to your oil was a constant discussion of the car magazines, in the 60′s. I remember well one such advice column summing up the value of STP thusly, “If you put STP in your oil, and you notice even a slight difference in engine performance, your engine needs to be rebuilt”.

    In the time of full service gas stations, looking under the hood, the pump jockey would often recommend a new Gates fan belt, or the addition of a can of STP. They were the equivalent of the engine filter upsell you get today at most Quick Lubes.

    Keep winning races in the sky, Andy!

  • avatar
    -Nate

    He will be missed .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    jim brewer

    Andy was an important character in racing, but I remember him as the consumate,all-American huckster, in a good way.

    I can remember very little of his appearance, except that he seemed like a genuinely amiable guy. Those STP stickers were plastered everywhere, and I mean everywhere, during the sixties. They were as recognizable as peace symbol. In fact there was a short-lived hallucinogenic competitor to LSD called STP, so great was its influence on the culture. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2,5-Dimethoxy-4-methylamphetamine

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      For those who weren’t there, it simply can’t be understated the prevalence of STP advertising during what many consider the great epoc of auto racing. If it involved big-league American motorsports, particularly Indy car in the sixties or NASCAR in the seventies, STP was one of the most recognizable names. It’s hard to fathom that STP only began being a prominent, major sponsor of Petty cars in 1972. It seemed like STP advertising was always on a Petty car, and it was the end of an era when Petty ran his last lap in a car with STP sponsorship in 1992.

      Along with the iconic Andretti winner’s circle kiss, Granatelli will almost certainly be most remembered for the STP-livery of the Petty cars which were around for over two decades.

      In retrospect, the closest modern day equivalent is probably the GoDaddy.com sponsorship of Danica Patrick’s cars. Like STP, it’s a product of dubious benefit and many likely have no idea what it even is.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Definitely a supercharged life. Thanks for another great piece, Ronnie.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    Used his tuneup masters for years. Had STP in most everything. A success story that’s almost Horatio Alger in scope.

    Thanks Ronnie

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    STP was one of those products with a logo that is everywhere in racing, but yet hardly anybody seems (seemed) to buy. As I recall there was a fierce debate whether it served any useful purpose. A similar debate goes on no with Lucas Oil treatments. Even though I don’t know anyone who ever bought a Lucas product, Lucas was able to come up with the money to put its name on the stadium in Indianapolis.

    • 0 avatar
      NoGoYo

      The only STP product I buy on a regular-ish basis is the fuel system cleaner that you dump in your gas tank, and that’s because I don’t trust the cheapo ethanol-tinged gasoline in my almost 19 year old car.

  • avatar
    Cerbera LM

    Missed his racing career, until after the fact, but remember an early ’80s AutoWeek cover with Andy sitting on a lawn chair on the Bonneville Salts Flats about his street legal 800HP, 200+mph, Chevy Caprice.

  • avatar

    It wasn’t really appropriate for the article, but one cool thing about STP is that they use the Drive By Truckers’ music in their commercials and Mike Cooley, of the DBT, does the voiceovers for some of the ads (well, the ones that Richard Petty doesn’t do). I checked with the band’s publicity person and she told me that it was STP and their ad agency that approached the band.

  • avatar
    Mark in Maine

    An excellent remembrance of a larger-than-life personage, Ronnie. I grew up in Southern Indiana, and spent many spring days at the track, where we saw Mr. Granatelli often – fielding one innovative car after another. His book, “They Call Me Mr. 500″, is a fascinating read – lots of personal history, lots of characters from that era, and much racing and engineering history, as well.

  • avatar
    OliverTwist

    I recalled a very fascinating article about his 1983 Chevrolet Caprice Classic in Autoweek magazine. Andy installed the 900-plus horsepower 9.6-litre Chevrolet V8 motor with twin turbochargers in the stock Caprice with a minor modification to the suspension.

    His Caprice was still a plush boulevard cruiser fully equipped with air-conditioning, automatic gearbox, power windows and seats, opera lights, vinyl roofs, crushed velvet upholstery, and such. Not even a roll bar or safety cage was installed as precaution. Caprice was his personal toy and a publicity tool.

    Andy didn’t plan on doing the speed record run with his Caprice until the Bonnesville officals asked him to help set the clocks. Andy invited a reporter, his friend, and a member of his public relations firm, to ride along with him. During the run, he averaged 194 mph on both runs and had exceed 200 mph in one run. This remains the fastest four-door vehicle with three passengers riding along ever run at the Bonnesville to this day.

    Of course, that was 1983 when the automotive technology started to progress after the absymal Malaise Era and when a small number of sports and exotic cars could do more than 150 mph.

    To my recollection, 2013 Bentley Flying Spur is probably the only *stock* four-door sedan that can reach 200 mph.

    • 0 avatar
      LarryR

      Oliver,

      Thanks for the nice recollection. I actually got to drive the souped up Caprice albeit in a parking lot with direct orders not to step on the gas. You could not tell the car was any different from a stock Caprice until you looked under the hood and saw the twin turbochargers. I was fortunate to have worked for Andy producing videos at Tuneup Masters during the 80s. He was a super nice guy and he will be missed but never forgotten.

      • 0 avatar
        OliverTwist

        Larry,

        You lucky kid! I forgot to mention another item in Autoweek article.

        Andy happened to see a Ferrari (I couldn’t recall which one) on a twisty road outside Santa Barbara one afternoon. He decided to befuddle with the driver’s mind by giving him a cat-and-mouse chase. His Caprice could easily and effortlessly keep up with the Ferrari, infuriating the Ferrari driver ever more.

        • 0 avatar
          LarryR

          I’m pretty sure he did that on more than one occasion and also with his street legal Camaro. Another story I heard straight from Andy involved Mario Andretti. As Andy told it Mario and him were late to an event and Andy was driving faster than the posted speed limit. An officer pulled him over and not knowing who was in the vehicle immediately asked Andy, “Who do you think you are? Mario Andretti?” to which Andy motioned to the passenger seat and said “No, he’s Mario Andretti.” I think the officer let them go with a warning.

  • avatar
    shaker

    Nice article… I didn’t think that an Avanti (with the high-mounted body) was aerodynamically stable at those speeds – though the oversize rear tires were a good trick to improve the axle ratio as well as tilt the car forward for better aero.

    In the 60′s, STP stickers were handed out like free candy; kids used to put them everywhere – it was the No. 1 form of “vandalism” back then. I always got a chuckle when I’d see a ubiquitous STP sticker – stuck over various existing ads (like metal Coke/Pepsi signs), street signs and on the sides of buildings (even churches) 10 feet off the ground (so that they would be there for a while).

    In the 70′s, I would check underhood of a car that I was thinking of buying for the telltale “ringprint” of STP left by the wide-mouth pull-top of the can being set down on the rad support/inner fender – even if it was wiped away, it would still leave a stain. The stuff was used to mask piston ring wear, and could even reduce valve guide related exhaust smoking for a time — Sooo, despite of the marketing, STP was designed to be used to mask engine problems on used cars, and was used by dealers and private owners to “flip a turd” on the unwary.

    Keep in mind that it wasn’t the *only* viscosity improver of the day (something called “Motor Honey” comes to mind), but it was NEVER adopted by the auto manufacturers for use in new cars because it made the oil so thick that it would starve flow during low-temperature conditions, leading to excessive wear. Its only benefit was that it would enhance lubrication under extreme high-temperature and stress conditions that were useful to performance enthusiasts of the day.


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