Pittsburgh native Chip Ganassi’s daughter was born around the same time he started working with Carnegie Mellon University’s then-fledgling automotive racing team.
The former race car driver and owner of Chip Ganassi Racing said he didn’t know much at the time about CMU Racing nor the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), of which CMU Racing is a chapter. SAE holds competitions for collegiate teams like CMU’s.
Encouraged by a CMU administrator, Ganassi became involved with the team, answering questions, offering tips and serving as a mentor. Team members - to his surprise - named the car they built after his then-newborn daughter, Tessa.
Since then, CMU Racing has amassed several impressive wins and a maintains a strong, nearly 25-year relationship with Ganassi, who visited the team on campus earlier this year and flew six of its members to Indianapolis to tour Ganassi Racing headquarters in late 2021.
The CMU Racing team, consisting largely of undergraduates from the College of Engineering , most recently won first place in the electric vehicle category at the 2022 Formula Hybrid competition hosted by Dartmouth College, where it also netted awards for Excellence in Project Management and Engineering the Future. Each year, its members collaborate to design, manufacture and race a brand-new Formula-style electric race car.
"To see how that team has grown to the performance level they’re at today is very exciting for me," Ganassi said, "because I like to think I had a little something to do with that at the start that sparked them to have the performance they have today."
Mason Sanfilippo, one of the students Ganassi flew to Indianapolis, was a senior in mechanical engineering and president of CMU Racing during the 2021-22 academic year. He and his teammates gave Ganassi a tour of their workshop in late February, eagerly answering his questions and grabbing prototypes and parts to show him.
"I think one of the most powerful things about meeting Chip is understanding that he is just a normal guy that loves racing," Sanfilippo said. "And all the wisdom that comes along with that is a result of him basically starting out as a young kid, working his way all the way up to the top, and keeping that persona all the way through."
Participating in CMU Racing allows students to learn a process from beginning to end - from conceiving an idea to designing and building a car to racing it and eventually racing well enough to win championships.
"For me, I found racing to be a microcosm of life, if you will. It has all the ups and downs of life, maybe compacted into a weekend, or compacted into a season, or compacted into a year," Ganassi said. "Racing teaches the value of every part, every job and every team member."
Ganassi said members of a racing team have as much to learn from their wins as their losses, a lesson Sanfilippo echoed after Ganassi’s campus visit. Chip Ganassi Racing, which fields teams in IndyCar, the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and the Extreme E off-road series, has won 21 championships and more than 240 races.
"Chip’s a big fan of winning and how to continue to push yourself even whenever you are the leader in your own division," Sanfilippo said.
Ganassi has also been involved in other CMU programs, including working on autonomous vehicles for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contests in 2004 with famed roboticist William "Red" Whittaker , the Founders University Research Professor in the Robotics Institute at CMU. He stayed in touch with some of those students long-term.
There will always be more students eager to hear his insights. "Working with CMU over the years has been wonderful. I’ve always looked forward to my relationship with Carnegie Mellon University," Ganassi said.
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