Cassie Gannis, a 2009 Desert Vista High School alumna and Ahwatukee native, jets to Austria this week in her next step to NASCAR Formula 1 racing.
The NASCAR Super Late Model racer and team owner will be one of only eight American women invited to compete for a berth in the inaugural W Series – a women-only race car series designed to provide women experience to advance to Formula 1 racing.
There are 60 women racers from throughout Europe and the U.S. vying for 18 coveted spots. The four-day competition has 30 countries represented, with winners moving on to the W Series Races in Germany this May.
The final 18 drivers will be provided with identical single-seat, open wheel 2019 Tatuus F3-318 cars.
The W series could open the door for some Formula 1 competition, including Grand Prix and Indy 500 contests.
As for competing, well, that’s in her blood. And if the way she mastered swimming and a painful and disfiguring disease as a youngster is any indication, all signs point to success.
“The mission of the W Series is to give women an even playing field. I’m not sure how much they’re spending, but I am glad they have amazing sponsors to create this opportunity,” said Gannis in a rare free moment.
“I have experience with stock cars and oval racing,” she added. “The W Series will be road course and open wheel. I don’t have much experience in these areas, but I am ready to get out there. I have been doing karting and computer simulated racing. I think the racecar they’re having us use is sleek and will be fast. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.”
Gannis’ interest in competitive racing started with midget cars on the Quarter Midget track at South Mountain Park at age 10.
She had grown up watching her father, John Gannis, a Southwest Airlines pilot, race those cars on the quarter mile dirt track at Manzanita Speedway, which closed in 2009.
“From the first time I saw cars racing, that is all I wanted to do,” she explained. “From a very young age, once I saw my dad race, I was hooked. When other kids were watching kid shows, all I wanted to do was watch NASCAR. I fell in love with racing.”
She credits her father with encouraging her passion – but not before proving she was serious.
“I watched the quarter midget cars race and decided I wanted to do it. My dad gave me a rule book and insisted I had to learn all the rules. Since I have dyslexia, it took me a long time to get through the book. I had the rules read to me, then I would memorize them,” the 27-year-old recalled.
“When my dad found out, he was so impressed. He got me a used quarter midget and I won my first race.”
With that, she added, “My competitive spirit was born.”
“I was swimming competitively, doing very well and winning races, but with car racing it was totally different. I had to win. As I got better, we bought a kit and put one together in the garage. That is when I decided I liked working on the cars and understanding the mechanics of how the cars work. From there we bought a new quarter midget, and it was all downhill from there.”
Besides the dyslexia, the youngster who swam competitively for Sun Devil Aquatics at ASU from ages 5 to 10 was nearly hobbled by scoliosis, a curvature of the spine.
In early photos of her, posing with her swim medals draped around her neck, its painfully obvious her left shoulder arches four inches higher than her right.
She was diagnosed at age 12, and in 2006, at age 15, underwent surgery to correct the condition after enduring years in hard shell upper body braces.
Despite years of spending 20 hours a day in two braces made to accommodate her growth, Gannis’ scoliosis worsened, progressing from a 15-percent curvature to 50 percent.
Two titanium rods in her back corrected the problem.
“After surgery the doctor came out and told me Cassie had grown two inches,” said Kathy Gannis, her mother and personal manager.
Though fearful she might not race again, she not only fully recovered but in 2013 founded Cassie Gannis Racing and bought her own NASCAR Super Late Model race car.
She travels the country for races and personal appearances for her sponsors like ToughTested. She also has a full-time job at Ahwatukee Animal Care.
“Racing and working full-time makes me very aware of time management,” Gannis said.
“My days are really full. I get up around four, head to the gym, then off to work, get home around 7 p.m., walk my dogs, eat, then off to bed to do it all over again the next day. I have one day off during the week and usually take that day for appointments and working on the racecar.
That doesn’t leave room for much else, she admitted.
“I don’t have much time for a social life, I really don’t have one. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I really need to focus on my career,” said Gannis.
“When I race everything just kinda…” she paused. “Stops.”
Being chosen as one of 60 women racers competing in the W Series tryouts came as a surprise.
“When I was notified… I was shocked. Tiffany Coffman of The Coffman Agency called me and told me to get my International C License ASAP. We had little time to get everything together; the people at NASCAR were amazing, so we got it done.
“After the official list came out, that’s when it really hit me,” she said. “I mean, out of all the women racers in the world, I was picked to qualify for this groundbreaking series; I was humbled.”
Upon arriving at the training facility outside Vienna, the W Series qualifiers will be tested in driving techniques, technical and engineering approaches, fitness, mental endurance and media skills.
Expenses for travel, training and accommodations are paid by W Series to “ensure the competition was open to drivers from all economic backgrounds,” according to a press release.
David Coulthard, a 13-time Grand Prix winner-turned-sports commentator, is among those conducting testing and interviewing.
“We at W Series believe that female and male racing drivers can compete with one another on equal terms given the same opportunity,” he said, adding currently, “women racing drivers tend to reach a glass ceiling at around the GP3/Formula level, often as a result of a lack of funding.”
He said the female single-seat will “establish a competitive and constructive habitat” that will give the women the skills they need “to eventually move up to existing high-level mainstream racing series and compete with the best male drivers on equal terms.”
In her spare time, Gannis actively works to aid the NASCAR Foundation Speediatrics Children’s Fund, The Arizona Humane Society and the Beatitude Campus Retirement Community Power of the Purse, which supports Comfort Matters: Living Better with Dementia.
“I’m a huge rescue animal supporter. My motto is ‘Adopt, Don’t Shop,” she said.
As for Beatitude, she explained, “My grandma has Alzheimer’s and although I can’t be with her in Pittsburgh, I can still use my name in racing to help here in Phoenix,” she said. “My scoliosis has allowed me to speak with others and help them through their journey.”
Her parents admit the possibility of having their daughter spend months racing in Europe is difficult, yet also joyful.
“We’re so excited for her – this is her first trip to Europe,” said Kathy Gannis. “We would never want to hold her back; this is a huge opportunity. Just to be included in this is amazing.”
The Gannis family – including elder daughter Alexis, a Phoenix firefighter – has lived in Ahwatukee since 1989.
Regardless of the outcome of this week’s racing trials, the 5-foot-8-inch Gannis has plans for her future in racing:
“My goal is to eventually race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.”