How did Max Papis, a native of Como, Italy – a small town on the southern shore of Lake Como – wind up in NASCAR?
Through sheer will.
Like so many, the driver of the No. 13 Germain Racing Toyota began his racing career racing karts.
His father, Cesare, pushed Max (whose full name is Massimiliano) to get better every day.
“I don’t think my dad ever told me, ‘You’ve done a good job,’” Papis says. “I remember when I was 16 years old, a couple of times he held up a glass of water. He’d say, ‘You’re still not earning this. What can we do?’
“I know that sounds harsh. For me, I knew that my dad loved me. You could see his heart. I knew he had to push himself to be hard with me. I was kind of a wild child.
“He always told me when I was a little kid, ‘I can help you a little bit, but at the end of the day, you have to do it on your own.’”
In the 1980s, Papis excelled racing karts and quickly moved up the ranks. But when it came time to make the leap to big-time racing, Papis had to make his own way.
Using $480,000 that he had earned in race purses, he paid for a Formula One ride with the now-defunct Arrows team in 1995.
But his big break turned into a big bust. Papis fell victim to poor preparation by the team and the relationship ended.
After that, Papis was back to square one – and several hundred thousand dollars poorer.
So in 1996, with little more than $2,000 in his pocket, Papis moved to America in a last-ditch attempt to find a ride in sports cars or Indy cars.
His reputation-making race was the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway aboard a Ferrari 333 SP prototype. The Ferrari was the fastest car in the race, but mechanical problems left it almost two laps down headed into the final two hours.
The team put Papis in the car for the last push to the checkered flag and a legend was born. The Italian obliterated 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 race broadcasters.
Papis surged to the closest event finish in history at that time, coming home in second by 65 seconds.
He hadn’t won but he had made his mark.
“When I came to America, those last hours in the car, they were my business card for my driving,” the 40-year-old driver says. “But they were the business card for my attitude and fitness as well.”
Papis landed a ride in the CART Series, where he spent several seasons and won three races. Later, he returned to sports car racing and won the Rolex 24 in 2002 and the Grand-Am title in 2004.
Away from the track, Papis bought a house in his adopted American home of Miami and invited his father for a visit.
“The biggest satisfaction I had since I came to America was being able to invite my dad to our house and show him what I built with our will,” Papis says. “I say our will. It was not just me. It was him, my mom, me. That was the biggest satisfaction I could have. He didn’t say anything, but I could see the pride in his eyes.”
Sadly, Cesare Papis died from cancer in 2006.
Although Miami and its international trappings suited Papis, he had his eyes on a bigger prize and he left to pursue another American dream – driving in NASCAR. He moved to the Charlotte area with wife Tatiana and young son, Marco. (They have since had a second son, Matteo.)
Papis prowled the garages and pits of NASCAR teams for two years, literally wearing out one pair of shoes after another. He slowly built a network of NASCAR connections during this methodical approach.
He caught his first NASCAR gig – a testing job for Hendrick Motorsports – after introducing himself to Ken Howes, VP of competition for Hendrick.
“Max was pretty persistent and he kept showing up at races,” says Howes, who decided to assign some of the Hendrick team’s COT testing to Papis. “We knew he was trying to use it as a stepping stone beyond the things we needed and we were glad to help out.”
During his at-track excursions, Papis regularly visited the spotter’s stand and did his best to make friends. One of those he talked to was Jimmy Kitchens, who now spots for Ryan Newman.
“He’s gone to great lengths to learn everything he can about how to drive these cars,” Kitchens says of Papis. “He did those things because he wants to learn and he wants to be successful. Not everybody who comes into the NASCAR garage does that.”
What Papis found in NASCAR was an approach to racing that was the polar opposite of his experience in the duplicitous world of F1, where deals often appear to be made only to be broken.
In NASCAR, Papis found real friendships, a strong commitment to family and a more direct relationship between work and reward. Early on, he was convinced that finding a job in NASCAR would mark an important chapter in his life story.
“When I wake up in the morning, I ask myself, ‘What do you want to do to be a better driver?’” Papis says. “When I go to sleep at night, I ask myself, ‘What have you done to be a better driver?’
“I guess this comes a little bit out of disappointment and satisfaction in my career. My career has always been a bit up and down. I fought hard, found my ass in the street. I wouldn’t say due to my abilities but due to circumstances.”
It was Papis’ outgoing nature that led him to strike up a conversation in the garage at Daytona, a conversation that eventually led to the opportunity to drive for Germain Racing.
“I was behind one of the haulers at Daytona and I met this gentleman,” Papis recalls. “He was very interested in racing and I was talking and talking, explaining about drafting.
“One of the representatives of GEICO came to me afterwards and asked, ‘Do you know who you were talking to?’ I said, ‘A spectator?’ He said, ‘That was one of the top guys at GEICO.’”
When GEICO and Germain started looking for a driver after deciding to move up to the Sprint Cup Series, Papis, an instant threat to win on the road courses, was put into the mix. Ultimately, he got the job.
Papis is 38th in driver points, but has made all four races this season despite having to qualify on speed. His best finish is 28th at Auto Club Speedway in California.
Papis doesn’t believe his opportunity in Sprint Cup with Germain and GEICO resulted from random chance. He insists on a positive perspective and the decisiveness of human willpower.
“Maybe I used up 20 pairs of tennis shoes for no reason while walking in the garage,” he says, smiling. “But on that day in Daytona, it was worth it all.”
SceneDaily.com•Lead-lap finishes help thrust Paul Menard into top-10 in points