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Mad Max Hard At Work On First NASCAR Win

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 3 2010

Max Papis, left, and crew chief Ernie Cope came up a couple inches short last weekend in Montreal. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images)

There’s no Camping World Truck Series race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend, but Max Papis, a recent convert to driving full time in the trucks, will be there nevertheless.

Four years after he began walking the paddocks in search of a way to the winner’s circle in NASCAR, Papis once again will be working the garage circuit, absorbing information and building relationships to help in his quest to win races for the German Racing team.

“NASCAR,” said the driver from Como, Italy, “has given me a chance to show who I am.”

The skills of Papis were recently on display at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in the Nationwide Series event, where his extraordinary last lap left him a few inches short of victory lane after the last-turn, last-ditch pass attempt of winner Boris Said.

The final lap was reminiscent of the day in Daytona 14 years ago when Papis earned the nickname “Mad Max” for his record-breaking charge to a runner-up finish in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

In Montreal on the last lap, having held off the passing attempt of Jacques Villeneuve in the backstraight chicane, Papis made up six car lengths in the Hairpin on leader Said and then made up four more entering the final corner at the entrance to the main straight aboard the Chevy usually campaigned by Kevin Harvick.

“Boris took a defensive line,” said Papis, “so I said to myself I wasn’t going down without trying. I would have to do something special. When he jumped on the brakes, I dived on the inside line. I wanted to go side-by-side. Boris backed off a little early and I braked really, really deep. But I needed his door so I wouldn’t slide too much, but I couldn’t find him.”

The savvy Said held back his Ford, not allowing Papis to lean on him through the corner. When the Chevy of Papis bounced over the curbs, Said was able to pull alongside at the exit of the corner and out-drag Papis to the checkered flag.

Despite finishing second the result was a tonic for the Italian just as it was for Said, who scored his first Nationwide victory.

The result also underscored why Papis has elected to take a full-time ride in the Truck Series with the Germain team after running an 18-race schedule under Geico sponsorship this year in the Sprint Cup.

“I’m really pleased for what I’ve done in the Sprint Cup,” said Papis. But  when the Germain team came to him and offered a full season in 2011 in the trucks, “It was a no brainer,” he said. “They are committed to really build a new fleet of trucks and do things like they’re doing on Todd Bodine’s truck.”

The chance to run at the front for a full schedule, said Papis, will help restore his racing spirit. “I’m not doing this as a good-bye to the Cup car,” he said. “Going to the Truck Series and showing what I can do will be better for my soul.”

In a career filled with major IndyCar and sports car triumphs, a Grand-Am championship and some disappointing setbacks, the song remains the same for Papis. Each day he must commit himself to showing what he can do.

With little more than $2,000 in his pocket after having spent his life savings of $480,000 on a ride with Arrows in Formula One that didn’t pan out, Papis moved to America in 1996 to drive for the Ferrari team of Gianpiero Moretti – and in hopes of soon finding a career in IndyCars.

Papis found still more headwinds upon arrival in Daytona. At age 56, Moretti was a grizzled veteran of the international sports car circuit. Owner/driver Moretti made it clear that a young man with connections to the Ferrari family – Piero Ferrari had helped arrange Papis’s sports car ride in America – would not necessarily be treated like royalty. Besides, Moretti already had veterans Bob Wollek and Didier Theys in the Daytona driving line-up. So Papis got very little practice time prior to the 24-hour race.

Papis also knows how to have fun and, perhaps as importantly, when. Quite ironically, this perspective came into play shortly before the legend of Mad Max was born.

The day before the start of the 24-hour race that would make him an instantly recognized name in American racing, Papis missed all of practice and went to the beach with a pal from Italy instead! “Moretti would not let me get in the car to practice,” said Papis. “So I went to the beach on Friday with a friend of mine. We spent the day on boogie boards.”

But after co-driving with the veterans throughout the long Daytona night, Papis had made it clear why the Ferrari factory helped arrange the ride aboard Moretti’s 333 SP.

The Ferrari was the fastest car in the race, but muffler and gearbox problems left it almost two laps down headed into the final two hours. The Moretti team decided to install Papis for the last push to the checkered flag.

In his final double-stint Papis lowered the track record lap after lap while reeling in the leader. He carved an incredible six seconds a lap off the leader’s times. The chase was so stirring he drew the designation of “Mad Max” from Speed TV announcer Bob Varsha.

The closest finish in Daytona endurance racing history at that time found the Ferrari coming home in second. But Papis, who returned to co-drive to victory in the 24-hour over-all in 2002, had made his mark.

“When I came to America, those last hours in the car, they were my business card for my driving,” said Papis. “But they were the business card for my attitude and fitness as well.”

All these years later, Papis left a similar calling card in Montreal. But that won’t stop him from working the garage on an off weekend in Atlanta.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 3 2010
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