How Granatelli broke the code, saved his life

Richard Johnson is editor of Automotive News -- print.

Andy Granatelli, the renowned race-car owner and STP oil treatment mogul who died last week at age 90, is best remembered for the cars that won the Indianapolis 500 in 1969 and 1973, and for building and sponsoring Parnelli Jones' radical turbine car that almost won the 1967 500.

But my favorite Granatelli story was the one he told about his brief stint as a driver at the Speedway in 1948. With his brothers Vince and Joe, the young mechanic entered a series of cars at Indy starting in 1946 -- a time when fatal encounters with the wall at the old Brickyard were not uncommon.

In those days, drivers were perched perilously high in the cockpit -- unbelted and unprotected. They were loose appendages to the car and became human projectiles in a crash.

The 25-year-old Granatelli had taken note of the manly code of drivers who hurtled out-of-control toward the wall with no hope of surviving. They went out with dignity.

Andy Granatelli

Appearing on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1970, Granatelli told Cavett how old-time drivers headed for the wall would sit upright, hands firmly on the wheel, and face their destruction stoically. They would never cower -- and never survive.

In the 1947 Indianapolis race, Shorty Cantlon lost his life when he swerved to avoid Bill Holland's car and slammed into the 8-foot-high outside retaining wall on the southwest turn -- both hands clutched to the wheel, facing forward. An honorable death.

But the following May, Granatelli reacted differently while attempting to qualify for the 1948 race.

In Turn 2 on the last of his four qualifying laps, he blew a tire and shot straight for the barrier. He crawled under the dashboard, curled up into a ball, wrapped his arms around his head, and turned his shoulder to the point of impact.

The crash was devastating, and career-ending for the young driver. He fractured his skull, busted his shoulders and lost 11 teeth. The elbow popped out of his right arm. But Granatelli lived to tell of his encounter with the wall at the Brickyard.

You can reach Richard Johnson at



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