Get off the beaten path a few miles up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh and you’ll find yourself negotiating serpentine roads in an Appalachian landscape dotted with weather-beaten farms and livestock clinging to nearly vertical hillsides. But go around what seems the 100th switchback in the last mile or two and you’ll be confronted with what looks like a set from Star Wars: Scores of antennas and satellite dishes surround a glass and concrete communications bunker devoid of government logos or readily visible corporate identification.
Welcome to the Pittsburgh International Teleport, an arm of the FRG Group established by Floyd R. Ganassi after he made his first fortune with Davison Sand & Gravel. That may come as a shock to those in the racing community who only knew Floyd as the father of Chip Ganassi and/or the jovial character in the Ganassi pit and hospitality areas who was forever cat-herding people together for a photo with his point’n’shoot camera.
Floyd Ganassi’s basic camera gear echoed his approach to people: uncomplicated but effective. He may have forgotten the names of a few folks he met but not many. And he was genuinely surprised to learn that everyone he was on a first-name basis with which was pretty much the entire IndyCar, NASCAR and Grand-Am paddock, not to mention most of Indianapolis and Southwestern Pennsylvania! was not on equally familiar terms with one another. If they weren’t, Floyd quickly remedied the situation with a few moments in front of the camera. He was, after all, a man who seldom took “no” for an answer.
I met Floyd in the 1970s while serving as what amounted to a paid volunteer PR man for his aspiring race driver son Chip, Formula Fords, Super Vees and, later, Indy cars. Thus I sometimes found myself riding in cars and planes with Floyd and an assortment of captains of industry. I saw a different side of him then. Not a different Floyd, mind you; but instead of a genial grandfather/photographer, I saw a man who clearly had the respect of some of the most powerful men in America; a man who exuded the self-confidence of one who, after serving in World War II, worked his way up from baggage handler and appliance salesman to become a lynchpin in the Pittsburgh business community, at the time, home to more Fortune 500 companies than anywhere outside of New York or Chicago.
Of course, you don’t get to be the owner/boss of one of the most successful privately held construction companies in America just by being a nice guy. Floyd not only earned the respect of those corporate titans, he commanded it. And after Chip recovered from the injuries suffered in the Michigan 500, FRG drove a hard bargain in negotiating the purchase of a race team for his son to operate. Think Floyd Ganassi was little more than a kindly old grandpa roaming the paddock taking snapshots? Ask Pat Patrick.
But that was business. In the company of those who possessed neither the motivation nor the ability to amass the kind of wealth and power he accumulated, Floyd Ganassi put his pants on one leg at a timeand never forgot it.
Back in the 1980s, I called my wife one afternoon from Phoenix International Raceway and asked her to deliver my computer power cord (the one I’d forgot to pack) to Floyd, who was flying to Phoenix the next day. The Ganassis lived just across the Allegheny River. Still, it meant loading our two small children in the car and driving to a total stranger’s house one whose company supplied the concrete for the construction of the US Steel Building, the sprawling Century III Mall and a slew of other new structures in what was known as Pittsburgh’s Renaissance II. But my wife agreedreluctantly. The next day, Floyd arrived at PIR with the power cord, talking non-stop about my delightful wife and beautiful children.
“I’m sorry I was grumpy last night,” said my wife when I called later. “We actually had the nicest time. Floyd treated us like we were his long-lost family. We ended up staying for a couple of hours and we came home with shopping bags loaded with all sorts of things for the kids, and a bunch of fresh fruit and vegetables What a delightful man.”
Indeed. In Robin Miller’s tribute, Chip Ganassi Racing’s managing director Mike Hull spoke of all the people who had been so positively affected by their relationship with Floyd. And not just in racing, not just in business. Tom Anderson, Hull’s predecessor at Ganassi, recalls a time when he, Chip and Floyd were in St Louis meeting with Carl Hogan.
“Chip was driving, Carl was in the front seat and Floyd and I were in the back seat,” he says. “We hit a red light and this fellow was sitting on the curb, obviously down on his luck. Before we knew it, Floyd jumped out of the car, talked with the guy for a few moments and handed him a twenty. All the time we’re yelling, Floyd, what are you doing? Get back in the car.’ And Floyd shouts back, Leave me alone, I’m trying to help a guy out.’
“Now a lot of people might have rolled down the window and handed the guy a few bucks,” Anderson continues. “But Floyd gets out of the car, spends a little time with him giving him some encouragement and maybe some tough love and yells at us to leave him alone.”
Then there are the stories told by Reverend Chris Taylor at last Thursday’s memorial service about how, long after they moved to the leafy Pittsburgh suburb of Fox Chapel, Floyd and his late wife Marie made a point of attending every funeral in Monessen, the mill town where Ganassi got his start in businessand how, when the neighbors across the street went on vacation, their children enlisted Floyd Ganassi to feed their pet goldfish.
When I related that last story to my wife, she laughed and said, “And if the goldfish died, Floyd would have bought the kids a couple of whales to replace them.”
Of course, the motorsports community will rightly remember Floyd Ganassi as the father of the man who has so far led Ganassi Racing in its various iterations to 14 championships and more than 150 race wins in CART/IndyCar, NASCAR and Grand-Am including the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and four Indy 500s. Those are pretty impressive numbers, no matter how you cut it. But they are dwarfed in significance by the thousands of acts of kindness Floyd Ganassi bestowed on racing paddocks from Daytona to Twin-Ring Motegi . . . and on people from Monessen to Fox Chapel, Pittsburgh to St Louis.