Starting with Formula One in Europe and then coming to race Champ Cars and NASCAR in America, Max Papis has done it all in the motorsports world over the past 20 years. The 46-year-old racer has wheeled single-seaters, sports cars and stock cars across the globe.
Now a business owner, Papis hasn’t been able to race as often as he would like but remains busy working to improve safety equipment in stock cars and helping young talents progress in their careers.
Papis, a Como, Italy native, grew up racing go-karts on European road courses in his early years. Throughout his teens, he competed in intercontinental championships with a goal of making it to the top. Papis made his debut in F1 in 1995 and drove in seven Grand Prix events with virtually no success. He never scored any points or stood on the podium in the series, but still holds pride in making it that far.
“Although it was not really a spectacular experience, I still raced it, and I feel that it is a great accomplishment to say that you raced there,” Papis told POPULAR SPEED. “I was a kid with a dream, and if you were a racecar driver, you wanted to race in Formula One.”
After the 1995 season, Papis wanted to continue his career. He had such a passion for motorsports that he wouldn’t give up, and came to America for the Rolex 24 at Daytona in April 1996.
“When my dream crashed in 1995, I had people tell me I had a great personality for racing in America,” Papis said. “I came to race at Daytona in the 24-hour race for Ferrari in 1996. I put my name on the map by racing hard and finishing second. When I look back, it was pretty special.”
Papis ran three races in the 1996 CART season and scored one top-10 finish — ninth at the Texaco/Havoline 200 at Road America. The following year, he began racing full time for Arciero Wells Racing and remained with the team until joining Team Rahal in 1999.
In 1999, Papis had one pole and three podium finishes with Bobby Rahal’s organization. In the season-opening race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2000, Papis won his first career Champ Car race. After that, he claimed two more wins and had seven more podiums until getting his feet wet in stock car racing.
Papis made his NASCAR debut in the 2006 Watkins Glen Busch Series race, where he finished an impressive 14th after starting 43rd. As a road course specialist in the series, he notched four top fives in 14 career starts, with a best finish of second at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2010. But one of Papis’ favorite memories as a racer was making his first Daytona 500 in the Sprint Cup Series six months earlier.
“The two things that always stick in my brain are my debut in America [in the 1996 Rolex 24 at Daytona], and qualifying for the Daytona 500 and having my hero, Mark Martin, coming over to congratulate me,” Papis said.
Papis started 31st in the 2010 Daytona 500 for Germain Racing. However, his No. 13 Toyota suffered an engine failure after 89 laps and wound up 40th in the Great American Race.
Papis hasn’t raced a full season since the 2011 Camping World Truck Series campaign, but he works with other drivers who are trying to make a name for themselves in Trucks and the XFINITY Series.
He’s been a driving coach for Richard Childress Racing, specifically for brothers Austin and Ty Dillon, and taught them how to improve their road course performance. Papis worked with Austin until he made it to the Sprint Cup Series as a full-time driver for RCR, and now coaches William Byron in the Truck Series.
Byron, 18, is running full time for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the No. 9 Toyota. In nine races this season, he has won three times and leads the points standings. Papis is astonished by the rookie’s performance and says the youngster is surpassing expectations.
“William is a very fast learner, a great student of the sport and a very intelligent person,” Papis said. “He races as hard as I’ve ever seen anyone and that is what has impressed me the most. He has the heart of a lion and the face of a little angel.
“Usually, you don’t find that in people like him and I’m very thankful because it’s a joy to see our on-track and off-track communication work. The merit, his talent, his ability, his KBM team — it’s all him. I am an advisor and a coach; a coach speaks to people to improve communication, and I bring my 30 years of experience.”
Steering into a business …
When Papis raced open-wheel cars in the 1990s, he needed a uniquely-shaped steering wheel to be compatible with his six-foot stature. Then when he sat in the cockpit of a stock car for the first time, he felt the steering wheels were antiquated. So in 2009, Papis and his wife, Tatiana, founded Max Papis Innovations, a company that specializes in designing safer and more comfortable steering wheels.
The idea for MPI wheels spawned from a necessity Papis felt, which was that racecar drivers needed an improved wheel to maneuver while driving. The company has a manufacturing plant in Italy and their products are widely used by drivers in the United States, ranging from late model dirt racers to NASCAR champions.
“I’ve been in the steering wheel business for 20 years, and I used to build steering wheels for myself because of my height,” Papis said. “I learned a lot about how steering wheels were produced and what characteristics were in the product, and I applied that knowledge in MPI. We use very innovative safety and construction mechanisms, and we’re extremely proud to be successful with people who have won championships like Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott and Erik Jones. It’s an honor because it means we are helping the sport, and we are growing the company.”
… and resolving some unfinished business
Between his coaching duties and his concentration on MPI, Papis dedicates his time to helping others with their careers, putting his own racing career aside. He hasn’t competed in NASCAR’s top three series in three years but doesn’t consider himself retired. In fact, his biggest goal is to win a NASCAR race, which he has come so close to achieving.
“I’ve been focusing a lot to develop my business, MPI, and I haven’t been able to focus enough to find a road course ride,” Papis said. “Ideally, I would love to be able to run the three XFINITY Series road course races and the Truck [Series] road course race next year. I’ve tried to achieve my goal, and I’ve finished second, but it is still on my agenda to finish that goal. The word ‘retirement’ does not belong to me.”
Papis has raced his entire life and has been a part of the world’s greatest motorsports events, including two Indianapolis 500s, seven 24 Hours of Le Mans and a Daytona 500. He is proud of his accomplishments and cherishes the memorable moments from his racing career. But he isn’t ready to hang up the helmet.
“Racing has been my life,” Papis said. “But I expect my best memory to be the one that’s going to come.”
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