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CART'S MARLBORO 500 / CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY

Papis Is Coming On as the Next Zanardi

Newcomer: Rahal's successor appears ready to achieve stardom and take his new driving team to "the next level."

October 28, 1998|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Max Papis grew up in Italy and knew only a few things about American auto racing--the Indianapolis 500, Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Bobby Rahal--when he came to the United States in 1996.

So when "Mr. Rahal," retiring as a driver but continuing as an owner, asked Papis to replace him in the car, the decision was a no-brainer.

Papis agreed, nabbing the ride some more successful drivers could not.

Papis had never finished higher than eighth in a champ car race. But Rahal was convinced that Papis had maximized the performance of the Toyota-powered car of Cal Wells III and Frank Arciero.

"If he drives three-quarters as hard as he does now, he's going to be able to win races," Rahal said. "I don't think he leaves anything on the table where he's at right now. I think it's all there at the end of the race. I think he has the potential to be a Zanardi. I do."

Alex Zanardi, another Italian driver who will race Formula One in 1999, ran away with the CART FedEx Championship Series title.

Along with Bryan Herta, Papis has been entrusted to help lift Team Rahal to "the next level," Rahal said, to the success Zanardi and Jimmy Vasser have piled up for Chip Ganassi's team, which has dominated for three seasons.

But this week's Marlboro 500 brings a twinge of the bittersweet in the Arciero-Wells camp.

It will be Papis' last race for Wells, who released Papis from his contract to drive for Rahal because it was "a great opportunity." But in doing so, he released the driver who helped Arciero-Wells get past its darkest days.

Papis joined the team a few weeks after rookie Jeff Krosnoff was killed in the 1996 Toronto race.

"We had huge shoes to fill," Wells said. "The team needed a driver who would continue Jeff's passion and commitment to his craft in the same uncompromising fashion Jeff did. We knew we could not replace Jeff, but we needed someone who would understand and emulate his mantra, 'Stay hungry.' Max has given that to us in and out of the car."

Papis, 29, still remembers sitting in the No. 25 Reynard chassis for the first time and feeling the spirit of Krosnoff.

"It was very difficult," Papis said. "The first time I sat in the car, I thought about Jeff, and now Jeff is not driving, he is not here.

"It felt like someone else's car. The car was not mine. The car was Jeff's."

Papis finished ninth in his second race, at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. Only then did the car feel like his.

"It was the first time PPI [Wells' Precision Preparation Inc.) had finished in the points, and I could see in the eyes of Cal that I belonged there, that I belonged to that family, I was not just a guest," Papis said. "It made me very proud, and it still makes me very proud every time I get out of the car and see the eyes of all the people--like in Houston."

Papis finished fifth in the rain-washed streets of the Grand Prix of Houston earlier this month. Only Zanardi posted a faster racing lap time.

"I won the race," Papis says. "For me, that was a victory."

Rahal won't argue.

"If you were to handicap that race, he probably did win it," Rahal said.

Papis, driving the less powerful Toyota engine, trailed four Hondas to the checkered flag. He was interviewed for national television minutes later and asked about joining Team Rahal. "Let me enjoy this moment," Papis answered emotionally. "I am so proud right now and happy for my guys. I wish them all the luck in the world."

Papis is passionate, sensitive and leery of setting limits on his goals. He counts "being too nice" as one of his weaknesses. He is driven not by talking a good game, but by driving one.

Papis has earned points by finishing in the top 12 in seven of the last 10 races. He is 21st in the standings but only four drivers have finished more races and only 10 have completed more laps. .

Papis says his recent success has come from straddling speed's line of demarcation.

"There's a fine line between being stupid and not being," he said. "I made a couple of mistakes, like when I crashed in St. Louis. I over-evaluated my potential."

Two races later, Papis won the provisional pole at Detroit. Three races later, he began his string of point-earning finishes.

Rahal is impressed.

"The thing that Max brings to a team is charisma," Rahal said. "Forget talent, because that's obvious, but there's charisma. Charismatic people drive things to a higher level through force of will. They're not afraid to take a stand, and I like that about him."

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