As Michael Schumacher fights for his life, Andy Granatelli loses his

Andy Granatelli was the last of the real American characters that once-upon-a-time were attracted to Indianapolis. And Michael Schumacher was the greatest racing driver who ever lived. Dec. 29, 2013, brought them together.

  • Michael Schumacher

In the fall of 1967, when I was working in Montreal and going to university there, I got a telephone call from my m0ther in Toronto. “I have bad news,” she said.

I had an Uncle Ralph who had been very ill for some time and wasn’t expected to live much longer. So I said, “Uncle Ralph?” and she said, “No, Uncle Stan.”

Whoa, I thought to myself. You just never know.

So, like auto racing fans the world over, I heard about Michael Schumacher’s skiing accident on Sunday morning and was keeping an eye out during the day for updates. I knew by supper time that he was in very bad shape and in a coma. (For the latest update on his condition, please click here.)

About 8 p.m., I checked my email on my phone. I am very fortunate to be able to write about the sport and, as a result, I am on a lot of media release lists. So I get a lot of information first, before the stories show up on news or sports websites. And I was taken aback when I saw that I’d received something from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that was titled:

“IMS Statement On The Passing Of . . .” (and then it stopped)

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Uh-oh, I thought. So I called it up to read what I assumed was a tribute to Michael, only to find that the whole title sentence said:

“IMS Statement On The Passing Of Andy Granatelli.”

It was like 1967 all over again. Whoa, I thought. You just never know.

I will address Granatelli’s passing in a moment.

But as of this writing, Michael – who is 44 – is in very serious condition. A statement from the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Grenoble on Sunday evening confirmed that his condition was critical, that emergency surgery had been performed, and that he was in a coma.

The seven-time Formula One world champion, who was wearing a helmet, fell while skiing at a resort in the French Alps. According to reports, he was skiing between two of the property’s toughest runs when he fell and hit his head on a rock.

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The hospital in Grenoble where he’s being treated specializes in brain injuries so he will be getting the best of care and, in the meantime, all any of us can do is hope.

Here are some random thoughts I had on Sunday about Michael’s situation:

– How ironic is it that he spent most of his life in one of the most dangerous of professional sports, in which only a relatively few participate and from which he emerged largely unscathed, only to have his life threatened while doing something that millions do for recreation.

– As soon as I heard, I thought of the actress Natasha Richardson, who fell and hit her head while learning to ski in the Quebec Laurentians several years ago. Yes, she wasn’t wearing a helmet but the situations are somewhat  similar in that both were conscious and talking in the beginning, only to lapse into unconsciousness as the day wore on. She died two days later. And then there was Mark Donohue. At the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix, Donohue went off the road and hit his head on a post. He got out of the car, went and ate his lunch and then started to feel unwell. He died in hospital the next day of a cerebral hemorrhage.

– Although I have made my living in media for more years than I care to mention, that doesn’t mean I’m a big fan of media. Initial reporting of a breaking story can often give people the wrong impression. For instance, the “conscious and talking” information. When Dario Franchitti suffered his terrible accident in Houston this summer, his car owner, Chip Ganassi, rode out to the accident scene on his scooter and came back to tell the TV cameras that his driver was awake and talking. The TV commentators allowed that this was good news. As we’ve learned since, Franchitti might have seemed to have been awake and talking but he had suffered a serious concussion that eventually led to his retirement and had (and has) no recollection of the accident or, for that matter, a period of time before as well as after the crash. So being conscious and talking is no indication of the state of a person’s health. Better to say the person was breathing and leave it at that.

– It’s interesting that several of the early stories reported that Schumacher was skiing “off piste” when the accident happened. In other words, the resort wanted it known that Michael was skiing where he shouldn’t have been skiing. Nothing like trying to cover your butt, eh? Before this happened, you can bet the resort told Michael – I mean, we’re talking about Michael Schumacher here – that he could ski any place he wanted.

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– Like many people, I had love-hate thoughts about him when he was competing. I loved the fact that he was so good. I hated the fact that he often didn’t play fair – or what I considered to be fair. I thought he was too good to have to resort to nastiness to win. But to win seven world championships, you must have a ruthless streak in there somewhere.

– And yet, I still get a chill up my spine when I think of that Sunday in Portugal in 1997 when he tried to run Jacques Villeneuve off the road and failed – and wound up stuck in the mud himself. I was with a couple of hundred people in the old Saint and Sinner pub on Bayview Ave. in Toronto and I can still hear the cheer when he and Jacques collided and JV kept going and an even bigger cheer of delight when Michael got bogged down.

– And yet, I was in the paddock at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve in Montreal in 2004 when Michael won the Grand Prix of Canada and he was so excited it seemed like he’d just won his first race. And he went from person to person on that Ferrari team, including the guys who were loading everything into the shipping crates to be flown back to Italy later in the day and, in the grand scheme of things, nobodies and he shook hands and hugged each and every one of them as if they were as responsible for him winning that race as he was. He seemed, that day at least, to be a genuinely nice man.

Let’s hope that many years go by before Michael Schumacher’s obituary has to be written.

There will be no waiting for Granatelli’s, however. The man they called “Mister  500” died in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Sunday of heart failure. He was 90.

Here is what that tribute from the Indianapolis Speedway said:

“Andy Granatelli understood better than anyone the spirit and challenge of the Indianapolis 500 and had a remarkable ability to combine innovative technologies with talented race car drivers to make his cars a threat to win at Indianapolis every year,” said J. Douglas Boles, president of IMS.

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“Andy leaves a legacy of historic moments that will live forever in Indianapolis 500 lore, including his famous turbine that dominated the 1967 Indianapolis 500, the Lotus 56 of 1968, and giving the great Mario Andretti a kiss on the cheek in victory lane after his 1969 win. Our thoughts and prayers are with Andy’s family, friends and legion of fans.”

Granatelli was a showman’s showman. His family lost everything in the stock market crash in 1929 and it was then that he learned the ways of the street hustler (“Start your car for a quarter, mister?” This after disconnecting a spark plug wire . . .)  He never stopped being a hustler, including when he grew up to run Studebaker and the STP Corp.

He and his brothers, Vince and Joe, knew everything when it came to cars and when they were teenagers they built hot rods and operated garages and owned speed shops. They even promoted races on the quarter-mile oval around the gridiron at Soldier Field in Chicago in the 1940s and  some of the stunts they pulled there are the stuff of legend.

They would pay a driver extra to cause a crash during a stock car race. They had four ambulances on standby and as soon as the yellow would fly, the ambulances would roll. The first one there would get the driver – unhurt, by the way – out and onto a stretcher and into the back of the ambulance, whereupon the four meat wagons would head for the infield. But before they could get there, Granatelli would restart the race and here would be four ambulances with lights flashing and sirens wailing trapped out on the track with the stock cars racing all around them.

One time, they got the driver into the ambulance and shut the door. They then switched the driver for a manequin and as the ambulance headed for the exit, the back door would fly open and the stretcher and the dummy would fall out on the track and the manequin would be run over by either one of the following ambulances or a stock car. People would be fainting all over at the sight of this stuff.

The brothers, led by Andy, started going to Indianapolis in the late 1940s and he even tried driving once, nearly killing himself in the process. Year after year, they would get to Indy and year after year they would lose.

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One of the many underdog stories at Indy (which has gone all modern and there is really none of this sort of charming thing to make the race special any more) involved an engine – a dual overhead cam supercharged V8 engine specially designed and built for Indianapolis called the Novi, after the Michigan town where one of its builders was from. The Novi was louder than all the other “special” engines (mostly Offenhausers) at Indy and had a shriek that gave the Speedway crowd goose bumps.

It was so powerful that it frequently suffered mechanical breakdown. And it was rough on drivers: several were killed trying to tame it. Naturally, Granatelli had to take it over in the early 1960s. But despite employing racers of the calibre of Jim Hurtubise and Bobby Unser, even they couldn’t get it to Victory Lane and Andy was finally forced to throw in the towel – again.

In 1966, he decided to go with a winner. He teamed up with Colin Chapman and Team Lotus and had the great Jim Clark driving. He and Chapman were convinced Clark had won but the Speedway insisted Graham Hill was ahead. Till the day he died, Granatelli was convinced he was jobbed out of that victory.

In 1967, he showed up at the Speedway with a car powered by a United Aircraft of Canada Ltd. Pratt & Whitney turbine engine. He had Parnelli Jones driving it. There was no way they could lose. They did. With three laps to go, Jones brought the turbine car into the pits. A $6 ball bearing in the gearbox had failed and Andy had lost at Indy again.

In 1968, he and Chapman arrived at the Speedway with four turbine cars for Mike Spence, Hill, Art Pollard and Joe Leonard. Spence was killed driving one in practice; the other three failed mechanically at various times during the race. Once more, it was back to the drawing board.

In 1969, Granatelli signed Mario Andretti to race for him. Andretti crashed his primary car – a revolutionary four-wheel-drive Lotus – and had to go to a year-old backup but eventually won his one-and-only Indianapolis 500. Andy was so excited that he kissed Andretti in Victory Lane.

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Now, the 1969 race was the first Indianapolis 500 that I covered. My seat in the press box – located in those days on a catwalk that was hung underneath the top balcony along the main straight – was directly across from Andretti’s pit.

When it seemed like Mario was going to win, I watched Granatelli and with 10 laps to go he took a folding lawn chair over the wall and into the pit stall and sat down in it and stared straight at the ground.  For those last 10 laps, he didn’t look up once. When Andretti took the checkered flag, he still didn’t move and only when chief mechanic Clint Brawner leaned over the wall and tapped him on the back did Granatelli seem to come out of his trance. At that moment, he jumped for joy and started to run toward Victory Lane. He was a stocky fellow and it’s a wonder he didn’t have a heart attack.

That August, at Mosport, the first F1 Grand Prix of Canada was held. In the infield restaurant, I saw Granatelli in earnest conversation with Mauro Forghieri, then technical director for Scuderia Ferrari. They were speaking Italian, and I couldn’t understand what they were talking about, and I always said if I ever had a chance to interview Andy that I would ask if he recalled that particular chat and was he, as I suspected, trying to convince Ferrari to build an engine for Indianapolis? Now, I’ll never know.

Andy Granatelli was the last of the real American “characters” that once-upon-a-time were attracted to Indianapolis. And Michael Schumacher was the greatest racing driver who ever lived. Dec. 29, 2013, brought them together.

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