If there was ever a sure destiny, a sort of beautiful, inevitable fate at work, it was my love affair with the Novi. —Andy Granatelli, in They Call Me Mister 500, page 227)
The Indianapolis 500 is one of the most prestigious motorsports events in the world and the premier motorsport car race in the United States. Since May 30, 1911, the race known as the “Indy 500” has been held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. It’s a race filled with technological innovations, engineering creativity, mechanical prowess, entrepreneurial aspirations, danger, and sadly, tragedy. The speedway itself is a laboratory for automotive engineering progress where new technologies and advances in tires, engines, fuel, exhaust and brake systems, and aerodynamics, make their debut before large crowds. Sometimes this is met with great success, sometimes with failure. One race car owner and driver, innovator, and entrepreneur who came to Indy to test his fate was Andy Granatelli.
Anthony Vincent Granatelli (1923–2013) was born in Dallas, Texas, to Italian immigrant, Vincenzo Granatelli (1894–1977?) and Carmela “Minnie” Cardinale (1902–1936). Granatelli was the second of three sons, between Joseph (1919–2003) and Vincent (b. 1927). Andy’s quest for Indy 500 fame began in Chicago, where, at the age of 20 in 1943, he and his brothers pooled money and purchased a Texaco gas station on the north side of the city and named it Andy’s Super Service. It was here that they honed their garage tinkering skills to become master mechanics who worked on Ford V8 engines. Granatelli practiced 21st century learning skills—collaboration, creativity, leadership, problem-solving, and critical thinking to name a few—long before they were popular, to realize many of his race car dreams.
Persistent, tenacious, with a “can do” attitude, Andy formed the Granatelli Corporation, known as Grancor Automotive Specialists, in 1945, pioneering the concept of mass merchandising performance products as well as power and speed equipment. As a founder of the Hurricane Hot Rod Racing Association promoting hot rod and stock car races throughout the Midwest (especially at Soldiers Field in Chicago), the Granatelli boys got a taste for speed. They took their first car, the Grancor V8, a pre-war Harry Miller-designed chassis with a Ford V8 engine to the Indianapolis 500 in 1946, with Danny Kladis as the driver. Kladis only completed 46 laps and was disqualified when the car was towed after stalling; the crew found that the fuel valve had been turned off. This did not deter Andy. He could not stay away from Indianapolis. He went back in 1952 with the Grancor-Wynn’s Oil, driven by Jim Rathmann, to take second place, and then in 1953 with the Grancor/Elgin Piston Pin driven by Fred Agabashian for a fourth-place finish. But it’s Granatelli’s return to the Indy 500 in 1963 with a supercharged engine called the “Novi” that set him apart from other race car designers.
Novi engines are a sentimental favorite of race car fans, having made 16 appearances at Indianapolis between 1941 to 1960. For the uninitiated in racing car engines, including myself, it’s important to know that a Novi is a supercharged engine, meaning that an air compressor increases the pressure or density of air supplied to an internal combustion engine. This gives each intake cycle of the engine more oxygen, letting it burn more fuel and do more work, thereby increasing power. This translates into enormous horsepower (HP), but it also means the car can be hard to handle. Horsepower, popularized by James Watt (1736–1819), a Scottish-born inventor and engineer, is a unit of power equal in the United States to 746 watts and nearly equivalent to the English gravitational unit of the same name that equals 550 foot-pounds of work per second. (Merriam-Webster). The Novi engine that Andy Granatelli brought to the 1963 Indianapolis 500 had 734 HP—in contrast to other cars that had approximately 400 HP—and it was also lighter in weight at 1,680 lbs. vs. 2,800 lbs.
Where does the Novi engine come from? Like so many engineering innovations, there were several players who collaborated, with great enthusiasm and skill, to its creation. Lew Welch, a Ford parts manufacturer from Novi, Michigan, owned Novi Equipment Company and provided the financial backing to bring a car to the 1941 Indianapolis 500; the car and engine were named after Welch’s hometown. The car was designed by the brilliant Bud and Ed Winfield, brothers and mechanics who used a V8 engine designed to their specifications by Leo Gossen, the premier race car engine designer of the 20th century. It was built by Fred Offenhauser. Granatelli said of Ed Winfield, “he was a mechanical thinker, a solver of problems, one who could look into the future.” (They Call Me Mister 500, page 228)
The engine itself was a 90-degree overhead camshaft V8 racing engine that was mounted in a heavy chassis, allowing the driver some control over the horsepower. They initially called it the Winfield Supercharged V-8. Granatelli watched the Novi and those who drove it for over 20 years. Lew Welch put the company—which he incorporated in 1948 as Novi Racing Corporation in Michigan—up for sale in 1961. Granatelli, along with his brothers, Vincent and Joseph, and John C. Thompson quickly seized the opportunity and bought the engines, tooling, patterns, spare parts, trailers, and drawings. After the sale, Granatelli incorporated as Novi, Inc. in California and sought to prove the Novi engine’s superiority on the racetrack. Granatelli’s enthusiasm for the Novi was also shared by Jean Marcenac (1895–1965), a French mechanic who came to the United States in 1920 to race cars at the Indianapolis 500. Marcenac joined Granatelli’s team in an advisory capacity to help bring the engine to life.
Grantelli’s love affair with the Novi heated up in March 1962, when Major Anthony Peter Roylance "Tony" Rolt, managing technical director of Harry Ferguson Research, Ltd. in Coventry, England, wrote to Granatelli, "Stirling Moss has told me that you are interested in the possibilities of a four-wheel-drive race car for Indianapolis, and he suggested that I should write to you direct if we were prepared to consider some form of cooperation. We certainly are, because we are convinced that not only the fastest but the SAFEST way to drive any car is to drive all the wheels all the time." Granatelli agreed. Rolt dubbed their relationship "Project Stud," a code word given the Novi Project, to help maintain the project’s secrecy, which Rolt felt was important for both parties. Hammering out details about Ferguson building an entire car in England into which the Novi engine would fit was done by correspondence and telegrams, much of which forms part of the Andy Granatelli Collection in the Archives Center. Rolt wrote on September 27, 1963, "Andy, this is a heck of a thing to try and settle by writing or cables and I really think you ought to come over immediately and talk."
Andy Granatelli never won at Indy with a Novi engine. He said, “It did everything. The Novi did everything but win races.” (They Call Me Mister 500, page 227). But he did qualify Novi engines at Indy in 1963, 1964, and 1965. Granatelli’s cars nearly won the Indianapolis 500 in 1967 and 1968 with turbine engines, and he finally won at Indy in 1969 with a conventional engine.
This experience didn’t discourage or deter Granatelli from further innovation. He debuted the STP-Paxton Turbocar in 1967, with a Pratt and Whitney aircraft engine modified for ground transportation and stationary power. This engine ultimately led Granatelli into litigation. The United States Auto Club (USAC) imposed restrictions on the turbine engine used at the 1967 Indianapolis 500, citing “power output.” Specifically, the USAC restricted the air intake area from 23 inches to 15 inches. By reducing the air intake, the turbine engine was on more equal footing with the piston engine in terms of horsepower, reducing it to 480 HP and torque. The 1967 STP-Paxton Turbocar had a 23-square-inch air intake area and 550 HP capacity. The new ruling by the USAC became effective on January 1, 1968.
Granatelli went back to the garage to ready a car for Indy and to do what he did best—apply his technological savvy to cars. While many in the racing community did not agree with his turbine engine used in 1967, Granatelli was constantly pushing himself, his brothers, and those with whom he collaborated to the limits of engine design to go faster.
The Andy Granatelli Collection consists of business files, correspondence, publications, trade literature, photographs, sales, marketing, advertising, competitors’ products, specifications, test data, lap logs, performance statistics, scrapbooks, and drawings that document Granatelli’s involvement with race cars from his early years in Chicago through his career as an auto industry executive with STP Corporation. The collection holds many stories and the Novi engine is just one that highlights an innovative thinker who turned his personal passion for cars and speed into a successful business career. Granatelli was as supercharged as the Novi itself. To learn more about his love affair with the Novi engine and car racing, visit the Archives Center.
- Coleman, Annie Gilbert. "Making Time and Place at the Indy 500." Environmental History 16, no. 2 (2011): 322-35. Accessed January 6, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23049786.
- Granatelli, Anthony (Andy). They Call Me Mister 500. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1969.
- Indianapolis 500 Historical Stats, accessed October 7, 2020, https://www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com/events/indy500/history/historical-stats/race-stats.
- Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “horsepower,” accessed January 5, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/horsepower.
- Sunnen Products Co. The Fabulous “500.” St. Louis, Missouri, 1961.
- Thomas, Bob. “USAC Board Puts Restrictions on the Turbine Car: Row Over Turbine,” Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1967.