A Look at Max Papis and his Chance of a Lifetime
Thanks to bad luck and a nasty Sprint car crash in Iowa, Max Papis will fill in this weekend for Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen. Papis, 43, has run races in all three NASCAR national touring series in addition to competing in cars ranging from Formula One to Champ Car to Le Mans. Over the course of his career he's had podium finishes in both open and closed wheel cars. He's served as a track tester for teams as well, turning laps for teams when the primary driver has other responsibilities. Yet aside from being termed a “road course ringer”, Papis isn't well known to casual NASCAR fans. His time this weekend behind the wheel of the #14 is the chance of a lifetime for Max to change that.
This isn't the first time that Max Papis has stepped in due to a racing accident. In 1996, Papis replaced Jeff Krosnoff after Krosnoff's fatal crash at the Toronto CART race. The team spent much of the next two years as CART's equivalent of a start and park, failing to finish 14 of 36 scheduled races. A move to better equipment and the chance to finish in 1999 saw Papis finish in the top six in points two of the following three years. Had Rahal decided to remain in CART (instead of moving to IRL), there's no reason to think Papis would not have experienced even greater success there.
Series Champion and Former Watkins Glen Winner
What, Me Worry?
Particularly in the early 2000s, CART and the IRL ran on two very different sets of underlying principes. CART focused on running road courses and marketed itself as an American version of Formula One. IRL, built around Tony George and the Indianapolis 500, ran ovals. Papis never seemed as comfortable on tracks that only turned left and ran only a handful of races with the IRL. And as CART folded, he lost a major platform to show off his racing skills.
Since that time, Papis moved away from open wheel racing. In 2004 he ran all 12 races of the Grand Am/Rolex series and won that series' championship (co-driving with Scott Pruett) with four wins and eight podium finishes. He started on the pole 75% of the season, showing a level of dominance that few racers in any series could match. Yet until 2013, Papis never ran the full Grand Am series schedule again. Whether he had issues related to team and sponsorship or was simply bored by the lack of challenge isn't clear.
Max's Last Full Time Ride
The only other series that Papis ran a full time schedule since CART was the 2011 Camping World Truck Series with Germain Racing. Germain, who won the 2010 series championship with veteran driver Todd Bodine, clearly expected big things out of Papis. They allowed the defending series champion Bodine to change teams (in a partnership with Randy Moss Racing) and instead backed the newcomer Papis. Despite running a split schedule at the Sprint Cup level the two years prior, Papis struggled with the trucks. His highest finish was 10th place (twice) and he finished a disappointing 18th place in series points. Germain shut down their truck operation the following year and while it surely was not all Papis' fault, his 2011 season couldn't have helped.
Given his success on the Grand Am/Rolex car level and his past experience driving stock cars, Papis was a natural choice for teams needing a road course track tester. As far back as 2002 (ironically with Haas-CNC, the forerunner to today's Stewart-Haas Racing), Papis has tested cars for a variety of manufacturers. He was the guy Hendrick Motorsports looked to when trying to improve the #48's road course performance- perhaps the only chink in that team's championship armor. He's had multiple test sessions with Stewart-Haas Racing including one earlier this year. So with Watkins Glen coming up, Papis was a natural fit to bring aboard. He knows the team. He knows the equipment. He knows the track.
Fast Car for Papis
Back On The Podium?
Yet climbing behind the wheel of the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing car is the opportunity of a lifetime for Papis. Not since 2004 has he had top level equipment and the potential to run it regularly. His 35 Sprint Cup series starts came mainly for Germain Racing, a team that was big on dreams but short on speed. They were allied with Michael Waltrip Racing before MWR itself showed any real on-track results. Their Nationwide team went under in 2011 and the Truck team followed last year. While not a start and park operation in the truest sense of the word, neither are they anywhere near NASCAR's finest. Mears had exactly one top ten finish (and 12 lead lap finishes) in 2011-12.
Stewart-Haas Racing, on the other hand, is running some of the best equipment in NASCAR. Their technical alliance with Hendrick Motorsports is well-known. Stewart won the 2011 series championship and, prior to this week's injury, seemed likely to be a Chase contender once again this year. SHR teammate Ryan Newman, despite being on the way out of the operation, won at Indy two weeks ago and is also a Chase contender. Danica Patrick is... well, she's Danica Patrick. Two out of three isn't bad.
So after nine years, Papis will finally be in race-winning equipment once again. He's never said so publicly but it has to have been frustrating for him. He was a CART championship contender only to see that series fold. He won a championship on the Grand Am level yet never found a similar ride in that series thereafter. His chance at the Sprint Cup level came with a team that had little chance to win and whose goal most weekends was to collect the 43rd place check. He was demoted to the Truck series only to struggle and then see that team fold as well. Moreover, as a track tester for teams such as Hendrick and SHR, he knows what good equipment is. He knows how fast he can be given the chance. But at age 43, those chances are usually long in the past. Sponsors want to attach their dollars either to a known quantity or a hot-shot up and comer. Papis was neither.
Two Of A Kind
A Happy Papis
Stewart's injury presents Papis with the chance to show just how talented a driver he is. While classified as a road course specialist, Papis has run ovals before as well. His 2011 Truck series results, while not up to expectations, included top 15 finishes at Daytona, Phoenix, Dover, Texas (twice), Kentucky, Pocono, Atlanta and Talladega.
Any driver will tell you just how important consistency and routine is to performance. Getting speed out of the car is about more than just driving. Getting into the same seat week after week with the same team allows a driver to build a solid foundation. The crew chief and spotter understand better what the driver needs to succeed. The driver better understands the quirks of the car and setup itself. It takes time for the driver to become comfortable in their surroundings and comfort in the cockpit is the key to success. An unsure mind creates tentative moves on the track. No matter how much experience a driver has (and Papis has plenty), his Nationwide rides over the past two years have not given him the chance to get comfortable.
Right now, Stewart-Haas Racing has not yet announced their plans beyond Watkins Glen. Stewart himself still has additional medical hurdles to leap before the team will know how long he's going to be out. SHR Competition Director Greg Zipadelli, in numerous media interviews on Wednesday, admitted that there are no long term plans yet but that Stewart's absence will extend beyond the Glen. If Papis does well (or even wins), he will make a compelling case to remain in the cockpit. Even a handful of races in the #14 may well demonstrate that he deserves a full time ride in better equipment. Papis is a known quantity and SHR and he's already familiar with the team, its people, and its cars. Win on Sunday and for Mad Max, there will be a strong chorus of, “If it ain't broke don't fix it.”
One Last Bonus...
Max competed at the Nationwide race at Road America earlier this year and didn't appreciate the way Billy Johnson raced him towards the end. Watch the clip below. You have to guess that somewhere, Tony Stewart was smiling.