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Caraviello: Legacy of 'Mr. 500' rides again

June 04, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Caraviello: Legacy of 'Mr. 500' rides again

The man called Mr. 500 picks up the telephone on the third ring. He lives out in California now, but that gravelly Chicago accent cuts through all the way from Santa Barbara, and the voice still packs plenty of punch. "I'm 88 years old and I'm going strong," says Andy Granatelli, one half of the most important sponsorship deal NASCAR has ever known.

It's been nearly four decades now since he left the company he made famous, and then moved on to earn riches and recognition in other areas, but his name will be forever linked to three letters encircled by a red oval that came to signify auto racing as much as the cars and drivers themselves. When A.J. Allmendinger slides behind the wheel of an STP-backed No. 43 car Sunday at Kansas Speedway, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver will be reviving a tradition that's sat dormant for more than 11 years. But he'll also be paying homage to the legacy of Granatelli, the flamboyant former STP chairman whose decision to bankroll Petty's car in 1972 ushered NASCAR into an new age of national sponsorship.

The STP-backed No. 43 sits in the garage at Kansas. (Getty)

"Andy's cars, when they came out of the fourth turn, they just glowed. His cars are what everybody saw. They didn't see the other 32 cars in the race."

--DEAN KRUSE

This weekend marks a big comeback for STP, an iconic brand whose decals once adorned every car in every major racing series in America. The gasoline additive company will have its name on the Nationwide race at Chicagoland Speedway and the Sprint Cup event in Kansas in addition to Allmendinger's car, which will carry the same blue and red paint scheme that Petty used in 1972. Part of a larger push into several motorsports disciplines, it's the biggest splash the company has made in NASCAR since the old Petty Enterprises No. 43 car last carried the STP logo at Atlanta in the final race of the 1999 campaign.

For the former chairman, who used racing to build a brand awareness that once rivaled only Coca-Cola, it's about time. "First of all, I never understood why they stopped [sponsoring] auto racing," Granatelli said of his old company. "Auto racing was the thing that built STP into one of the very biggest companies in the 1960s. I don't understand why you would stop something like that. I'm glad to see the new owners are getting back into auto racing."

He would know. Granatelli built STP into a powerhouse through relentless promotion that wouldn't seem entirely out of place today, but in the 1960s and '70s seemed lavish beyond description. Caps, T-shirts, jackets, drinking glasses, trinkets -- you name it, Granatelli's company handed it out, with an STP logo stripped across the front. STP was among the first to hang "welcome race fans" banners. For a while, Granatelli's company backed broadcasts on the Motor Racing Network. Reports from the time indicate Granatelli spent roughly $20 million a year to promote his company through auto racing, an amount that made an increasingly cost-conscious board of directors nervous, and led to his split with the company in 1973.

"We were involved in every kind of auto racing -- boat racing, airplane racing, any kind of racing there was in the world, we were involved in it," Granatelli said. "Formula 1, 2, 3, 5, everything. We were involved in every race. We did the job in a way no one had ever done it, before or since."

They did it with a flair and showmanship that might have ruffled some feathers, but undoubtedly got noticed. Granatelli began entering cars in the Indianapolis 500 in 1946, at last winning the thing in 1969, and climbed up on the victory podium to give driver Mario Andretti an exuberant kiss on the cheek. His persona grew proportionally to the company he ran. His crewmen at Indy always wore white coveralls with STP logos plastered all over them. They looked like pajamas, some remembered. Granatelli had a tailor make him a suit that looked just like them. His cars weren't just red, they were a garish "day-glo" red color that was unmistakable against the speedway's gray surface.

"Andy's cars, when they came out of the fourth turn, they just glowed," said Dean Kruse, an Indiana auctioneer who has known Granatelli for 35 years. "His cars are what everybody saw. They didn't see the other 32 cars in the race. They all looked at Andy's."

For Granatelli and STP, NASCAR -- which had always been the exclusive domain of Union Oil and its Pure and Union 76 brands -- was the final frontier. He circumvented Union Oil's exclusivity agreement through car sponsorship, first with fellow Chicagoan Fred Lorenzen in 1971. NASCAR wouldn't allow teams to use STP at tracks because of the circuit's deal with Union Oil, so Granatelli set up shop outside. "Everyone in NASCAR ran our product," he said. "We'd meet them outside the track and give them all bottles."

After a winless limited season with Lorenzen in 1971, Granatelli was ready to take the next step. On a snowy afternoon in January of 1972, then three-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty was summoned to STP's Chicago headquarters along with brother Maurice and crew chief Dale Inman. Granatelli was ready to get involved in NASCAR in a big way, and offered a $250,000 sponsorship package. Petty, whose team was on shakier financial ground than the results indicated, called it "manna from the sky." There was only one caveat -- as they always had been at Indianapolis, the STP-backed cars would have to be Granatelli's trademark day-glo red.

Petty blanched. His family's cars, after all, had always famously been Petty blue, going back to the days of his father Lee. Discussions grew heated, and the deal nearly fell apart. Granatelli told the Petty contingent to go back to the hotel and sleep on it. Richard remained in Chicago while Maurice and Inman headed to Riverside, Calif., to prepare for that season's first race. Legend holds that it was Petty's wife, Lynda, who brokered the compromise of half blue, half red. Granatelli relented, as long as he could have the half that faced the grandstand. Another compromise was reached -- the colors would be divided back and front. A deal was struck. Granatelli offered Petty another $50,000 to make the car all red. "He wouldn't do it," Granatelli said.

Granatelli said he and Petty enjoyed a great relationship, one that proved immediately fruitful when the now two-tone No. 43 car won the Daytona 500 and series championship in the first year of the STP deal. They were a study in contrasts, the genteel North Carolinian and the bombastic salesman from the rough side of Chicago, but something clicked. "He was the best," Granatelli said of Petty. "He's a gentleman's gentleman. Nobody didn't like Richard."

The STP deal was a clear boon for the Petty team, which used the financial backing to further assert its dominance over the sport. And yet, it was a game-changer for more than just Petty Enterprises. In 1972, a full-season deal backed by a national company was almost unheard of. Before STP, NASCAR teams often used local or regional companies to foot the bill for that weekend's expenses, the name and logo on the hood of the car changing from one location to the next. The Petty-STP marriage began the move toward national sponsorship, toward companies that would become synonymous with their drivers, toward Darrell Waltrip and Tide, Dale Earnhardt and Goodwrench, Jeff Gordon and DuPont. Kruse was struck by that fact when Petty spoke at the groundbreaking of a museum being built in honor of his former partner.

Mario Andretti and Andy Granatelli at Michigan in 1970. (Getty)

"Auto racing was the thing that built STP into one of the very biggest companies in the 1960s. "

--ANDY GRANATELLI

"He said before Andy Granatelli and STP arrived on the scene, cars were sponsored by Joe's Garage and Abby's Fish Shack and lot of just local people," Kruse remembered. "Sometimes when they'd go to a race track 100 miles away, they'd go visit people and put their restaurants and gas stations on the cars. But there was no major money. ... [The STP deal] inspired other drivers, and [Bill] France, to approach bigger companies. Andy was the one who thought of that. He's a great innovator."

As a salesman, he never took no for an answer. Granatelli wanted every race car in NASCAR, IndyCar, and the U.S. Auto Club to bear an STP sticker, and eventually he got his wish. He wanted to claim in advertising that every filling station in America carried STP. Finally there was one last holdout. "There was some old country general store down in Tennessee somewhere, and they couldn't get the guy to do it," Kruse remembered. "They sent four or five salesman, and he wouldn't do it. So Andy went down himself." And ultimately bought the station so he could make his claim.

For a time, Granatelli was more famous than most drivers. He appeared on an episode of Laugh In with Roman Gabriel and Vida Blue, was a guest on Johnny Carson's couch alongside Eartha Kitt, had a role in the Walt Disney film The Love Bug. After leaving STP, he bought a chain of West Coast tune-up shops, expanded from 18 stores to 298, and eventually sold it for $90 million. When he closed the Petty deal, he did it with typical Granatelli swagger. "Stick with me," he told the King, "and one day you'll be as famous as I am."

At Indianapolis, he remains a legend. Last week Kruse accompanied Granatelli to his 65th Indy 500. He followed Andy into the control room, with 20 television screens showing every inch of the track. He followed Andy into the little-known basement of the speedway museum. He joined Andy in an eighth-floor pagoda suite Granatelli had all to himself. He sat next to Andy at the drivers' meeting, a row in front of Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske. "He did things I never knew you could do," Kruse said. "I told him, ' Andy, even the Hulman family doesn't have the seats you have.' " The Hulman family owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Hanging with Mr. 500 has its privileges.

It was a visit to Santa Barbara that inspired the museum. Kruse, whose nonprofit foundation operates a complex of museums in Auburn, Ind., discovered that his friend had many of his trophies and old cars stored in either a climate-controlled facility in Southern California, or in a loft at his brother Vince's shop outside Phoenix. "These items need to be on display, not in boxes," Kruse told Granatelli. And so was born the idea for the Andy Granatelli Hall of Fame Museum, which is located off Interstate 69 in Auburn, a town north of Fort Wayne. Kruse said the facility's exterior is complete, and he hopes for an opening sometime this year.

In the meantime he and Granatelli are both searching for memorabilia, anything from promotional items to race cars themselves, specifically from Granatelli's time with STP. Kruse says such donations are tax deductible, and asks that anyone with racing memorabilia related to Granatelli contact the museum at (260) 927-9144, or by mail at P.O. Box 1, Auburn, Ind., 46706. He's still trying to assemble the pieces of a career that spans from Indianapolis to Daytona to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where Granatelli tried to crack 200 mph in a street car. But when that No. 43 machine rolls onto the race track Sunday at Kansas, the legacy of Mr. 500 will ride again.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.