Cars We Remember column: Andy Granatelli most remembered for STP sponsorship, Andretti’s Indy 500 win

Greg Zyla
More Content Now
Andy Granatelli's STP sponsorship of Richard Petty that began in 1972 could well be Granatelli's most famous auto racing and consumer branding effort. However, his winning the Indy 500 with Mario Andretti in 1969 is his most famous single achievement thanks to the victory lane kiss photo that went worldwide.

Q: Greg, I have seen reports that Andy Granatelli, who owned STP, once drove a Studebaker Avanti at Bonneville and went 196 mph. How did all this happen and wasn’t Granatelli famous more for his Indy 500 win with Mario Andretti? What do you feel Granatelli was most famous for as I remember you wrote many years ago about his involvement with the Studebaker and the supercharged Golden Hawks back in the 1950s?

- Robert S., Wysox, Pennsylvania

A: Robert, that’s one tough question about the great, late Andy Granatelli, indeed the Godfather of the STP oil additive and winner of several Indy 500s. If I were to answer that question strictly on a business and marketing perspective, I would have to say his sponsorship with Richard Petty and the Petty clan’s STP red and blue Plymouth and Dodge NASCAR entries rank right up there with his most famous achievements.

But there’s much more to the Granatelli story, so let’s start here. Looking back on Granatelli’s career, he was the moving force behind Studebaker Racing in the late 1950s to mid-1960s, and was also involved with the McCulloch Supercharger Company that supplied superchargers in 1957 and 1958 for the famous Studebaker Golden Hawks. Later, as noted in your question, Granatelli became involved with the 1962-63 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk and Studebaker Avanti, both which utilized Paxton Superchargers under the hood as standard equipment.

Important is the McCullough and Paxton supercharger connection, as they were pretty much one and the same corporately and the brainchild of Robert Paxton McCulloch. McCulloch established a separate Paxton Supercharger division in 1956 and then sold it off in 1958. Clearly, nomenclature aside, Paxton and McCulloch were always connected at the hip in supplying extra horsepower.

The beautiful 1957 and 1958 Studebaker Golden Hawk came with McCullough superchargers on its 289-inch V8 engines. Then in 1962, Studebaker purchased Paxton Superchargers at a time when Granatelli was president of Paxton and head of Studebaker’s Racing Division.

Granatelli became more and more involved with the supercharged Hawk and Avanti, the latter which he did indeed drive to new speed records at Bonneville’s Salt Flats. Granatelli posted a speed of 196.58 mph in his Paxton supercharged 1963 Avanti after previously running a best of 170.78 mph in 1962 and proclaiming Avanti as the world’s fastest street car.

This, in a nutshell, is the connection of the auto racing legend Granatelli to Studebaker and the superchargers, although Granatelli would go on to greater fame with his STP Indy Cars and his Richard Petty long-term STP sponsorship. In 1964, Granatelli became CEO of the STP Corporation, an oil additive he developed, and he already knew first-hand that motor racing delivered consumer sales and product loyalty.

Notable is Granatelli’s exceptional Indy 500 efforts, where he twice brought turbine powered cars to the speedway (1967 and 1968) only to see victory snatched away both years with the checkered flag in sight. Specifically, Parnelli Jones suffered a $6 transmission bearing failure with just three laps to go while leading in 1967, snatching victory from he and car owner Granatelli. Then in 1968, Joe Leonard was driving Granatelli’s STP Lotus 56 Turbine to victory and winning with just nine laps to go when the turbine stopped running due to a flameout condition and making for back-to-back heartbreaking incidents.

However, in 1969, Granatelli’s fortune finally changed and he experienced victory at the Indianapolis 500. As most all older racing fans recall, it was Mario Andretti that drove the more conventional STP Ford powered Hawk chassis to victory, leading 116 of the 200 laps and then receiving the famous victory lane kiss from team owner Granatelli. This is what I would consider the most notable single achievement Granatelli is known for as that victory lane photo was circulated around the world by numerous press associations.

Little did we know that Andretti’s win would be his family’s only win at the Indy 500 as all of the Andretti drivers, including sons Michael and Jeff, grandson Marco, cousin John, all either came close to winning, ran well or broke down while in the lead over 75 times to date. Most recently, John passed from cancer and Marco announced just last week he would cut back his IndyCar driving from full-time to only the Indy 500 in 2021. Marco did win the Indy 500 pole last year in dramatic fashion but finished 13th in the race. (Mario’s twin brother Aldo, father of John, also just passed away a few weeks ago). On the good side, team Andretti Autosport, led by Michael, has won the Indy 500 five times with different drivers.

In wrapping up, Granatelli won the Indy 500 again in 1973 with Gordon Johncock and his successes and failures are covered in detail in his autobiography book, “They Call Me Mister 500.” It’s a great read and available in used condition by many book retailers.

Meanwhile, Studebaker was out of the car business in the states by December 1963 although Canadian versions were built through model year 1966. Avanti sold its tooling and continued for many years through several different owners and manufacturers.

Paxton, meanwhile, still sells superchargers as a subsidiary of Vortech, one of the biggest names in supercharging. And finally STP has grown to include numerous automotive products and you can see everything at STP.com along with its history of motorsports sponsorship.

Granatelli passed away at age 90 on Dec. 29, 2013, and will always be remembered for his racing accomplishments and business acumen.

Hope this all helps and thanks for your question.

Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and Gannett Co. Inc. Contact him at greg@gregzyla.com or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840.

Andy Granatelli was heavily involved with Studebaker and its racing programs with supercharged engines. Here Granatelli pops the parachute on his Studebaker Avanti after a run of 196.58 mph at Bonneville.