The Road Warrior

We talk Ferrari with F1, IndyCar, NASCAR, prototype and GT racer Max Papis.

The Road Warrior 1
February 26, 2015

As a child, Max Papis (born on October 3, 1969 in Como, Italy) dreamed of racing in Formula 1. At age 12, he started karting and quickly established himself as a winner; he was soon driving on the Italian National Karting Team and competing in the European and World Championships. In his late teens, he moved up to cars, racing in the Italian Formula 3 Championship from 1989 to ’92 and, in ’93 and ’94, Formula 3000. He tested for a couple of Formula 1 teams before landing a race seat with the Arrows Grand Prix team for the 1995 season.

Papis raced in seven Grands Prix that year, his best result being seventh in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. But his time in the aptly named “Piranha Club” of F1 was short, and at the end of his rookie year the 26-year-old driver thought his racing career, his lifelong dream, was over.

Then Ferrari threw him a lifeline, in the form of a 333 SP drive at the 24 Hours of Daytona. That 1996 race, which saw Papis famously dubbed “Mad Max,” opened up a whole new world. He soon moved to America, where he found success in not only in prototypes but in GT racing, IndyCar, Champ Car and NASCAR. Among other victories, he won the 24 Hours of Daytona (2002) and the Grand-Am Championship (2004) and twice scored class wins in the 12 Hours of Sebring (2004, 2007). Throughout it all, he continued to race Prancing Horses.

Papis spoke with FORZA about his love of Ferrari, his long racing career and that famous nickname from his farm in North Carolina.

Tell us a little about your life today.
I live on an 80-acre farm in Statesville, North Carolina with my wife, Tatiana, my two boys—Marco, who is eight, and Matteo, who is five—and lots of animals. Tatiana is the daughter of [1972 F1 World Champion] Emerson Fittipaldi. He is a very lovely person, and it’s a pleasure and an honor to spend time and share stories with a legend of the sport like him. The godfathers of my boys are two of my best friends, [former Champ Car racers] Alex Zanardi and Dario Franchitti. So, motor racing has been a large part of my life and also my family.

How did you come to race with Ferrari?

At the end of 1995, after my not-great Formula 1 experience, I knew that I could not achieve my dream of racing for a top F1 team and I decided that my career was finished. During the ten years of pursuing my goal, I got to know Piero Ferrari and Mario Vecchi, who was a close friend of his. And I got to know Gianpiero Moretti, the owner of Momo.

I was at home in October after the F1 championship was over, and I got a call from Vecchi, who said, “I know you are disappointed but why don’t you go and experience what America is all about?” I had no idea what he was talking about at that moment. He said, “We would like you to go out there and try the Ferrari 333 SP and see if you fit into that kind of racing.”

I took a plane, showed up at Daytona and got to meet Andy Evans, the owner of Scandia Racing. There were two Ferrari teams. One was owned by Evans, the right-hand man of Bill Gates, and the other was owned by Moretti.

Initially I tested for Evans’ team at Daytona, but apparently they didn’t trust me. They said the kid is too young and too fast for endurance racing, he’s going to break our car. So that was that. But Moretti saw me testing and was interested in me, so he called Piero Ferrari and then he called Gian Luigi Buitoni, the president of Ferrari USA, and said, “I want this kid to race with me.” That was basically how my adventure started with Ferrari.

So you agreed to race with Momo in the 1996 Daytona 24 Hours. Was this your first race in America?

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Yes. The first time I showed up at Daytona, it was amazing. The McDonald’s sign was bigger than my entire village in Italy. Every day was a great adventure for me.

When practice started, I put my race suit on and walked to the pits expecting to jump in the car, but I didn’t. I was used to always being in the car, but in sports cars you have teammates. So, for the first session, I went to the car but I didn’t go out. Second session, the same. Then in the night session, I went out and did four laps. That was it.

On race day, I knew the race started at 1 p.m. so I showed up at the track right before the driver introductions at around 12:30. I then watched my car go out and race. It wasn’t until night came that I was put in the car. I figured out later that it was the young guy’s job, back in the ’90s, in a 24-hour race to do the tough part of the racing. At 6:30 a.m., the sun came up and I was in the car; that was the first time I had seen the Daytona track [from inside the car] in daylight. I thought, “Man, this is pretty different.”

Your final stint came in the last hour and a half of the race, when the team was several laps down to the leading Riley & Scott Oldsmobile.

With nothing to lose, they decided to put this young kid back in the car. I drove super hard, basically doing the same speeds as in qualifying. We were down three and a half laps, and I made up two and a half laps on the leader. Then [with 54 minutes left in the race] one of the Lister Storms crashed and went upside down. The yellows came out and stayed out for quite a while.

After the restart, you got back on the lead lap with the Oldsmobile. Then, 20 minutes from the end, you pitted for four new tires.

I had asked the team if there was any speed limit in pit lane and they said no. So I drove down pit lane in fifth gear at 260 km/h (162 mph) because I wanted to make up time. That is why I got the name “Mad Max,” and basically became the reason why they introduced speed limits in pit lanes in U.S. racing.

I passed the leader again [nine minutes from the end] and got back onto the lead lap. The race finished and I was second, in what at that time was the closest ever finish of the Daytona 24 Hours. I got out of the car, and Buitoni and [Ferrari North America marketing director] Giampaolo Letta greeted me and passed me this Motorola cell phone. And who was on the phone? [Luca di] Montezemolo. It was always my dream as an Italian kid to get to talk to the president of Ferrari, and here he was, calling me and congratulating me on a great race.

That success was my business card for racing in America. I went into that race as a totally unknown person in America, and I came out with people knowing my name. That started my whole adventure in America.

Did that drive convince Moretti to sign you for the rest of the season?

I would say that right after Daytona, Moretti thought, “I like this kid, he did a really good job and we need to give him a chance.” It was like a dream coming true for me, and I was being paid a few bucks to go racing. If I finished in the top five Gianpiero gave me a percentage of the prize money.

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This was a big change from having to pay when I was in F1. I was a professional racer when I was 16 in go-karts—from 16 to 19 I was being paid—but after that, in cars, I had to find my own money until Gianpiero decided to take care of me based on my performance.

In 1996 you secured four pole positions, took three wins and finished second in the IMSA Championship.

Yes, and I want to give you a bit of background to my first win for Ferrari at Atlanta. Growing up, it was love and hate with Ferrari. You love it because you are Italian, but you hate it, because if you are not part of it, it takes away all the glamour and you are just a kid trying to make things happen. All the glory always goes to Ferrari. In F1 in Italy they don’t talk about anything much other than Ferrari.

I came to the realization of what it meant and what Ferrari was when I won that first race for them in ’96. I crossed the finish line, and when I got back to the garage I saw the attention of the press and everyone, because of that car, because of that Prancing Horse, more than anything else. I thought, “Okay, now I get it.” Ferrari is an icon and is bigger than the sport.

After that, I put away the feeling of love and hate and kept a feeling of adulation towards the history. That’s what I keep telling all the young kids. They keep complaining about Ferrari stealing their thunder in the press and I say, “Ferrari is an icon.” It’s like Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in the U.S. He’s an icon, like Elvis, you can’t compare yourself. No other car manufacturer, no driver, no series can stand up to what the Ferrari company is.

That season I finished second in the championship with Gianpiero but, honestly, we deserved to win. We arrived in Dallas, which was a street course, and it was so rough for our car. Coming out of one of the corners, there was a huge piece of crash debris which I ran over; that damaged the monocoque of our Ferrari and we couldn’t race. That was a shame, and it cost us the championship. Being so fast and so consistent, and coming from the back to the front a lot of times, made my name in the U.S.

How did you like endurance racing compared to single seaters?

In the beginning I didn’t like it at all; I was pretty selfish, as I grew up being in the car all the time. Then I began to realize how special it was, as you could compare yourself to the other drivers, and learn from them and make yourself better because you could see what they were doing good and not so good. I would say that endurance racing has been the thing that has helped me most in my career. During the 1996 IMSA Championship,

I drove more than I did in my F1 and F3000 seasons combined. I learned the importance of teamwork, of sharing, and at the same time keeping that fire inside of you. You still want to go out there and do the best but do it in a different fashion, without having to hate your teammate and your opposition. It made racing a lot more enjoyable.

You were doing more than just racing with Ferrari, correct?

At that time, I was flying back and forth from Italy. When I was in the U.S., I stayed with Letta in New York. I was helping Ferrari sell their road cars, and I remember we sold an F40 to Ralph Lauren. That was the highlight of my sales ability.

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At what point did you decide to move to America?

At first, I really liked going backwards and forwards to America. I had this really big pride in my heart, going back to Italy, feeling successful and everything. But then it got to the point when I couldn’t get the things done in America that I needed to do. From spending a week in New York with the Ferrari people, it went to two weeks, then three, then four. I was getting worn out through travelling. When I was presented with the opportunity to drive an Indy Car, at the end of 1996, that made my mind up to get a place in the U.S. and really try and make it work for real.

Although you were back in single seaters in ’97, you also drove a 333 SP at Le Mans.

I had a contract to race full-time in IndyCar, but I also really wanted to run at Daytona. I don’t know if Moretti got upset about me signing an IndyCar contract, but he didn’t want me to join him for Daytona. About five weeks before Le Mans, he called me and asked me to join them for the race. I said to tell me when and where.

It was an amazing experience to drive a Ferrari at Le Mans and bring Ferrari to the finish after I don’t know how many years they didn’t finish, and to finish in the top six [sixth overall, third in the LMP class]. It was a huge satisfaction for all of us, especially as we were a small team.

In 1998 you drove a 333 SP at Daytona for Andy Evans, the guy who turned you down in ’96. How did that happen?

I really wanted to join Gianpiero again, but Arie Luyendyk had a sponsorship that helped Moretti close up the budget that he needed, and Luyendyk was one of the best drivers out there. I was a bit upset with Moretti, because I wanted to drive for him again, but looking back I suppose it made good business sense.

At the same time I got a call from Evans saying that he was going to put together the strongest ever lineup for Daytona. Because of my competitive mind, I thought, “Too bad, Moretti, I wanted to drive for you, but now I am going to go out there and beat you.”

We were the class of the field [took pole position], we were absolutely the car to beat, but it was a very different atmosphere. It was not that happy-go-lucky “let’s enjoy the sport” feeling that I had with Momo. There was a lot more politics. My teammate, Yannick Dalmas, was a very political driver and I wasn’t used to that. I liked driving the car but I didn’t enjoy the whole political thing. It brought me back to the F1 mentality that I didn’t enjoy.

I really believe that was the reason we didn’t win the race; there was too much competition from within the team itself. There were a couple of mistakes made by drivers and by the team, and I feel that was the reason why Moretti won—because in spite of us being overall fastest, they had a better group of people in terms of the way they went about racing. That was the difference. I enjoyed the speed we had in the Scandia car but I understood we were beaten because of the team spirit Moretti had built in his team. They were a happy team but very professional at the same time, and he was able to keep everyone under control.

You raced a 333 SP yet again at Daytona in 1999 and finished third?

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Yes, but the two leading [Ferrari] teams [Momo and Scandia] decided not to participate with the 333 any more and so this was with Jim Matthews. He was one of the gentlemen drivers who used to race from time to time with the Momo team. He decided to put a team together, and I called my friend [IndyCar driver] Jimmy Vasser to come over and race, and we had [former F1 driver] Stefan Johansson and the owner of the team.

We dominated the race until three hours to go. Then the right front wheel didn’t get tightened in a pit stop and it flew off. Johansson had to be towed back to the pits and that made the difference between winning and finishing third.

That was the end of my 333 adventure. Despite all the speed, despite all the great runs that we had, personally, I wasn’t able to achieve my dream of winning the Daytona 24 for Ferrari with the 333. We had some great races, we gave everything we had and when you do that, you have nothing to regret.

What was the 333 SP like to drive and how did it compare to, say, an F1 car?

The 333 was maybe the best car I have ever driven in my life. With the 333, you can never forget the sound of that lovely V12 engine in the back. The 333 was a way better car than the Arrows F1 car that I drove in terms of pleasure to drive, but obviously not in terms of absolute performance. It was relatively easy to drive at the limit because it was very well balanced and the V12 engine was very smooth.

This will help you understand. At Mosport in 1996, we drove the 333 around there in 1:08.5. It took Audi coming up there with their winning Le Mans car 12 years later to beat that speed. That’s how far ahead that 1996 car was. [The Audi R10 TDI set a new lap record of 1:04.]

In 2002, in addition to winning Daytona in a Dallara-Judd and competing in CART and in the Indy 500, you raced a Ferrari 550 GTS.

Every year I raced at Daytona and, if I could, sometimes Sebring. I just loved being out there and it was something I really wanted to do. I had this really good relationship with [Gabrielle] Rafanelli, who was the owner of the Olive Garden team.

Rafanelli was the dominant force in Touring Cars and DTM with BMW. It was an extremely respected team, 100-percent Italian and based outside Florence, and then Rafanelli decided to run the Ferrari 550 for a while. It was one of the first experiences for Ferrari in this kind of GT racing after many years. Back then, there were only very few 550s racing and you saw the immense passion for the brand.

One day he decided to call me to drive this 550. I did some testing for them and raced for them at Petit Le Mans [at Road Atlanta]. It was a bit of a shock for me when I showed up. It was the first time

I drove a green Ferrari, and I had never raced something with a roof over my head. The car was super, super hot. It had a brilliant V12 engine that sounded amazing but it was a lot more complicated and difficult to drive than the 333. It was closer to a road car in feeling, with a lot more roll, and it was a lot more specialized to drive this kind of car on the limit. [The 550 finished the race fourth in class.]

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In 2003, you raced a Ferrari 360 GT for JMB Racing at Daytona and finished 14th.

I got to know JMB Racing over the years. [Andrea] Garbagnati, a gentleman driver and part owner of the team, invited me, Emmanuel Collard and a young kid, Augusto Farfus, to go out to Daytona and race with him. Farfus is now a dominant force in DTM. We were extremely competitive in the race, actually leading until we had an electrical issue with the car that set us back. It was a shame.

I am used to driving Daytona in super-fast cars. Obviously the GT was not as fast, so I had plenty of time to think about things going down the straight. After the race, their technical director said he was amazed how calm I was while talking to him on the radio, and I said that was because everything happened really, really slow, so it gave me a lot of time to think about what the car did and to relay that back to the team.

The 360 was very strong and amazingly balanced under braking. The weakness was that, under the series regulations, we had to use the paddle shift and gearbox electronics exactly the same as the road car. This was set up to prevent damage to the gearbox, so there was a slight delay on the upshifts. It was not as fast as a racing sequential gearbox, but the paddle shift was much less physical, maybe 40-percent less, than changing gears by hand. Because we were losing a lot of time through the upshifts, we had to drive the car super hard in the corners and under braking and that made it a big challenge. People looked at the car and asked, “It’s a GT car, isn’t that easy?” No, it wasn’t.

The fans still had the same level of passion for the car, even though it wasn’t at the same level of racing as the 333. People related to the GT car because it was like something they could drive on the road.

Let’s fast forward to 2013 when you raced a Ferrari 458 in Grand-Am and won convincingly at Indianapolis. How special was that?

There hadn’t been much top-level effort by Ferrari until 2013, when I got the opportunity to join them in GT racing. That was with Remo Ferri of Ferri Motorsport in conjunction with AIM Autosport. Basically, Ferri owns most of the Ferrari dealerships in Canada and he started his own team last year to race in GT racing. It’s an amazing story. [You can read more about Ferri and his competition efforts in issue #138’s “GT3-for-all.”—Ed.] I didn’t know until last year that Ferri was the real owner of the 333 SP I drove for Moretti; the team was owned by Moretti, but the car was owned by a collector, and that was Ferri. That was a circle that closed itself.

Anyway, we won at Indianapolis, the most important race of the season. It was an amazing experience. I did the Indy 500 three times for Eddy Cheever Racing and my best finish was 12th place; finally I was able to win a race at Indianapolis and do it for Ferrari. Ferrari didn’t win much that year—we were successful with seconds and thirds—so to win at Indianapolis was special.

The 458 was a very unique car. The road car was too good; the engineering that Ferrari put into this car was so advanced that, to compensate for the Camaro and the BMW M3, we had to race with less horsepower [via an air-inlet restrictor on the engine]. That made it pretty difficult, because we didn’t have a lot of speed down the straight, so we had to brake really, really late and carry a lot of speed though the corners. You couldn’t make up time down the straight, so if you got held up at all in the corners, and in endurance racing you are in traffic most of the time, the lap time suffered. That was the reason we didn’t win as many races as we should have. The balance of performance wasn’t correct.

The 458’s gearbox was amazing, especially compared to the one I had in the 360 ten years before. It shifted faster than anything I could have done with my hand. At Daytona it would easily have been four to six seconds quicker [a lap] than the 360.

How do you view your experiences with Ferrari, and do you have any future plans to race with them?

Being able to have the respect of someone like Piero Ferrari and Montezemolo has been the dream of my career. I have worked very hard and I’m proud to say that I have come a long way from a small village in Italy to have access to, and get to know and be respected by, these gentlemen. I go back to Italy two times a year, and one of the things I always do is to have lunch with Piero Ferrari every time I can. I see him like the father I don’t have any more. He has always been a special person to me inside the sport, and he is just an amazing guy. And now we have [Marco] Mattiacci, who used to be president of Ferrari USA, leading the F1 organization. It makes it even more special to go back there and share some stories as the Italian guy who represented them in the U.S. [Mattiacci has since been replaced by Maurizio Arrivabene.—Ed.]

I am a professional racing driver and I continue to pursue opportunities in my sport. A lot of my opportunities came with Ferrari and that means there is a mutual attraction there. I would still love to win a Daytona 24 Hours for Ferrari.

Finally, do you mind being called “Mad Max”?

I like it. It explains the intensity of my personality. I am a very intense person and when I do things I do them to the best of my ability. In Europe maybe this nickname would not have made a difference, but here in the U.S. it really helped me and separated me from the rest of the drivers. When I go to the track, people still call out “Mad Max, Mad Max.” I explain that “Mad” doesn’t mean I’m upset or crazy; it comes from me driving in pit lane at Daytona in 1996 at 260 km/h. I am a peace-loving guy but I am a tough guy. When people race with me, they have respect.

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