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Generational Impact - The Purdue Grand Prix

Purdue Grand Prix
Drivers and crew prepare for the Grand Prix race.

The Purdue Grand Prix, known as “The Greatest Spectacle in College Racing,” began with five students taking turns driving a homemade car powered by a lawnmower engine.

The idea for the Purdue Grand Prix originated at the Delta Upsilon chapter house in fall 1957. Member Peter Helferich led the charge to receive approval from the University to start what would become a springtime annual Purdue tradition. Thirty-three drivers and teams participate in the 160-lap or 50-mile race each spring at the conclusion of Gala Week.

Grand Prix was originally formed as a way for engineering students to employ their skills, knowledge and enthusiasm while having a good time. The first race was held on May 17, 1958, and an article about the race appeared in the September 1958 issue of Popular Mechanics.

grand-prix-past-inline.jpgThe first race was run on North Intramural Field and an adjacent parking lot. Each built-from-scratch kart could barely exceed 30 miles per hour. The Purdue Auto Club was the original governing body of Grand Prix. After the club disbanded, the Grand Prix Foundation was founded in1965 as the sanctioning body of the race.

A university-sponsored student organization, the Grand Prix Foundation is led by students with the primary purpose to raise funds for student scholarships. The Grand Prix Student Ambassadors represent the spirit of Grand Prix in the local community. Student Activities and Organizations (SAO) works with Grand Prix to help maintain a safe and enjoyable event. SAO works with numerous organizations on campus, and Grand Prix has been a wonderful partner taking full advantage of the resources available for student organizations when planning a successful event, particularly regarding risk management. 

In 1969, a track was built near Ross-Ade Stadium. In 1995, Ian Smith set a record as the first student to win the race for three consecutive years. Through the years, Phi Sigma Rho and the Society of Women Engineers at Purdue have had the only all-female Grand Prix race teams. At the 50th anniversary of the race in 2007, Liz Lehmann was the first and so far the only woman to win Grand Prix.

Today, the race is run on a premier track at McCormick Road and Cherry Lane modeled after the World Kart Championship Track in Japan.