By now almost everyone has caught that first STP commercial on television. And anyone who has ever been autosuggested into buying a product can hardly wait to see the next ones. It is natural to assume that a man who would dream up a zowie slogan like "STP is the racer's edge" has got to have a few more commercials in him. He has. They are coming. Are they ever coming!
Try this one: It opens with a tight close-up of Rocky Marciano's face, see, his brow all wrinkled, eyes squinting with strain, his mouth twisted. Gosh, fans, it is former World Heavyweight Champ Rocky right there on your home screen, and whatever is old Rocky doing? That is, aside from making $5,000 plus expenses. The camera will dolly back slowly, and everyone will observe that Rocky is arm wrestling. Beautiful, as they say in adsville. Those muscles are standing out in knotted bas-relief along his neck, and you will hear a voice-over saying grimly, "Come on, Rocky. Come on." For a trembling moment there it will look bad—but, sure enough, Rocky will win and slam the other arm down on the table. And then you will suddenly see that Rocky has been arm wrestling Andy Granatelli, the man who brews the STP.
In the first TV spot you saw Andy strolling along the deserted Indianapolis Motor Speedway, head down, belted into that super trench coat, those empty stands in the background. He does a pitch for STP and finally strolls off camera, all moody, head down. It was a just-right sort of commercial. But moody, schmoody—did it sell STP? Well, yes and no. There is no accurate measure of how the thing pulled. But it couldn't have been a total loss to Granatelli. If nothing else, he took orders for 5,000 of those trench coats.
Still, despite the fact it is all over TV and a household name and there are an estimated 28 million cars with STP stickers on them, not too many people—at least not enough for Granatelli—know what STP is. One of the biggest unsolicited boosts the stuff got recently was when a band of California acidheads concocted a sugar cube even tougher than LSD and called it STP, saying, in effect, when better minds are blown, STP will do the job. And in historic old Greenwich, Conn. the kids all say STP means "stop teen-age pregnancy." Andy, in his lighter moments, insists the label stands for "sex takes practice."
May 12, 1968
Actually STP is an additive; there is one for oil and one for gas. The initials used to stand for Scientifically Treated Petroleum, now altered to Scientifically Tested Products. One pours a can in the crankcase or gas tank and beautiful things happen, Andy asserts.
The big thing is, Granatelli's wondrous campaign represents total involvement of a kind rarely seen in America since the days when peddlers sold their own celery tonic from Conestoga wagons. Sure, Commander Whitehead peddled Schweppes, but very, very gently. Would Mr. Bell Telephone get on television and hard-sell his Princess model, perhaps using Tony Galento to show how dainty it is? Never.
Nor can one see Mr. Cooper modeling his Jockey shorts right there on camera, possibly wrestling a live lion to prove their freedom of movement under stress. Or Mr. Campbell spooning Chicken & Stars soup from a bowl, smacking his lips and saying, "Mmm, Mmm, good." Absolutely not.
Yet there is Andy Granatelli, the last of the great snake-oil salesmen, the last living commercial evangelist, pushing that STP.
Why does he do it? Granatelli is selling himself as a personality to sell STP, in order to make a lot of money, in order to spend it on racing, in order to accomplish this desperate thing, winning the Indianapolis 500. For 16 terrible years, through millions of dollars and down a boulevard of broken parts, Granatelli has tried to win the Indy 500. It has become a more enduring, dogged effort, heavier with pathos and heartbreak than the ordeal of Pepper Young's Family. He has missed the race by a mile, missed it by 500 miles; he has come closer than is decent. Once he tried to drive in the 500 himself and crashed in qualifying, breaking his head, both shoulders, one elbow and 11 teeth. And once he faced the bitterest blow of all. The man said, "Gentlemen, start your engines," and guess whose engine would not start?
Like Melville's Moby Dick, the 500 has driven Granatelli relentlessly down the years: forever that 500-mile race, that great damned elusive white whale that is the Borg-Warner trophy. It is not the prize money—which is considerable, the richest purse in all racing—it is just that he must, one time, win the thing.
Granatelli is consumed by the idea that he must make good, that a guy from an NRA Chicago slum background has to prove himself, has to grow up to be somebody—like maybe the winner of the 500. He is already a big somebody in business, a success, selling $30 million worth of STP a year, earning $125,000 plus stock options doing it. He lives in a house that rambles all through Northbrook, Ill., complete with three cars, six bathrooms, a radar oven, an absolutely stunning Lebanese wife named Dolly, one son at home, one Chinese housemaid, a kitchen full of linguini with white clam sauce, and a plaque over the mantel saying Amore E Sempre. Granatelli is not a millionaire, but he comes close. He would be a millionaire if it weren't for the 500.
Andy being what he is, there are wildly pro-Granatelli people and there are fiercely anti-Granatelli people, but there aren't any don't-knows.
"Tha's fine," Andy will say, spreading his hands out in the oldest salesman's gesture in the world. "The only thing I wanna do is race."
Exactly. And Andy knows this about auto racing: it is not a beauty contest. Nobody is going to elect a Miss Congeniality out there. Racing is a dirty, grinding, perilous pursuit involving a lot of head-knocking, infighting, sidestepping the rules. Everybody in racing does it, and those who do it best are the winners. Goodness, as Mae West used to drawl, has got nothing to do with it.
Granatelli is a product of racing's pure, unregulated days, when every man was a mechanic, a driver, a drinker and a lover and took part in a little interpretive fighting with tire irons on the side. The game is subtler now, but you would not choose Andy as a model to demonstrate that point.
Anthony Joseph Granatelli grew up tough in the Chicago slums with two brothers, Joe, now 49, four years older than Andy, and Vince, four years younger. "We were broke, on relief—ever try that NRA oatmeal?—and had to support the family," says Andy. "And we could only do what we did best, which was to fix cars. All the Granatellis have that touch with cars; it's like a gift.
"Joe was the best mechanic in those days and we learned from him. He was noble enough to give up a lifelong ambition to be a Greyhound bus driver to teach us. We didn't have any garage, any tools. But we were fast and cheap. In the winter we would patrol those streets during storms, our fannies hanging out, and we would spot people in trouble and run up and say, 'Start yer car for a buck, mister? For twenny-five cents? How about a dime?' It made enough money to buy a lot of spaghetti and potatoes, the only food I knew as a kid.
"Finally it got to where we could overhaul a whole engine right there in the street in front of somebody's tenement. Joe would lie under the car in the snow and we'd drop the whole block, and Vince and I would dance around fixing things and blowing on our fingers to keep them warm."
The perils of those early days welded the Granatelli brothers into such a firm unit that they are like a separate Italian nation today—they embrace and kiss in the grand old Palermo manner whenever they meet—and all their fortunes are still tied together. The old hungers still haunt them, and together they can make a shambles of a restaurant menu. Andy has grown into the biggest of the three, the size of two Joes and half a Vince, and he will occasionally say, "Ya know, I just gotta lose some weight sometime. But when I was comin' up to this size it came on by 10s. I mean, I would gain a few pounds and then I'd tell myself, 'O.K., when it gets up to an even 10 more, I'll level off there.' But each 10 made me feel better. And right now I feel marvelous."
"The doctor," says Dolly, "tells him he is in great shape and maybe shouldn't lose too much weight. Besides, he's beautiful like he is." And when Andy's oldest son, Vince, 26, complained recently about putting on too much weight, she patted him on the stomach and said, "Now you're getting handsome, like your daddy."
At an Indianapolis restaurant a few weeks ago Joe leaned back from the ruins of a gigantic porterhouse steak and looked up serenely at the waiter.
"Dessert, sir?" the man asked.
"Well, yeah," said Joe. "I'll have another one of these steaks."
"You gonna give me a bite of that other steak?" said Andy.
"I'm gonna give you a hit in the head," said Joe. But he later carefully cut out a section of it and passed it over.
Andy, Joe, Vince—everybody in that rough old Chicago circle—dropped out of school to scramble through life, a fact that occasionally disturbs Andy now that he is an executive whose coat and pants match. And like a few businessmen left in this mold, he dreams of retiring—not to Miami, but to go back to school. What worries Granatelli most is that those unpasteurized, early-dropout speech patterns still cling to him. He has a fiery, colorful tongue, full of starchy items that hang there in the air, crackling with static.
What Andy likes to talk about most is Indianapolis. "Listen," he will say excitedly, "in 1946 we spent $5,000 for an 11-year-old race car. Jeez, it was beautiful. An open-cockpit two-seater. Then we borrowed $150 from my secretary and went racing. I mean, we dropped a 1934 Ford V-8 hot-rod engine into the thing. Trailer? Are you kiddin' me? We put in a battery and a starter, slapped on a pair of headlights and we drove it to Indianapolis."
By day the Granatellis would practice and by night they would drive the car out of Gasoline Alley and downtown to the movies. Danny Kladis finally qualified the car and raced it very inconspicuously.
For attack No. 2, Andy bought another oldtime chassis, and Joe designed a new body for it. The brave Pete Romcevich drove it, and the Granatellis added to the lore of the 500 by dumping water into the crankcase when the car blew out all its oil, it being illegal to replenish oil once the race begins. Andy tells the story with a wonderfully straight face: how the car ran for 400 miles more on that ol' water—only to blow the engine on the last lap.
Well, sir, in 1948 Granatelli brought five cars to town in the first of his big-time Indy attacks. There was no way he could lose, he thought. He had all new engines, which he had jazzed up to 198 horsepower. He had employed a fearsome lineup of drivers: Pat Flaherty, Johnnie Parsons, Jim Rathmann and Spider (natch) Webb.
"Figgered I might as well have a shot at it myself," says Granatelli. "So I took, and passed, the driver's test. Did very well."
But then things began to go bump in the night along Gasoline Alley. By the last hour of the last qualifying day, Andy's car had the miseries and its brakes were somewhat knock-kneed. Joe and Vince and Andy tried everything short of mouth-to-carburetor resuscitation, and suddenly it was then or never.
"So I was wearing this old T shirt, and I put on my Cromwell helmet with the old leather ear straps and pulled down my blue goggles," says Andy, "and rolled it out to qualify."
Both Joe and Vince, knowing the car was squirrelly, were certain that Andy was going to crash and be killed. They began to cry, and they emotionally kissed him goodby there on the track, and in a moment Andy was crying, too.
"As I started down the straightaway I was all choked up and sobbing," says Andy, "and my goddamned goggles began to fog up from the tears. As if that is not enough, I am chewing gum like crazy, see, and suddenly my mouth goes all dry. Then the gum sticks to the roof of my mouth and my tongue sticks up to the gum and I go into the second warmup lap and I am in a hell of a fix. I come around to take the green flag and I can't see too good and I hold up my arm, indicating I'm going to take the flag, and the force of the wind knocks my arm back against the cowling and I just about lose control of the car and Starter Seth Klein has to jump out of my way.
"But by now I'm really standing on that throttle, and as I roll by the entrance to Gasoline Alley I sort of glance over in that direction, you know, to see who is watching me—it is a little vanity that all drivers have—and when I glance back down at the tach it is touching 6,500 rpm, which is far too fast to take that first turn. Right away I say to myself, 'You're a dead man.'
"So I cranked the wheel hard to the left, then snapped it back right, figuring I would get the back end of the car aimed at the infield grass. At the same time I hit the brake, fast, got off it and back on the gas and got ready to crash.
"But instead of going into a spin, I took the whole first turn beautifully, going to beat hell, and I finished that lap at 127 mph. Then I did another lap at 127, and everybody was going wild watching me. Except for Joe and Vince, who knew I was going to crash.
"On the third lap I got into the first turn and suddenly the right front tire started showing white, which meant I was down to the threads already. But I figured maybe I could stroke it around for one more lap and finish just as the tire blew.
"And then—fourth lap, turn two—the tube just sort of lazily spilled right up out of the tire. I looked at it and half turned in the seat and began to crawl under the dashboard, because I knew I was going into the wall. I knew that if I was lucky the car would hit and slide along the wall, and, sure enough—slam!—I'm into that goddamned wall. My helmet flew right off. My secretary was in the stands and she thought it was my head and she fainted dead away.
"God! The noise was fantastic. That's the worst thing about a crash—that terrible noise. I was upside down, ripping 300 yards along the wall, and all I could hear was clanging and metal tearing away and steel hammering and pounding. I had a lot of time to listen to it and think.
"I wanted to tell my brothers that I was all right, and I knew that the traditional signal was for a driver to get out of his car and hold up both arms. So I held up my arms. Which was dandy, except that I was still crashing at the time. I got my arms against the wall, breaking my shoulders, and suddenly the whole elbow popped out of my right arm. And I looked up at the wall coming by and got one quick blast that took out 11 teeth just like that. Finally the car stopped.
"Some people came over and helped me out of the car and I was standing there looking at the thing, trying to figure out a way to fix it in time to qualify, and then blood began pumping out of my left ear and I knew I was a cinch to have a fractured skull.
"But I didn't want to lie down in the ambulance because I knew that Joe and Vince would be chasing it in their car and they might get into a crash themselves. So I sat up on the way to the hospital and, sure enough, they came roaring up alongside the ambulance there on 16th Street and looked in at me, not even looking where they were going. So I waved at them and smiled that big, red, toothless smile and they settled down a little so I could finally lie down."
The doctors at the hospital would not let Andy go back on Memorial Day to watch the race. It was just as well. Out of the five cars, only one had qualified. Spider Webb climbed into it, and came that historic moment when Wilbur Shaw said, "Gentlemen, start your engines." Spider's wouldn't.
It got worse. Worse. The Granatellis tried in 1949; they tried in 1950, in 1951, in 1952 when Jim Rathmann drove their car to second place; they tried in 1953 and again in 1954 when Rathmann turned one of the first official 140-mph laps at the Speedway (in fact, he did another 140 in the race, and the engine seized and that was that).
One would think that anyone with Andy's luck would check the family background for old Sicilian curses and maybe quit trying. Granatelli talked of quitting, but the race kept coming back to haunt him. Besides, he had discovered the Novi, the one car that had to win Indy—except that it had already become notorious for luck even worse than Andy's—and he came back with it in 1961.
It had been love at first sound, from the time he heard the cry of a Novi engine at full blast. It was a shattering, marvelous, God-awful slamming thing that you felt in your intestines, and true mechanics and engineers vibrated like professional tuning forks whenever that engine wailed.
What Granatelli bought in April 1961 consisted of two rear-engine Novis, one smashed front-drive car, some blueprints and a vanload of broken dreams. Over the next five years he spent a million dollars or so trying to win Indy with the Novi, and he talked Studebaker, his parent company, into putting another million into a four-wheel-drive model.
Those expensive sounds thrilled Indy sentimentalists. Granatelli fed them more meat by adding a supercharger and jumping the horsepower to 800. Exhaust pressure running through the car produced an overwhine that agitated dogs just outside Terre Haute.
In the next five years the Novi's solitary achievement was to lead the first lap of the 1963 race. Granatelli retired the legend in 1966 when Rookie Greg Weld slammed the last model into the wall in practice. Andy sold the pieces to Studebaker—just what they have always needed, a bagful of race car—and now keeps it, rebuilt, in the STP offices near Chicago. Often, in the evening, when everyone has gone home, he will go and sit in the thing, all alone and dreaming.
And then came the terrible, tangled series of events that shook the Indy racing world more than anything before, turned track brother against track brother, stirred up historic passions, generated a bitter lawsuit and floated that definitive cloud of purple that still hangs low over Indiana.
Understand, a turbine car had to happen in racing sometime, and it was simply a natural that Granatelli, with his background of controversy, would end up with it.
The scheme began with a British technical type, Ken Wallis, who had a workable plan for harnessing a gas turbine to a race car. Wallis first presented the idea to Dan Gurney, who looked up, bemused, over a stack of his own Eagle horsepower this high and shook his head no. Wallis then offered the plan to Carroll Shelby, the very sex symbol of auto racing. And Shelby said (according to later court testimony), "Hogwash."
Wallis' next move was to the door of Granatelli's garage, and there, wearing his let-me-remember-you-always-like-this look, stood Andy. The actions that followed were controversial, full of legal elephant traps and punctuated with bursts of high temper—but they were fast.
Wallis and crew moved in with Andy's brother Joe at STP's Paxton division in Santa Monica, and they began work on the turbocar in January 1966. It was Andy who introduced a side-by-side concept—that is, putting the engine at the driver's left, which was the next stunt he had been planning for the Novi to counteract its terrific torque. Granatelli also added four-wheel drive—an item that was to change the entire race pattern of Indy—and the car came out of the shop looking fat and sassy, like Son of Namu the Whale.
The new turbocar weighed 1,680 pounds in its metal skin and bones, a few hundred pounds more than Wallis had promised, and since the Indy minimum is 1,350 pounds and weight hurts speed, it looked as if Andy was running Buster Mathis in among the Rockettes. But the car boasted better than 550 horsepower, a torque converter eliminating the need for a clutch pedal and gearshift, air cooling and a tiny oil tank that never needed refilling. It would run on anything combustible, including kerosene or Jack Daniel's and soda—and idled at 54% of full throttle, which meant that the driver didn't even have to step on the gas to pull away; all he had to do was ease his foot off the brake.
Enter Rufus Parnell Jones, he of the thinning crew cut and beautifully chiseled Mount Rushmore face, the master mold from which all American hero-image drivers are cast. As a well-to-do member of racing's old elite, Jones, after earning a great pile of money and winning Indy once (in 1963), was gradually retiring from the game. He had indicated he would not drive in 1967 unless he had a supercar he figured had no way to lose.
Andy offered him two inducements: the turbocar itself, which floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, and a $50,000 fee to drive it, plus the promise of half of any prize money he might win.
As everyone knows, they came shatteringly close to victory. Jones qualified the car at 166.075 mph—which was just what Granatelli had said the car would run—and a lot of people, happy to see that there were five familiar piston cars ahead of it, were deceived into believing that it was just another good car. They had overlooked the simple arithmetic of Indy.
That is: Indianapolis drivers are permitted to qualify with light fuel loads and to use oxygen-rich fuel additives, such as nitromethane, called "pop," which make their engines drunk with power for a few laps. But it is a delicate, expensive business, full of the sharp, clean sound of breaking blocks—and under actual racing conditions, with full, unpopped tanks, the cars are close to 10 mph slower. The point is that the turbocar qualified at its racing speed.
The gentlemen started their engines on cue and, except for one unsettling item, they all dashed in orderly, fast file into the first turn: Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Gordon Johncock, A. J. Foyt, Joe Leonard. Unsettling item: there, around the outside, whining menacingly and four-wheeling, came the turbine. And faster than you could say, "So long, old reciprocating piston engine," the thing suddenly reappeared running all alone down the front straightaway, while Starter Pat Vidan was still furling his flag and shooting his cuffs.
You know the rest: how Jones ran off and hid from the field; how, with just eight heartbreaking miles left to go, he coasted slowly into the pits with a transmission-bearing failure; how grown Italian men wept.
Andy, with that elusive race dancing just out of reach again, began the familiar long walk home. The denouement was quick and deadly, starting with an audience of edgy, uneasy race fans watching USAC President Thomas Binford play the leading role in Hold Back the Turbine Dawn.
First, the Establishment car owners—-piston-car owners—threatened revolt, saying, in effect, either them turbines go or we go. And USAC, faced with the prospect of a one-car race, set out to find a formula that would be fair for all. This was not precisely what the car owners had in mind; they were thinking more in terms of lashing Car 40 to a stake at the starting line.
Then USAC asked advisory help from, among others, Ford Motor Co., which produces Indy piston engines, not Indy turbine engines. This was like asking Goliath to give David a few pointers on how to hold a slingshot. In less than a month after the 1967 500, USAC cut the turbine air-intake area from 23.999 to 15.999 inches—and slapped on the ruling immediately, although it had been customary to give two years' notice of engine changes. When Andy threatened to sue to have the original air-intake rule restored, USAC suspended his membership, citing not the turbine row but a dispute as to whether Foyt did or did not use STP in his engine. USAC later offered to reinstate Granatelli if he promised not to sue over the turbine, and while all this was going on the outside activities began to look like show-and-tell time at the United Nations.
Wallis and Granatelli split, and Wallis went off to build three turbocars of his own, bankrolled by Goodyear. The sponsor of the new cars turned out to be Carroll "Hogwash" Shelby, looking for all the world like a man who just knew them turbines were good cars.
In October in Mexico City, while world-class athletes were gamboling about in the Little Olympics and the Mexican Grand Prix was playing in a beautifully landscaped park just outside town, who should come strolling along but Colin Chapman, racing bon vivant and peerless car builder. And there, bathed in angelic light, stood Granatelli. Over dinner that night and breakfast the next morning, Chapman and Granatelli forged an agreement to build five turbocars to an all-new design with rear, not side-mounted, engines conforming to the new rule, four-wheel drive and the tough monocoque chassis for which Chapman is famous. Chapman went off to build the cars and Granatelli went off to sue USAC.
One plan worked, the other did not. Chapman got the cars built; wild-looking, wedge-shaped little creatures (see cover) that flicker around like Whisper-jet commercials. But in court Granatelli was the loser.
Still, the Indy 500 is the only game in the land for Granatelli and, battered though he may be personally, he cannot free himself of the dream. It would be the final irony if he were to lose this year's race to another turbine—and one that looks greatly like his own first model. Yet the Wallis forces have promising cars and plenty of confidence.
Granatelli is staking his bid on more cars, the Chapman genius, a redesigned Car 40 and fine drivers. Jimmy Clark, killed in Germany, was to have driven one of the cars, but Andy does have Graham Hill, who has won Indy; Jackie Stewart, who just might; and 1967 Sprint Champion Weld, who just could. Jones stunned everybody last week by quitting—but he looked as if he might unquit.
It is possible there will be as many as nine turbocars in the 1968 classic—one of them coming from the basement of an aerodynamics engineer in Mississippi—and despite all of the moves to hold them off, the gentlemen are going to start their somethings.
And what of the other league, as Pete Rozelle might once have said?
Ford is assisting in a hurry-up project involving turbocharged Indy piston engines, producing a generation of race cars full of weird, psychedelic plumbing and so much horsepower—up to 750, perhaps; one should beware of all horsepower figures not observed by oneself on the dynamometer—that the whole Speedway could take off and fly to Brooklyn on the first lap. The cars already have demonstrated they go fast enough, and the new turbochargers give off a slamming howl reminiscent of the Novis, although their durability is still somewhat in doubt.
After the court battle—and then only because the judge advised it—Andy was restored to a rather shaky membership in USAC, under strict orders not to rock the motorized boat, not to question any of its decisions, never to criticize again and always to doff his cap and tug at his forelock whenever a member walks by the garage. It rankles him, but he will stay with it in order to race, in order to pursue the Indy dream, in order to sell STP, in order to live.
A few weeks ago Granatelli climbed wearily aboard Eastern Airlines' 7 a.m. flight from Chicago to Indianapolis and after takeoff glanced out the window.
"Oh, Kee-rist, now what," he said. "Somethin's wrong. We're not going to Indy. I know the way."
In a moment the intercom buzzed. The pilot announced that the plane had lost all its hydraulic fluid and would have to return to Chicago for an emergency landing. The passengers tensed up.
"How do ya like that," Andy growled, pointing out at the engines. "How's that grab you? I mean, you live by the turbine and you die by the turbine.
"Jeez, it's ironic at that. It shows that you can't have everything. Boy, here we are, about to crash, and I ain't won Indy yet. Just three things in life I want, that's all. One, I want to win Indy. Two, I want to weigh 180 pounds. Three, I want to look like Cary Grant. Two of those things I can never have. But to win Indy: Ahhh, to win Indy...."
He fell silent and stared out the window.
And the plane banked and headed for Chicago, turbines humming.