NASCAR became the sports phenomenon it is today in large part because of Andy Granatelli, the racing driver-turned-businessman who introduced the concept of corporate sponsorship to stock car racing.
But it was as a TV pitchman that Granatelli, who according to the Associated Press died Sunday in a Santa Barbara, California, hospital at age 90, became a household name — and face. As the CEO of STP, a company that manufactures motor oil additives and other automotive products, the burly, gravel-voiced Chicagoan took to the airwaves to sell his company’s wares.
He was soon such a recognizable personality that he was sometimes brought on as a pitchman-for-hire by other companies, such as Avis Rent-a-Car, as seen in the vintage TV commercial below.
As a driver, he attempted the Indy 500 just once, in 1948, but a crash in the qualifying rounds that cost him 11 teeth and two broken shoulders ended his bid. At the time, he raced under the name Antonio The Great and passed himself off as an Italian driver, though, in reality, he owned a small garage in Chicago.
He made up for that failure as an owner whose cars twice won the fabled race. In 1969, his car driven by Mario Andretti took the checkered flag. Granatelli repeated the feat in 1973 with a car piloted by another legendary driver, Gordon Johncock.
In 2002, Granatelli was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame, one of 19 racing halls of fame that honored him.
Though he was most closely identified with Indy car racing, even earning the nickname “Mr. 500,” Granatelli changed the face of NASCAR in 1972 when his STP company struck a sponsorship deal with the Richard Petty racing team for $250,000.
“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,” remembered the racing legend’s friend Dean Kruse, quoted on the official NASCAR web site. “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.”
Granatelli’s deal with Petty opened the door for other major corporate sponsors to pump money into the sport, helping NASCAR attain the status it now enjoys.
But Granatelli, who drove a 1982 Camaro at speeds up to 241 mph on a test track when he was 62 years old, lamented the state of racing today, feeling it had lost its direct connection with fans.
“It used to be in the 1950s and ’60s that you could watch a car go by and tell who the driver was by the way he sat in it, upright or lying down or whatever,” Granatelli said in one of his final interviews. “You can see none of that now, because the car goes by so fast, and the driver is hidden down in that hole.”