Passionate about auto racing since his go-kart days as a kid, Chip Ganassi has emerged as a dominant force on most of the sport’s major racetracks.
After more than 30 years in car racing, Chip Ganassi boasts an impressive resume. The team he owns has won the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Rolex 24 at Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The 64-year-old is owner and CEO of Chip Ganassi Racing, which operates teams in the IndyCar Series, WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, FIA World Endurance Championship and Extreme-E off-road racing. The enterprise has corporate offices in Pittsburgh and facilities in Indianapolis.
Altogether, Chip Ganassi Racing teams have seized 21 championships and more than 240 victories, including five wins in the Indianapolis 500, eight in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, and single wins in the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
A native of Pittsburgh, Ganassi got his start in the sport as a race car driver. As team owner, he was inducted into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2016.
Both of Ganassi’s grandfathers hailed from the Piedmont region of Italy. “I am proud of my Italian-American heritage, all that Italian Americans have done for this country,” he declares.
When you ask Ganassi how he feels about his professional accomplishments, he has a straightforward response: It’s all about excellence and doing the right thing as a person.
“I like to work hard and be honest. I want to live my life, and I want to go win races,” he expounds. “I don’t want to bother anybody that doesn’t want to be a part of that, and I don’t want anybody to bother me, either, who doesn’t want to be a part of that.”
Ganassi’s passion for racing started at age 5, when his father, who worked in asphalt paving, ended up receiving three go-karts in lieu of payment for a job. Over time, the young Ganassi developed a penchant for all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, and began racing dirt bikes.
He attended the Bob Bondurant Driving School in 1977 and won his first auto race at 18 while still in high school. His dirt bike racing experience gave him a leg up, he says.
“You don’t realize it, but you learn things along the way — like, you must finish first and the rules of the road,” he says. “By the time I got into car racing, I had covered those fundamentals, and that helped me.”
Ganassi began his Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) career in 1982 after graduating from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Armed with a degree in finance, he worked for his father’s business during the week and traveled to car races across the country on the weekends.
“My apprenticeship as a race car driver went fast — I turned 23, graduated from college and qualified for the Indy 500 all in a 10-day period,” he recalls.
He competed in the Indianapolis 500 five times, with a best finish of eighth in 1983. That year, he also was voted Most Improved Driver and landed in ninth place in the CART standings.
The following season, he took second place at the 1984 Budweiser Grand Prix of Cleveland before experiencing a horrific crash that, perhaps fortunately, he doesn’t remember. He was in a coma and suffered head injuries that took about six months for full recovery, he says.
Ganassi returned to racing in 1986, and his last international race was the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1987. Shortly after, he retired from racing — on his own terms, he underlines — and bought a team in time for the 1988 racing season, a plan he’d begun to formulate while recovering from his crash.
“I had a lot of time to reflect and think. I was thinking a lot about the sport and how best to go forward,” he explains.
Qualifying for his first Indy 500 is his favorite memory as a driver. “There were 60 cars qualifying for 33 spots. You really had to have your act together,” he recalls.
Looking back, he realizes he had natural talent but didn’t work as hard as he should have. “Had I worked a little harder, I would have probably lasted a little longer,” he says. “I also didn’t have the knowledge around me at the time to hone that skill. That was a different time in sports than today. Today, there are coaches, managers. … In those days, all those skill sets were just developing in the sport.”
Working in the family business imparted lessons that served him well when he ventured into the car racing business, says Ganassi, who is divorced and has a 25-year-old daughter.
Above all, it’s crucial to have a winning mindset, he says.
“We don’t go to any race without thinking we can win. We work hard to win it every week, and we go all out for the win,” he says, adding that he loves to figure out strategies for races.
He also credits the work of Mike Hull, the team’s longtime managing director, whom he describes as “my brother that I never had.”
Chip Ganassi Racing teams have about 200 employees, and his role as owner and CEO is multifaceted, Ganassi says. “You’re everything from a cheerleader to a management consultant to a psychologist to a father to a teacher to a mentor,” he explains.
When he looks for drivers, his focus is on finding people who have both the talent and desire to grow within a team. Once drivers are hired, he takes a step back from working with them directly, he says. “I am not one of those guys who talks to the drivers all the time. I think I have a good rapport with them, but I try to leave them alone. They have enough people dealing with them.”
While his professional journey has been rewarding and largely positive, there were rough patches along the way when some sponsors left abruptly. “I had some financial body blows over the years that I would just as soon forget about,” he remarks.
A baseball fan since he was a boy, Ganassi also was a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates for nearly a decade, until about 2004. That came as part of a group effort to keep the team in town, he explains, and his desire to “do something good for the city that I grew up in.”
In 2011, he received an honorary doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He’s also a dedicated supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, to which the team has donated about $1 million overall.
Ganassi says his own experience as a driver gives him valuable perspective when it comes to creating an environment in which drivers can thrive. “I always wanted to have a team that I would drive for. Hopefully, that’s what I developed — a high-level organization.”
The above appears in the February 2023 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.