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Happy Max Lives Daytona Dream

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 12 2010
Max was anything but mad after earning a spot in the Daytona 500 Thursday. (File photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Max was anything but mad after earning a spot in the Daytona 500 Thursday. (File photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Daytona Beach, Fla. – It has sometimes been hard for people to take Max Papis seriously.

The bubbly, sometimes outrageous Italian does not often act like a 40-year-old husband and father.

“Sometimes, I like to be silly,’’ Max says with that omnipresent grin. “I like to have fun and get people a little stirred up.’’

But racing is a serious business to Papis, who has earned the nickname Mad Max with some particularly aggressive and exciting drives as he has raced through Formula One, CART and IndyCar, sports cars and, now, NASCAR.

On Thursday, Papis took a big step toward being taken more seriously in NASCAR, racing his way into his first Daytona 500 less than a week after taking his first laps on the 2.5-mile oval in a stock car.

Driving the No. 13 Geico Toyota, fielded by Germain Racing, for the second year, Papis drove in the second Gatorade Dual 150, finishing 15th. That was good enough to take the second of two spots open to drivers who needed to drive their way into Sunday’s Sprint Cup season-opener.

It was an emotional moment for Papis, whose career has been filled with frustration despite showing speed and knowledge everywhere he has been.

It also goes a long way toward fulfilling a promise he made his father, who was dying of cancer at the time, that he would make a successful move to NASCAR.

Papis had his hands full at the end of his 150 after crew chief Bootie Barker told him to stay on track with eventual winner Jimmie Johnson when all the other contenders pitted for tires under caution with eight laps to go.

“Bootie left me up there in front,’’ Papis said. “It was hairy, sliding around, everybody pushing me. I kind of fell a little bit in the back. … I kept it wide open, as hard as I could, and slid around and made it happen.’’

But the race was a walk in the park compared to the gauntlet Papis ran afterward. It seemed like everyone in the garage and the media center was determined to congratulate Papis in person.  There were lots of hugs, plenty of handshakes, some kissing and plenty of thumbs up from other drivers, crew members, officials and media members.

Through it all, Papis wore a brilliant smile.

“For me, this being the first 500, is just a dream come true,’’ he said after things calmed down a bit. “This track, for me it’s really special. I came over here in `96. It was my first race in America, racing the Rolex 24-Hour.’’

In that race, Papis began to earn his nickname, getting into a battered Ferrari late in the event, running some of the fastest laps in the race, making up a lap on the leader and finishing just 64 seconds behind.

He went on to win three races in the CART series. But, somehow, Papis was never in the right place at the right time to establish himself in CART or any other series.

Eventually, Papis decided his future had to be in NASCAR.

He picked up wife Tatiana, the daughter of Formula One and Indy icon Emerson Fittipaldi, and son Marco and moved from Miami to Charlotte to pursue that dream.

The native of Como, Italy, began to haunt the racetracks and the race shops, spending his own money to go to the events and making as many contacts as possible.

His efforts eventually paid off with a job testing the new Car of Tomorrow for Hendrick Motorsports and a handful of starts in road races.

He even bought a used stock car, just to be able to sit in it and get the feel of it in some personal test sessions.

A year ago, he got his biggest chance with Bob Germain’s team, and it appears the combination is paying off.

“My program is staying here (at Germain Racing) until I get too old and you (media) guys don’t want to hear me any more,’’ Papis said. “I don’t want to be called any more the road course racer. I want to be called Mad Max, the NASCAR racer.

“I’m working on it. I have 20 races with the Geico Toyota and eight with the Toyota Tundra (truck),’’ he added. “I mean, where in the world (can) a guy (who) comes from an 800 people village in the north of Itally have a chance to do the (Daytona) 500? Can you believe that?’’

Knowing Max Papis, you bet. And there’s more to come.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 12 2010
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