It’s been a rough road for Italy’s Max Papis this season, experiencing the mythical sophomore slump that’s left him with the typical struggles of a second-year competitor in the Cup Series. With four DNQs in 16 attempts and just one top-25 finish – 22nd at Texas – it’s been tough for the single-car No. 13 GEICO Toyota to remain competitive in the face of its upper-class, multi-car opposition.
But a few bad months hasn’t hampered one of the most positive spirits you’ll find in the Sprint Cup garage. Frontstetch‘s Brock Beard tapped into that passion, persistence and dedication to long-term success during a revealing interview with the former road racer after Saturday’s final practice session at Infineon.
Brock Beard, Frontstretch: With your past experience, I know several drivers must have been coming up to you for help on how to attack this road course. Who has come to you for more advice than anyone else?
Max Papis: Actually, it’s been a pretty quiet week so far. It’s been more like journalists and other people wanting to know how to mentally and physically approach a road course than other drivers. I don’t know if… maybe they feel like I’m more of a threat at a place like this, so they want to talk about it. It’s great to go back to familiar territory.
Beard: Speaking of familiar territory, now that you’ve been to more of the tracks lately, are there any you haven’t competed on before that you particularly enjoyed, and any others where you’ve had more difficulty?
Papis: That’s a good question. What I say about “familiar territory” about road courses is not because of my road-course background, it’s only because I had road-course experience with the Car of Tomorrow, the CoT, back in 2004 for Hendrick Motorsports and I developed a feel from 2004-2010, plus racing at this track three times and racing competitive those three times. That’s the main difference from where I compete at ovals, where my experience is extremely limited.
I was watching qualifying at Pocono and saw “Jeff Burton: 33 starts.” I can only imagine those reference points and the way the car should feel, [things] that he has embedded in him [that] are as equal or more to what I feel when I come to a place like Sonoma. That is the way I feel the gap [needs] to be bridged between me and other drivers that compete in NASCAR more often. It’s just a matter of time and laps, that’s the way it feels to me.
Beard: Now, you say you worked with Hendrick Motorsports in the development of the Car of Tomorrow. I noticed when you qualified for the Daytona 500 this year, one of the first people to come up to congratulate you was Mark Martin. Is he somebody who has mentored you in your developing career in NASCAR, as well as your work with Hendrick?
Papis: I never had the opportunity to work with Mark at Hendrick Motorsports, because he came there after I started driving my Toyota for GEICO. But, as I said, I was there when I worked with [the] CoT for the first time on a road course, and I was very proud of all the laps and jobs that I did for them, especially the amount of knowledge I got to know and the people I worked with.
For Mark Martin, yeah, he’s my hero. For me, when he came over in Daytona after I made the Daytona 500, that was the biggest compliment that he could pay me because he knows how hard I work at it, and he’s definitely someone I look up to not just as a racecar driver, but as a person. Him and someone like Jimmie Johnson — Jimmie Johnson is more of a close friend, I’ve known him for a number of years. Mark is more … I look at Mark like I look at Mario Andretti, like a real hero of the sport.
Beard: I know we’re at a road course this weekend, but when you race restrictor-plate tracks, are Jimmie and Mark drivers you usually draft with, or are there any other drivers you’ve worked with in getting used to superspeedway racing?
Papis: When I started in the superspeedway at Talladega last year, I felt like saying, “Please,” ‘cause nobody wanted to be around me (laughs). It used to be pretty ugly. But I felt that people trusted me more and more [since then], and the main reason why I made the show at Daytona was because Greg Biffle kept pushing me at the start and Joe Nemechek, he was behind me and he pushed me, pushed me, pushed me, pushed me. That’s how I kind of look at it.
Even at Talladega, when I was behind Mark for a long time in the race, his confidence in knowing that I was not going to screw anything up and I was going to do the right thing — to me, that was a sign that I was getting more accepted. Because I stick to my word: if I don’t know, I don’t do it. What I know, I will use it when it’s the right time. I really feel that I’m getting a lot more respect at the superspeedways.
Beard: I see. And what is it like when you come to one of those new tracks, your mental attitude? Is there a lot you have to adjust at the race track when you get there, or are there some tracks where you make the adjustment a little bit easier?
Papis: The bigger ovals are a little easier because they all feel kind of the same in the way you drive them. The short tracks are definitely more difficult because they are more finicky, they are more different, one from another: Bristol, Martinsville, they all drive different. That’s the most difficult thing you have to do to adapt to different circumstances.
Even though they’re different, Michigan, Vegas, Fontana, Charlotte, Atlanta, they all have common trends. To me, every time I go to a speedway, it’s a new learning curve, it is definitely different and I really feel that — not because of ability, not because of driver ability, not because I feel inferior or anything else — but just because of the level of experience, I feel like I’m in first grade and some of them are in a university.
What I think is good with me is people, not everyone, but people who know me like Jimmie and Mark, they feel open to share stuff because they see that I use what they tell me. Whatever they tell me, I make use of it at the racetrack. Somehow, I like to think it’s personal satisfaction for them to see my improvements.
Beard: One thing that we really see on TV more than anything else is your absolute passion for racing, your passion for life. You’ve made very clear that family is very important to you as well — we see your family at the race track all the time. It’s an interesting thing for NASCAR fans to see today, especially when some think drivers don’t show much personality and NASCAR is trying its “the gloves are off” approach. I guess what I’m asking is… what drives you more than anything? Where does this passion that you have come from?
Papis: (pauses) The love for the sport is deep inside me. First, I’m an athlete, and I’m an athlete who loves motorsports. What you see on the interviews and what you see of me out there is not just me, it’s all the advice my father gave me, the sacrifices my family does for me every day, the hours I take away from them to make these things happen, the hours I spent with my mentor in go-karts, the advice that Ayrton Senna gave me when I was a little kid, the hours spent walking the garage, paying my own trips to the NASCAR races. You see me being on top of the podium in Champ Car and the same guy being in the middle of the street the year after. The love and the passion that you see is because of what I’ve seen and what I’ve learned through my career.
Definitely, I had to climb mountains to arrive in the position where I am. Someone from Italy, an 800-people village in the north side of Italy — if it was not for determination and will, I should not be here. There is no reason why. You know, the only reason is determination, will, character. Those things are embedded in me because of my family. And I am just pleased that I can communicate that to the people.
I am not always as smiley and happy as sometimes you see, but I always try to look at the positive side of the negative things. And fortunately in my sport, I was fortunate to meet people that appreciate this. Some other times, you meet people who use this as an excuse, but at the end of the day, I know my values, I know the love that I have from my family, and I know who I am for real. And that’s why sometimes I might be really upset about missing qualifying or whatever, but I look at things and I try to look at the positive side of what we’ve learned, even if the hauler door closes and we have to go home, like it has happened a couple of times.
You try to understand why and make the best of what you have. Make the best of what you have, don’t be complacent. Push hard and give satisfaction to the people that work with you, because if it would be for passion, determination, and will, the GEICO team here would compete for success every day. What you see in me is a lot of what these people are around me.