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Mad Max Is Happily Pursuing New Dream

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 17 2009
Max Papis led Juan Pablo Montoya in the battle of the former Formula One drivers two weeks ago at Watkins Glen.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Max Papis led Juan Pablo Montoya in the battle of the former Formula One drivers two weeks ago at Watkins Glen. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Watkins Glen, N.Y. – To label Max Papis a “journeyman driver” is to do a disservice to the human being with the perpetual grin, classic Italian accent and stallion-like passion for racing.

“I am a race car driver, and my job is to kick ass,” said Papis, famously defining his “Mad Max” persona. A man whose journey has included stints in Formula One, Champ Car, IndyCar and a variety of world-class sports car series, Papis insists his final destination is NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.

“This is what I want to do, and NASCAR is going to be the last thing I’m going to do in my career,”  Papis said after recording a Cup career-best eighth-place finish at Watkins Glen International on Aug. 10. “You’re not going to see me racing anything else, not seriously. I am dedicating all my life, and my family, too, is dedicating, making a lot of effort. I put them through a lot…to achieve my dreams.”

Papis, 39, finished the rain-delayed Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen as top Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate. It was only his eighth start of a partial season in the No. 13 GEICO Toyota Camry fielded by Germain Racing and tuned by crew chief Mike Hillman Sr. The event on WGI’s famed 2.45-mile, 11-turn layout was Race No. 22 on the 36-event schedule, but just the  11th entered by Papis’ fledgling team.

“A day like today,” Papis said after his 10th overall Cup start, “I think it’s a little special present coming that tells everybody sometimes David and Goliath things. We were so small, we came up with so much. It just makes me remember that all the help, all the advice from my dad, all the people that helped me on the way here, they’re all riding with me. When you are there and your arms are burning, you have 10 laps to go, you dig deep because this is your chance.”

An accomplished road-racer, Papis said he and Hillman followed an attacking game plan that allowed them to contend with race-winner Tony Stewart – who scored his record-setting fifth Cup victory at WGI – as well as runnerup Marcos Ambrose of Australia and former F1 ace Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia.

“My guys did an insane strategy,”  said Papis, who spent parts of eight seasons in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series. “We were fantastic on fuel. I was really saving a lot of fuel. I used a lot of those days of sports car racing where fuel mileage is everything. I used it all. We ran out of gas 300 feet after the start/finish line when we got the checkered flag. That’s not luck; that’s calculation. Besides that, I had my best-ever finish so far in my NASCAR career. Actually, not really. I had a third in the Nationwide (Series).  The difference between Nationwide and Cup is like minor league and major league. These guys here are tough. I’m really proud of that.”

For the record, Papis made his Cup debut on the road-course at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., on June 22, 2008. He started 28th and finished 35th as a road-course ringer. Fittingly, Papis’ previous best Cup finish was the 12th he scored at Infineon on June 21, 2009. But he sat out the next five races, including DNQs at Daytona International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, before resurfacing at The Glen.

“I enjoy every race I do,” said Papis, who nevertheless has suffered through five finishes of 35th or worse in his eight starts. “I don’t live in the past. I live in the present. I always say that I’m looking forward for the best win that is going to come. (At WGI) I feel we proved to everyone we deserve some respect, both as a team and as a driver. We take it from here.”

Papis’ resume includes three CART victories, two Indianapolis 500 starts and considerable success in every marquee sports car endurance event. Papis won the 2004 Rolex Grand-Am Series championship, capping a season that featured four wins and 11 poles in 12 races. He was a member of the teams that scored overall wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2000 and 2002. While driving for GM’s Corvette Racing juggernaut in the American Le Mans Series, Papis scored two wins in the 12 Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans, and posted two runnerup finishes at the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. Still, Papis remains genuinely impressed with the NASCAR crowd that goes road-racing only twice a year.

“These guys are definitely the best of the best I’ve ever raced against in my life, point-blank,” Papis said. “Better than Formula One, sports car, Indy-car, everything put together. When people say NASCAR drivers are not that good on road-courses, I would definitely tell them to shut up, because they’re pretty damn good.

“I can tell you that I never cruised one lap (at WGI). I went hard, hard, hard every lap.”

Papis is the son-in-law of Formula One and Indy 500 champion Emerson Fittipaldi of Brazil. Wife Tatiana and sons Marco and Matteo sat front-and-center during his post-race news conference at WGI…seemingly hanging on Max’s every syllable. Similarly, Papis described his Germain Racing team as “a small family” in a garage area dominated by multi-car/merged powerhouses.

“Every success is felt through the skin of everybody,” Papis said of his team co-owned by brothers Steve, Bob and Rick Germain. “We maximize what we have. GEICO gave me and the team the opportunity of our life. I’m proud that I paid them back because you need to capitalize in these moments.

“To me, you know I come out of this knowing this is a very, very tough form of motorsport, point-blank. Every time I call back to Italy, I say this is like endurance racing and rally driving at the same time because you need to improvise because the cars move around. They don’t always do what you want. But at the same time you need to have stamina, endurance, you’re in the car for a long time. I mean, it’s tough. It’s tough.

“I think you need to race hard. At the end of the day to win you need to be intelligent. If you are just aggressive, you are sporadically a winner. I feel everybody grows up.”

For Papis, the maturation process meant shelving his dream of racing in Formula One with the idea of becoming  Italy’s next World Driving Champion. Papis made his F1 debut at the midpoint of the 1995 season with Arrows/Hart at the British Grand Prix. He drove in seven F1 races for Team Arrows, recording a seventh-place finish at his home track of Monza in the Italian Grand Prix.

“At the end of ’95 I ‘retired,’ ” said Papis, a native of Como, Italy. “I had a dream. I went to Formula One. I spend all the money I made in all my career. I wrote a check for $400,000. They took my dream, they use it, they throw it away. That’s the memory I have for Formula One. Disrespect the dream of a young kid. The dream and the work that everybody did to take me all the way there.

“For me, I have some friends there. I love them, especially some people in Formula One. But I didn’t enjoy it at all the lack of respect for the human being. Here instead, that’s why I fit a lot better, because I think I’m a good human being and people accept me for that. There they look first at your wallet and after they look if you are a son of someone famous…I don’t know. If you are not one of those, they give you a kick in the butt and they let you go.”

That said, Papis added he understood the dog-eat-dog nature of NASCAR _ where depending upon the organization _ a driver’s shelf-life can be determined by sponsorship as much as by statistics.

“I’m a tough guy,” said Papis, a former Car of Tomorrow test driver for Hendrick Motorsports. “The difference is that here you cannot buy the results. You need to create it. The human beings in the team are creating your success. There (F1) you can buy the results because you can make a new front wing, you can make a new rear wing, do different stuff. Here it’s very much left up to the people. That’s why I love it, because there is no excuse here. My guys messed up my car, my car is not fast this year. Tony Stewart has the same car I have. So there’s no difference with that.

“That’s what I love about it. It brings the best out of it. At the same time there is so much respect for the human being here. I’m proud every day when I walk into this garage because it’s a special thing. It’s special to be able to be together with athletes like Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson _ people that make 20 times more money than most of the people in Formula One, but they’re more humble. That’s my opinion. Maybe I’ve been a little too hard, but I always talk what I think.”

Papis’ next Cup challenge will be qualifying for Saturday night’s Sharpie 500 on the high-banked, half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway oval – NASCAR’s signature bull-ring whether a driver is a full- or part-timer.

“Running a partial season is very difficult,” said Papis, who has failed to qualify as a go-or-go-home entry three times this season. “Being out of the top 35, that pressure you have going into qualifying, it’s something that’s insane. It’s insane. You slip a little bit and you go home. I really hope that we can grow this program. For sure next year it’s not going to be 18 races, but I hope that I get a call from my friends at GEICO saying, ‘Hey we decided we want to do 18.’

“That would definitely…I don’t want to say make my life easier, but I could be a little more in the rhythm and my team would be more accepted in a way.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 17 2009