Max Papis: Are You Not Entertained?
To say the end of the Camping World Truck series race was a wild one is like calling a tornado a bit of a windstorm. Chase Elliott, competing in just his sixth truck race, dumped Ty Dillon on the last corner to claim his first truck victory. Dillon's team bum rushed Elliott's crew before either driver completed their cooldown lap, resulting in a melee right off pit road. Oh, and Max Papis got a dislocated jaw from Mike Skeen's girlfriend.
With Elliott sliding back onto the track for the win, cameras missed Mike Skeen trying to pass Max Papis for second place near Dillon's wrecked truck. The result cost both trucks; Papis dropped to sixth place on the final gride while Skeen, making his first start in a CWTS race, fell all the way to 13th. Neither got the finish that their trucks deserved and both drivers were understandably upset after the race ended. Papis, who NASCAR fans most recently saw filling in for Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen, had frustration written all over his face during the post race interview.
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As the cameras cut away, an unidentified woman is seen heading up to Papis- the replay showed the woman slapping Papis across the face. The woman, tentatively identified as Skeen's girlfriend, Kelly Heaphy, was clearly upset with the race-ending wreck. That frustration is also understandable; this race was a golden opportunity for her man to break into stock car racing. Skeen is a virtual unknown to NASCAR fans. The 26 year old driver has run nine Grand Am/Rolex car races over the last three years in addition to competing in a number of different Pirelli World Challenge races. Here was his chance to show off his skills in front of a NASCAR audience hungering for young talent to get behind. Instead of a podium finish, Heaphy saw her man involved in a wreck with a road course veteran in Papis. Max will have no trouble finding his next ride. Skeen may never been seen in a NASCAR vehicle again.
The anger was understandable but the action was not. The closest parallel would be Richard Childress giving Kyle Busch the what-for inside the NASCAR hauler after a few years back. That action came not after a single racing incident but after a series of wrecked race cars Childress attributed to Busch. Yet it too was over the line. Having fans, owners, or girlfriends slap a driver for something that happened on the track generally isn't really in the spirit of, “Boys, have at it,” no matter how entertaining it may be. After a quick twitter review post-race, it seems a lot of people were similarly entertained.
One man's entertainment, however, is another man's ethical dilemma. Watch Max's eyes after the slap; you could see the desire to strike back hovering there for an instant. To his credit, he refrained from doing so. Had Papis retaliated in kind we would not now be discussing whether Heaphy should be barred from the track. We'd be discussing whether Max Papis would ever climb inside a race car ever again. No sponsor would want to be linked with the man who hit a woman on live TV, no matter how much he was provoked. We'd also be discussing the legal follow up sure to come. After all, he assaulted a woman. Prosecutors would be under heavy pressure to charge Papis with something given the media attention the incident would be sure to receive.
Instead, we laugh. We play the video over and over again. We joke about it. I am just as guilty as anyone else in this respect as my first reaction to the whole thing was to shake my head and laugh. There's a certain twisted humor to be found in some unknown driver's girlfriend taking out her frustration on a veteran racer.
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The good may well yet outweigh the bad for Skeen and for his significant other. Few racing fans have ever heard his name before. Without today's crash and subsequent fireworks, it's likely anyone else ever would. So what if NASCAR bans her from the track? You can revoke her access to the track but it's not like she's going to actually be at any NASCAR race in the future. Skeen isn't a full time member of this or any other NASCAR series. Could her driver feel NASCAR's wrath? It's possible but not very likely. NASCAR didn't park Joey Logano when his father lost his mind, nor did they go after Brad Keselowski when father Bob Keselowski essentially threatened to commit aggravated assault on Carl Edwards. You really cannot fine or suspend a driver for the actions of someone not on the race team.
Oh, and think any prosecutor in their right mind wants the legal challenge of trying to convict the woman? Think again. Jurors would take one look at the video clip and respond as much of the NASCAR nation did before voting to acquit and go home. There's an inherent bias against the man in this kind of case. For Papis, who works in one of the most masculine fields on planet earth driving a race car, there's little to gain and much to lose in pursuing criminal charges.
Yet think again about just how dire the consequences would have been had Papis been weak for just a moment. Think about the condemnation that would pour down upon his head if the tables were to be turned. That condemnation would nearly as bad if it had been Skeen himself who crashed the interview. How would NASCAR fans look upon an experienced foreign driver getting into a fight with young, Southern-born good old boy? The same people that hate NASCAR for allowing Toyota into the series would crucify Papis for the brawl.
No, Max did the only thing that Max could do. He glared at the woman and then he walked away. The problem is, Papis walked away with a dislocated jaw. It's hard to laugh something off with a dislocated jaw. It's also a maddening injury to recover from. Tomato soup for dinner and jello for breakfast. Oh, and the slightest laugh or head turn can pop it right back out. Max won't have much fun driving the road course at Laguna Seca next week in his Grand Am car and it's all thanks to someone who couldn't handle their boyfriend wrecking on the last lap.
And all the while, we as fans watch. We click on the video once again. We watch the interviews. We read the recaps. This one slap will draw more attention to the truck series than any single moment has in all of 2013. The slap will make SportsCenter, something the CWTS race winner has failed to do most weeks. The amount of media attention the series gets in Iowa next week will probably be as high or higher than was at Daytona in February.
Max Papis must be asking of us the same question another Max once asked of his crowd.