Our weekly series of interviews continues: 12 questions with NASCAR drivers who aren't currently in the top 12 of the Sprint Cup Series. Since the Chase drivers already get plenty of publicity, we thought this would be a good way to get to know some of the non-Chase drivers a little better. This week: Italian-born driver Max Papis of Germain Racing.
What's the best race you ever drove?
MP: I would definitely say Daytona 24 Hours, 1996. It was my first-ever race in America. Nobody even knew what my name was. And when I sat in that car for the last two-and-a-half hours of the Daytona 24, I had a lot of fire. I had a lot of things to prove. A lot of mouths to shut up. What I love about it is when I sat in the car, the announcer had a hard time even saying my name. When I finished, I was definitely on the USA racing map. And that's what made me the most proud. Because I'm a very determined bastard.
Who is the most talented driver in NASCAR?
MP: Mark Martin. Because he's the ultimate racing machine. He never leaves anything unattended. He has the spirit that every 15-year-old young kid needs to have to become someone – and he has it at 50 years old.
If you would ever see how fit that guy is, you would shit your pants. I can tell you he is more fit than 90 percent of the 18-year-old kids I know. The guy is a beast. I just like him a lot. He's the perfect race car driver. He's focused, humble, bad-ass.
If you were to recommend one driver to learn from and one driver not to learn from, who would they be?
MP: (thinks for 30 seconds) Three people to learn from: The resilient, pure bad-ass ability of Jimmie Johnson; the wisdom of the way Mark Martin addresses the race fans and his crew – especially on the radio – and my determination, the way I am.
I would definitely say don't do it like Brad Keselowski does. What I would say is this: You can do it the way he does if once out of 10 times, you say, "I'm sorry." If you never say "I'm sorry," people will get pissed. That's what I think has got him in trouble.
Nothing wrong with his determination. I'm not saying not to learn from the way he drives and the way he races, but you need to learn to say, "I'm sorry" sometimes. Being able to say "I'm sorry" is part of showing how strong you are.
When is the best time for a fan to approach you for an autograph?
MP: When is not the best time is 10 minutes before qualifying or 15 minutes before sitting in the car, because I have my race game on. [Aside from that time], I'm like one of them. I'm a race fan myself. Kids can come up anytime. Grown-up people? Sometimes, they're going to have to wait in line behind the kids. Because kids are pure. And I kind of feel like I'm a kid. But unfortunately I'm not so pure anymore, because I've been affected by all the shit.
What's something people may not understand about you?
MP: The emotions I carry when I'm outside of the car and my smile and my attitude is because I enjoy every second of my sport. I enjoy every corner, every lap. But something that is really important for the race fans to understand is that being a nice person outside the car doesn't mean that you are someone that anyone can push around when he's on the racetrack. I'm as far as you can think from that smile when I'm in the car.
Something else that is really important is that I really believe you can beat your opposition – you can crush them – still with a smile on your face when you get out of the car. You don't need to hate your opposition to beat them.
The other thing is that I drive my own bus [motorhome]. Not everywhere, but most of the time. I go up to seven hours. Sometimes I have a friend do it. Actually, Jimmie Johnson's father [Gary] is going to drive it to Texas for me. Me and Jimmie, we're like brothers. We've known each other since '95.
What's the worst track on the NASCAR circuit?
MP: Whoever has a favorite track or one you hate is someone that is not psychologically strong enough. You're a race car driver: You don't need to have any preference. Your preference is having your ass sitting in the car. It's a huge mental weakness.
If you ran NASCAR, what's one thing you'd change?
MP: Honestly, not to always talk good about them, but I've been in series where they shit on their own foot. What I like about NASCAR is that it's a dictatorship with ears. What I would say is to throw a road course in the last 10 races. But in terms of how they run it? I have a list like this (extends hands) of things I could say about any other series I've been involved with. But here? There's nothing obvious. That's what I like about the series.
They ask you things. I was shocked last year [when] Brian France, Paul Brooks, all of them sat drivers down and said, "What do you think?" The people that own this, they come and ask us? Even me? "Anything you think we should do different?" And they take notes. Maybe they won't use it all, but at least they have the balls. The dictatorship, but the humbleness of asking – I'm learning a lot from them for my own life.
Outside of NASCAR, who's the driver you most admire?
MP (searches in a stack of books to find one and holds it up, revealing the late Formula One legend Ayrton Senna's name on the cover): He's my mentor. He paid for my career when I was a young kid. He is the reason why I am racing. Ayrton Senna to me was a perfect mix between aggression, humbleness, love for the sport, bad ass.
The other person I really really look up to a lot is Mario Andretti. Because he was one of the few people who had the balls to race a weekend in NASCAR, a weekend in midgets, and that's kind of how I feel I am. I feel I should have been born 30 years ago. I race a Late Model at Hickory, I race the Cup car here, I drove for Ganassi at Daytona [in the Rolex 24]. I'm a racer. I hear all these things about favorite tracks and all that. Bullshit. You're a race-car driver. Jump in and drive it.
How long do you see yourself driving?
MP: Until I won't have the full support of my family. I'm in the best physical shape I've ever been. Mentally, I'm ready, I'm there. I don't see any reason why not to do it. To put an age on it would be completely wrong.
Maybe there will come a time where I can't put my family through all the things I'm putting them through. They are angels, my family. Without the support of my wife, I would never be able to do this. One day, maybe if I realize I am taking way, way too much away from my kids and the passion of the sport goes away, then I'll make a decision.
But right now, the passion for the sport inside my heart is the same as it was when I was 19 years old. I have the same fire. I have butterflies in my stomach thinking about going out there now, driving around in the pace car, learning the track, sitting in the Cup car and go. These are the best lessons I can teach to my family.
Do you have any race-day superstitions or routines?
MP: Superstitions are for losers. Are there some things I do? Yeah: Feed my engine properly. Eat the right food.
If there is one thing that I do when I'm on the grid every weekend, it's look up in the grandstand, look at all the race fans, look around and I just remind myself: 'Man, this is not normal.' I do that almost every weekend. I hug my wife and I say, "Tati – do you see how far we came?" I hope we never lose that.
Who wins the Sprint Cup in 2015?
MP: Five years from now. I think by then, [Juan Pablo] Montoya has already won. That's a good question. Hmm. (pauses for nearly a minute to think) Maybe one of those 16-year-old kids who were racing at Hickory this weekend. I struggle to make predictions. What I would like to say is Montoya first, Mark Martin second, Max Papis third. SBN: Mark Martin will still be racing in five years? MP: You never know. A bad-ass like that?
Would you rather be known as a great person or a great driver?
MP: I want to be known as the guy who kicked ass on the racetrack with a smile on his face – and I think they come hand-in-hand. Definitely, I wouldn't like to be known as, "This guy was an incredible racer but was just one of the worst people ever." I'm working to prove you can win without hating your opposition all the time. I'm not humble enough to say, "I would like to be known as a great person and even if I suck, it's OK." No. I'm too proud to say that. I can't say that, and I'd lie to you if I said that. And I can't lie.