Presented by Racemaker Press

"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

That Way It Is/ Max Papis racer and entrepreneur

by Gordon Kirby
At 45 Max Papis is a veteran racer who has competed in many types of cars from Formula 1 and Indy cars to long-distance sports cars and NASCAR stock cars. He continues to race occasionally these days and will be co-driving Action Express's second Daytona Prototype in next weekend's Rolex 24 Hours and in the three other Tequila Endurance Cup races at Sebring, Watkins Glen and Road Atlanta. But Max is primarily occupied these days building a new business called Max Papis Innovation which supplies modern steering wheels to most top NASCAR teams.

Papis started his career in his native Italy racing karts, then Formula 3 and F3000 cars before breaking into F1 in 1994 as a Lotus test driver. He drove some races the following year for the Footwork team, finishing seventh in the Italian GP at Monza.

In 1996 Papis came to race in the United States driving a Ferrari 333SP sports car for Gianpiero Moretti's team. He finished second in the season-opening Daytona 24 hours and went on to win three IMSA races that year. Max also made his Indy car debut in '96 with Arciero-Wells and he drove for the team through 1998 before getting his big break when a retiring Bobby Rahal hired Papis to lead his CART team in 1999.

Max went on to win CART's 2000 season-opener at Homestead and scored two more wins in 2001 at Portland and Laguna Seca. But Papis lost his ride to Jimmy Vasser in '02 and was one of a number of talented drivers whose careers were knocked off course if not derailed by the CART/IRL war. He raced at Indianapolis in 2002 and '06 but has spent most of his time in recent years racing a variety of NASCAR cars. He's also done some test driving for Hendrick Motorsports and served last year as Austin Dillon's driver coach at Richard Childress Racing.

"For the last four years I dedicated myself to Richard Childress Racing and also to Austin Dillon as a coach," Papis says. "I promised Richard that I would guide Austin through his first year of Cup racing. So last year I wasn't doing any racing. I was focused on Austin and being his advisor and helping him develop himself. I went to all 38 NASCAR race weekends so for me it was not possible to do anything else."

Max is delighted to have found a ride with Action Express for this year's four Tequila Endurance Championship races.

"We decided Austin was ready to go and do his own stuff this year, so I started looking around to see if there were any good opportunities. Nowadays the opportunities are very few. Endurance racing has changed tremendously. When I came over here in 1996 endurance racing was mainly drivers who had lots of experience. Back then the young kids were aiming at Indy cars or NASCAR. Both those series were thriving so sports car racing was a place for experienced drivers.

"But today is a different world. The young kids who have a budget don't dream of open wheel anymore. More and more of them go to sports car racing so there are very few opportunities for an older guy like me and it's easier for a team to get the money from a driver rather than sell a major sponsor."

Papis was very satisfied with the work he and his teammates did at 'The Roar' three-day test two weeks ago.

"We worked on getting everybody as close as possible and as comfortable as possible," he says. "We focused on being better together as a team and I was really pleased with the progress we made. We started with three different opinions from four drivers about how to drive the car and ended up with all four guys within a couple of tenths of each other and all driving with a lot more confidence and thinking as a race team rather than four different people. I felt we accomplished our goal.

"It will be tough to beat some of the more experienced teams and drivers but we did everything we could in the short time we had to be as prepared as we can be. If we progress as fast as we did in those three days in the next three days at Daytona this week I really think that if everything fell into place we would deserve a podium finish.

"I like the four-race endurance championship because it gives you something to shoot at," he adds. "If you do a good job in all the races and can maybe win one of those four races you've got a good shot at winning the endurance championship. So again, that gives us something to aim at."

Papis lives these days in Statesville, NC. He married Emerson Fittipaldi's daughter Tatiana in 1999 and they have two boys, Marco, 8, and Matteo, 5. Papis's company, Max Papis Innovation, is located in nearby Mooresville in the heart of NASCAR country.

Papis's little company supplies eighty percent of the field in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series and he hopes to expand his business in the coming years to supply a more affordable version of safer steering wheels to the broader grass roots base of American stock car racers.

"First of all," Max remarks, "Racing is not just a way to earn a paycheck. It's about achieving your dreams and the paycheck is the value of what you've achieved through the years.

"If you look at guys like Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Rusty Wallace, they had really good careers and at the same time while they were at the top of their careers they looked at how they could do something in the sport to be part of the sport and give back to the sport at the same time.

"I was always interested in improving safety. If you remember, back fifteen years ago, Christian (Fittipaldi) and I were the first guys to use the HANS device in CART quite a few years before it was adopted by Formula 1 and NASCAR and everyone else. So when I started with Hendrick Motorsport as their test driver I was always interested in looking at the safety aspects of the cars.

"I looked at the cockpit of the car and there were a couple of small things we worked on. But one of the things that caught my attention was seeing a really old style steering wheel. So I started developing and providing a steering wheel for my friend Jimmie Johnson. I made sure we could use all the technology and the safety factors that I knew about.

"I raced CART when the cars were real men's cars. It was dangerous, but I would say we had some of the most advanced safety developments of any form of racing in the world, including Formula 1. As far as head protection and things like the HANS device, CART was way ahead of Formula 1.

"My background helped bring a new way of thinking to NASCAR and after Jimmie started using my steering wheel other people started asking about it. We went from me and my wife selling ten steering wheels out of our garage at the house as a pure hobby to an office where last year we decided to start our own line of steering wheels.

"We are called Max Papis Innovations and our goal is to provide the stock car racers exactly what they need for their sport. The slogan we use is, 'MPI is shaped by a racer for the best racers.'

"I want to provide all the guys in the sport the opportunity to have as safe equipment as they can have and evolve that slowly into a business. We want to go from servicing the top three levels of NASCAR to providing equipment to the wider grass roots levels of the sport.

"We want to use the HANS model. The first HANS devices were too expensive for somebody racing a Formula Ford for example, but they slowly developed more affordable versions for the grass roots racers.

"We will use the same technology and safety in terms of protecting the hands of the drivers. The goal is making this a business that can sustain our family and give us a profit and at the same time can service the industry in the best way.

"I already achieved the great dream of my life of becoming a professional racing driver paid to drive for some of the best teams in the sport and maybe if I can apply the same passion, vision and principles, but be a little bit less of a dreamer and more of a realistic guy. It's time to build something for my family. We're proud of the work we've done so far.

"The way I look at it is Gianpiero Moretti had a dream about racing and he was able to achieve his dream through the passion he put into building his own steering wheels and providing something to the community. So why can't I do the same thing here in America? Without Gianpiero and without him dreaming to build his own company and then inviting me to be part of his team at Daytona in 1996 in the Ferrari 333 sports car, I would never have been here in the sport in America."

Among others MPI supplies steering wheels to Hendrick, Stewart-Haas, Penske, Joe Gibbs, Ganassi, Michael Waltrip, JR Motorsports and Brad Keselowski Racing.

"We have eighty percent of all the top tier teams and that came from having a good product and our customer service," Papis says. "We focused on what people in the sport want and like, which is weight reduction and safety.

"We are three full-time people: myself, Tatiana, an assistant, and one part-time person. In Italy, where we produce all the steering wheels, we have four people working on the manufacturing. We outsource some parts and pieces of course.

"We also have a brokering business. We have four major European corporations and we are using our connections in the sport to help them sell their products in the United States. We are looking for opportunities for these European companies to establish themselves in America through our racing connections.

"I was at Menards in Minneapolis last week, for example, selling sponges and mops to Menards. We're also working with the largest producer of Italian meats.

"I don't ask people for favors. I only call them when I see something than can be an opportunity for them and a mutual benefit for all the parties involved."

Meanwhile, Papis is focused this week on the Rolex 24 hours at Daytona.

"Nowadays, endurance racing is all about how can you drive a car fast that's a little uncomfortable for 22 hours and not mess up and have a fast car for the last two hours. It's about surviving, keeping the car in one piece for 22 hours and then a sprint race for the last two hours. So you've got to tune the car right on the edge to be ready for the last two hours.

"So we will see if we will be able to have a car that all four of the co-drivers can drive this way, or if we have to cut back to a little more comfortable level. Like I say, we made really good progress at 'The Roar' and we'll see how we are come Friday of this week. Whatever we feel we can do, we'll take it.

"My goal for the season is winning one of the four races. I would be happy at the end of the endurance championship if we had one win and a good finish in the championship. That's what I'm aiming at.

"I also still have a goal to be the first European driver beside Mario Andretti to win a NASCAR race," Papis grins. "I promised that to my father when he died in 2006 and I'm still pursuing that goal. Right now on paper there aren't any teams who can provide a car to achieve that this year, but you never know. I keep my options my open there."

Racer, entrepreneur and constant dreamer. That's Max Papis.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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