Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues with Germain Racing's Max Papis, who currently drives in the Camping World Truck Series. Papis spoke with us at Atlanta.
SBN: Who is the most underrated driver in NASCAR?
MP: Besides myself, I would say Joey Logano. I think people still see him like a young kid, and they have a hard time distancing him from the image of the happy-go-lucky, 18-year-old kid. But he's been able to transform himself.
SBN: What's a race in your career that you didn't win and still bugs you because you didn't?
MP: (Closes eyes for a moment) Oh yeah. That's really clear: Leading the 1999 Michigan 500 in Champ Car. I came down to the last corner of the last lap and ran out of gas.
That was actually the beginning of my love and hate with superspeedways. I felt like I could have been crowned the king of the superspeedways, but I always kind of finished second or third. I led a lot of laps on superspeedways, but I never won one. And I really felt I was the guy that could have won four or five of those.
So at Michigan in 1999, I would have given my right nut to win my first race in America on an oval and in a 500-mile race.
SBN: If you could be on a four-car Sprint Cup Series team and pick three other guys to be your teammates, who would you pick?
MP: I would definitely pick (World Rally Car driver) Sebastian Loeb, because I think a guy with his level of talent and improvisation would be awesome. The only bad thing is that he's French. But I think I could get past that.
Obviously, the team leader would be Jimmie Johnson – five-time. Because he knows his shit.
And (MotoGP rider) Valentino Rossi, because he has the personality and the ability to be a champion in anything he does.
SBN: So you think Rossi could make the transition to NASCAR successfully?
MP: Oh yeah. I really think a guy like Valentino or a guy like Sebastian Loeb have a far better chance than any open-wheel guy, because they have the level of control and ability to improvise, and that's what you need in NASCAR.
SBN: What driver did you want to emulate when you were growing up?
MP: I always had two people who were my heroes. Obviously, Ayrton Senna because he was like my big brother more than my hero. And when you're 12 years old and you go see Monaco Formula One, and you idolize him and he's a friend of yours and treats you like a younger brother, it's tough not to want to be like him.
The other guy that I admire more than anything is Mario Andretti. Because Mario, for me, is what a driver should be: Tough, straight to the point and someone who doesn't say no to driving a midget on Friday, an IndyCar on Saturday and a Cup car on Sunday. I really think a race car driver should be someone like that, because if you're a good race car driver, you shouldn't be afraid to put your name on the line doing anything.
SBN: What's a memorable post-race escape you've made from a track?
MP: First of all, you're very much right. When I ran my first race in NASCAR, I came back over here (to the hauler), changed and came out and I was the last one standing. I realized right away, 'Shit. Things here are kind of different.'
The most memorable one was coming out of Pocono and following Jimmie Johnson, because he was going to give me a ride back to Charlotte. Somehow, I got distracted and they cut the line off. I had to be on my own, explaining to the police people why I had to follow that guy. You know, it's like, 'That's Jimmie Johnson. Who are you?' I'm saying, 'I'm a friend of Jimmie. I know you don't believe me with this accent.' They still let me go through and I made it to the airport, but it took me a long time.
The second most memorable was riding my Harley Davidson with (wife) Tati going to the Homestead-Miami Speedway. There was a police escort and I jumped right behind the police escort and I rolled with them for like 20 miles all the way down there. I think they had Edsel Ford. We rolled all the way down to Homestead and arrived right in front of the gate, and suddenly four police people block me, came and stopped me.
I gave them my driver's license. They wanted Tati's driver's license, too – and thank God her driver's license said 'Fittipaldi.' It was Miami and they knew who that was – because they had no idea who I was, obviously. I had to take them inside the garage to make them understand I (belonged) there for real.
SBN: So they were pissed you followed them down there?
MP: Oh yeah. Because I followed them for 20 miles, and they kept motioning and telling me to go away, go away. And I kept riding with them.
SBN: Who is somebody famous you'd like to meet who you haven't met yet?
MP: I know this isn't possible now, but I always dreamed of having dinner with Enzo Ferrari. And I know that cannot happen, but I really dream about that. You know, I'm fortunate enough to know his son, Piero. Sometimes, when we go to the Cavallino to have lunch or dinner with them, I always wonder how it would be to have his father there by his side.
And I would love to be able to the Vatican and sit down with the Pope, one-on-one, and ask him what he really thinks about using the condom.
SBN: Wow! I didn't see that one coming.
MP: (Laughs as wife Tati covers her face) It's true, Tati! I'm sure inside of him he knows that's wrong what he's saying.
SBN: Yeah, maybe...
MP: Not him using the condom, obviously. But I mean how he always says you can't use it.
SBN: I knew what you meant. Anyway, if you could either win five Truck races but not win the championship or win the title but not win any races, which would you rather have?
MP: Oh, no doubt: I would like to win races. That's for sure. I don't want to be the guy who wins the championship without winning (a race). And I would want to win Daytona, Darlington, Martinsville, Bristol and have the bragging rights of winning Charlotte. That way I could invite my friends and say, 'You know what? I kicked ass.'
SBN: Where does your motivation to win come from?
MP: I feel my drive to win is because of all the effort of all the people – starting from my father, my mechanic, my family. Like I feel that I'm not alone. I know some people don't care about anybody else around them but themselves – they're selfish and they want to win for themselves. But I feel my success would be the success of people that have been helping me for the last 20 years.
That's why I don't give up. And I know my success would be the success of people even like Jimmie Johnson; it would be a win for a lot of people who believe in me and haven't had the chance yet to see me in the winner's circle.
SBN: How much does your personality change from sitting here talking to when you're inside the car?
Tati Papis: Would you like me to answer that? (Laughs)
SBN: Yes, I'd love you to!
MP: I am quite different. I feel that when I'm outside the race car, I really enjoy every second of my sport, like if I would be a race fan. I don't know why, but I have it inside of me that I love cars. I love seeing them put together, I love the teamwork. And I really do love it. It's not that I fake it. I like to be there, I like to learn about everything.
But you know, people say all the time, 'You're Smiling Max, you're not Mad Max.' And I say, 'You need to take a picture of when I'm in the car. I'm not smiling.' I'm really serious, I'm very focused. I am as far as you can get from the happy-go-lucky guy that I am outside the car.
SBN: Let's say you can switch lives with an athlete from a different sport. Who would you want to be?
MP: I like my life, obviously. But if I had to choose, there are two people I'd like to be.
First of all, I'd like to be like Lance Armstrong. When it counts (in cycling), it's your body and your ability and your determination. And the other guy I really like is Roger Federer. He's been out there and winning for many years and is proving to everyone that age sometimes is good – it doesn't mean retirement.
SBN: If you could take a year off from NASCAR and go do whatever you wanted, then come back knowing you had a ride guaranteed, would you ever want to do that?
MP: If the question is right now at this stage of my career, then no, I'm not ready to do that. But if I would have already won one or two races, I would say I wouldn't mind to take one year off.
I'd be a better father, spend a little bit more time with my kids and give back to them all they're sometimes not getting because I am just too busy being a race car driver. If now maybe they get 50 percent of a father and 50 percent of a race car driver, they deserve to have 100 percent father. And that's the main reason why I would do it.
Tati Papis: Aww. You make me cry, Max.
SBN: When you eventually retire someday, what do you want your retirement story to say about you?
MP: I want to be remembered as a badass. I want to be remembered like a guy who enjoyed what he did, but was respected for how hard he worked. That would be the biggest gratification I could get.
SBN: Let's say you're going to win the championship. Would you rather have it wrapped up after Phoenix or win it off Turn 4 of the last lap at Homestead?
MP: I would like to win it passing Kyle Busch on the last lap, passing him on the outside through Turn 4, going down the frontstretch and then spinning across the finish line in reverse. (Grins)