Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Day the Turbines Died

Does anyone really know what STP is or does?

I know as a kid I didn't, but I sure knew about STP. Under Andy Granatelli STP became the king of the free product. Normally it was just a big honkin' sticker that said STP in white letters on a bright red background. Not only did I know about STP, it might have been the only company at the time whose president I knew by name and by face. Andy Granatelli not only marketed STP, he marketed Andy Granatelli and Andy and STP promoted heavily at races.

Granatelli stuck STP stickers on every flat surface he could find. A lot of those flat surfaces were the bodies of race cars. Granatelli wasn't satisfied to just sponsor cars though, he was a revolutionary kind of guy and he wanted to change the face of racing, so he had his own cars built. Never a man to do anything half-ass, Granatelli had Indy cars built, Indy cars with turbine jet engines.

In 1967 one of Granatelli's turbines came within eight miles of victory in the Indianapolis 500 when a six dollar ball bearing failed. The engines were said by some to generate 700 horsepower and were damn near unstoppable. The turbines were so much faster than any of the other cars at Indy that the U.S. Auto Club set new limits on the power of turbine engines — thereby banning the STP cars from Indy.

I got my only look at a Granatelli turbine on the final race of the 1968 season and the final race for the STP Turbines, in the Rex Mays 300 at the long departed, but much loved, Riverside International Raceway in Riverside California. The track was about twenty miles from my home in San Bernardino and my father used to take the whole family to the races in those days.

We loved Riverside, a track gouged out of the hard California desert. The track had everything: a series of fast esses that reeked havoc on those foolish enough or desperate enough to try passing on them, a number of tight hairpins, medium and long straightaways and a massive banked 180 degree final turn, Turn 9, that was a fan's delight for high-speed action passes. Somehow my Dad always got great tickets for Riverside, across from the pits that offered an unobstructed view of Turn 9, the pits and the series of ess turns. Never were these seats so wonderfully placed than for the action on December 1, 1968, the day the turbines died.

The two STP turbines were driven that day by Art Pollard and Joe Leonard and though they were a big part of the race's attraction, there were other forces in motion that day that would make it one for the record books. It was the final race of the season and Mario Andretti was locked in a very close battle for the Championship Title with Bobby Unser. With a 308 point lead, Andretti needed only to finish fifth or better to clinch the title and was running second when his Brawner Hawk-Ford's engine blew after 59 laps, setting off a crazy series of car hopping moves.

On lap 27 Andretti's back up "insurance" car driven by Jerry Titus rolled into the pits with a broken rear suspension. When Andretti coasted into the pits with a dead engine on lap 59 he dejectedly walked away from his back up car and headed over to the Granatelli pit. There was a heated discussion between the short Andretti and the bulky Granatelli, which ended with Joe Leonard being told to pit and get out of his car. Andretti hopped into the turbine. Pulling out of the pits just in front of Art Pollard's similar Lotus-turbine, which had also pitted, Andretti let Pollard pass and pulled in behind to learn his way around the unconventional car, which he had only once before sat in, during a tire test at Indianapolis.

After a single lap, Andretti apparently felt comfortable enough in the turbine to attempt a pass on Pollard entering Turn 9 on lap 63. But Andretti misjudged the pass or the speed or the handling, and the two cars collided with one another in a spectacular accident along the wall of the Turn 9 bank!

The era of the STP turbine had ended in a pile of smoking, mangled metal; black tire marks on the high bank wall their only gravestone.

Both drivers quickly got out of the wreckage and waited for the field to pass by before crossing to the infield. As soon as the accident happened, Parnelli Jones ran for a motorcycle and hurried off to the Turn 9 infield. A few moments later, the motorcycle screamed into the pits with Andretti on the back. After a seven lap consultation, Lloyd Ruby's Gene White owned Laycock-Ford was called in to the pits and Andretti took over his third car of the day on lap 70 and went on to finish the race in third place by using all three cars.

For all his efforts though, Andretti lost the USAC National driving championship by a mere 11 points to Bobby Unser. Had Mario hopped directly into Ruby's car, and by-passed the turbine, he may have won the USAC Championship. Mario later said he could not pass up the opportunity to race one of the STP Lotus Turbines. The USAC shortly ruled that drivers would not be allowed to change cars during a race, most likely as a direct result of Mario's antics on the day the turbines died.

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