By: Tanner Watkins
May 7, 2019 | 9:00 AM
While many will say that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway doesn’t owe any competitor, those who saw (or have read about) the 1969 Indianapolis 500 would tell you that Andy Granatelli deserved a victory more than anyone.
And the winner of that race will be the first to tell you that.
By May of 1969, the larger-than-life chief executive office of STP had become a true presence at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Known for his near-misses as an Indianapolis 500 car owner, Granatelli had faced about as much adversity in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as Dale Earnhardt would in the Daytona 500.
From extending the life of the ever-popular Novi to the introduction of the polarizing Lotus turbine, Granatelli had spent over two decades at the Speedway searching for that life-changing victory – becoming a fan favorite in the process.
After heartbreaking losses in 1967 and 1968, the Italian’s misfortune would turn to opportunity when linking up with another popular countryman.
Following a relatively short stint operating his own race team, then two-time USAC champion Mario Andretti found a home with Granatelli before the 1969 season. From the jump, Andretti explains, the two found instant chemistry in a business partnership which just happened to coincide with friendship.
“I gravitated to him, and I think he to me, way before (partnering in racing), and somehow we struck a friendship before we came together on a business deal,” said Andretti. “Being Italian… I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but I just loved his flamboyancy and it was fun to be around him, always.”
As Andretti strengthened his relationship with Granatelli, the duo’s friendship allowed the former Indianapolis 500 pole sitter to leave car ownership and focus on one thing: driving the car.
“I was looking to get out of ownership,” Andretti added. “I just didn’t like that because I was spreading my wings everywhere and I didn’t want to be tied down with the responsibility of running a team. I just wanted to get out of that obligation – I said, ‘I just want to drive. I don’t want to have that responsibility.’
“It was a natural thing – (Andy) and I talked and then before you know it, we just made a deal. It worked out and was one of those things that just happened, and worked out for the best.”
The zenith of this Italian partnership came in May 1969, a month where the two veteran racers were tested in a series of high and low moments.
At the open of Indianapolis 500 practice, Andretti was the class of the field in Granatelli’s Lotus all-wheel-drive design. While the car had some reliability concerns, the outright speed was tough to argue and efforts pushed forward with the Lotus chassis.
That was until May 21, when the right rear suspension assembly sheared off of Andretti’s No. 2 Lotus, sending the 29-year-old hard into the Turn 4 wall.
The crash left Andretti with burns to his face – severe enough that he decided to have his twin brother Aldo sit-in on the front row photo shoot following qualifications. His place on the front row, though, came only after Andretti launched a back-up Brawner-Hawk chassis to second overall in qualifications – a remarkable feat for a car that was never supposed to race at Indianapolis.
“We started out the season with that (car) and it was a good car, no question, but there was never any intent to race it at Indy,” Andretti notes. “The good thing is we had won at Hanford – the race just before Indianapolis – with that car. But again, we had some other issues with (the Brawner) – like overheating.”
The roller coaster ride wouldn’t end after qualifications for Andretti and Granatelli. In the race it was A.J. Foyt and Lloyd Ruby who bolted to the point while Andretti was content to run inside the top five. The Brawner’s oil temperature readings had increased to 270 degrees Fahrenheit after just a few laps and the mechanical worries had both Andretti and Granatelli thinking “here we go again.”
Miraculously, though, the bad news never came. As the laps clicked off, both Foyt and Ruby had issues of their own which knocked them out of contention. A contender by the name of Dan Gurney was running a solid and steady race, though it was Andretti as the driver in command during the event’s final stages.
“Towards the end I had over a lap lead on Dan Gurney and so again I just paced myself right there and prayed that I could bring it home – and we barely, barely did,” remembers Andretti.
After 200 laps, Andretti had his first “500” victory – and the same could be said for Granatelli, a car owner of over 20 years.
The win was certainly momentous for the driver, but Andretti has later admitted that the satisfaction came not only from his own accomplishment but the ability to bring Granatelli an Indianapolis 500 victory he so desperately chased in years’ past.
“It was incredibly satisfying. I keep saying that, not just for myself, but for Andy,” said Andretti candidly back in February.
“I think Andy really, really deserved to win and I was happy to be the first one to bring it to him. As we have seen in the past, just the love that he had for Indianapolis, that was the only thing he cared about. He didn’t care about any other race anywhere, Indy was his thing.
“With the efforts he always made with the Novi’s and then later with the turbine cars that should have won but didn’t, he would always go in there with something different; always thinking outside the box. And then here we go and win with a fairly standard car, so go figure.”
At the time, Andretti felt that this would be the first of many “500” titles he would add to an eventual hall-of-fame resume. Granatelli likely expected a breakthrough as well, and he would in fact be connected with Indianapolis 500 victories in 1973 and 1982 – just not with Andretti.
STP was the primary sponsor for Gordon Johncock’s two Indianapolis triumphs after Granatelli closed his USAC team’s operations, later partnering with Patrick Racing. Andretti, despite coming close to victory in the controversial 1981 Indianapolis 500, never reached victory lane at the Speedway again.
But unlike the presumed win in 1981 or even Maximum Security’s victory in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, nobody could take away the momentous triumph Andretti and Granatelli earned in that wild 1969 month of May.
It is a win will live on forever in Indianapolis 500 lore, earned the hard way: By burns, sweat, and tears.
Header image by Getty Images.
Open-Wheels coverage of the 2019 month of May at Indianapolis is presented by Driven 2 Save Lives. Driven 2 Save Lives, an entity of the Indiana Donor Network, is a program that utilizes motorsports as a platform to encourage race fans to become organ donors. Currently, there are 114,000 individuals that are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. Register as an organ, tissue, and eye donor at Driven2SaveLives.org/register and follow Driven2SaveLives on Facebook and Twitter.