NASCAR: Papis wears his heart on his sleeve

You always know where Max Papis’ heart is.

In the cockpit.

He may not be well-known even in motorsports circles — especially those that emanate from Charlotte — but he is a racer’s racer.

Sports cars, Indycars and now stock cars. There’s no doubt that Mad Max — the nickname he earned for his mad finish in the 24 Hours of Daytona in his American debut — would jump in a Funny Car if John Force gave him the chance. But “Pappeeee,” as Force called Papis from an awards podium a few years ago, is as much about racing as Force is about horsepower.

His announcement Monday as the driver of the No. 13 Toyota in the Sprint Cup Series for Germain Racing is nothing more than a blip on the radar. After all, it’s only 18 races. But for a 39-year-old Italian who turned out to be quite good on ovals in the Champ Car World Series, the announcement was a milestone marker.

Twelve years after his American debut, he has officially arrived.

It’s not easy getting a ride in NASCAR’s major leagues, not when teams are typically looking for drivers half Papis’ age. The fact that English is his second language — if not his third — speaks well of his talent, his skill and his personality. You can understand him most of the time, don’t get me wrong, but he definitely doesn’t have a Southern twang, unless it’s from the South of Italy.

He becomes the first European regular — or semi-regular — in NASCAR.

With any luck, sponsor Geico Insurance will stick with him as he ascends the learning curve. The company might find rewards it had not expected. Papis is tall, good looking, married to the daughter of Emerson Fittipaldi, and seems to develop a lot of fans wherever he goes.

He attracted the attention of the race world at Daytona in 1996, where he made up four laps on the leader in the last couple of hours. He was hired on by Cal Wells for the last few races of the 1996 CART season under the worst circumstances, to replace Jeff Krosnoff, who was killed at Toronto while part of Toyota’s burgeoning Champ Car program. During the years Papis was with Wells, the Toyota engine was terrible. But, at least it was an opportunity.

Because the race team was based in Southern California, I was one of the few reporters who actually paid the team any attention. Papis told me one time, “I like the questions you ask me, they make me think.”

There are drivers you meet in a career who mean more to you than others, perhaps because of timing, because of trust, because of respect. For me, Papis on my short list.

He can be a deep thinker. I suspect he won’t talk much about camber and tire pressures in NASCAR, but will fall back on a phrase that he should probably trademark.

“I race from my heart.”

He left Wells, who called him “a hell of a racecar driver,” and  won three races in three years as Bobby Rahal’s hand-picked successor.

It was with Rahal, driving the blue Miller Lite car, that Papis provided one of racing’s most poignant images, sitting and crying on the inside barrier at Michigan International Speedway after dominating the 1999 US 500 and running out of fuel a few hundred yards from winning his race. (Unfortunately, the clip doesn’t show Rahal trying to comfort Papis)

Tears seem to come easy to him. Where many drivers are notably robotic — maybe that’s because with 36 races in a NASCAR season there’s always another one next week — Papis has only one race in the world, the one he’s in. His passion undeniable, his heart on his sleeve, few will ever show the television cameras that the act of racing means more than it does to Papis.

Some may race for points. Papis races to race.

He is one of the most versatile drivers in the world. He drove for Arrows in Formula One and, in seven races, once finished in seventh place. He raced in Champ Car and twice competed at Indianapolis. He won a Rolex Grand-Am championship in 2004 with teammate Scott Pruett while driving for owner Chip Ganassi. He has been on Corvette’s racing team the last few years and has twice been a runner-up at Le Mans.

But the place to be in America is stock car racing. That’s where the money and fans are. And now, Mad Max is there too.

I’m glad for him, and I hope America gets to know him as well as me.

And I say that from my heart.

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