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SPORTS WEEKEND | ORANGE COUNTY MOTOR RACING

In Victory, Papis Doesn't Forget His Roots

March 31, 2000|MARTIN HENDERSON

Cal Wells III made a point of being at the podium Sunday, after everyone left to weigh in on Max Papis' emotional first victory in the CART Championship Series at the Grand Prix of Miami.

In some ways, Papis' victory for Bobby Rahal's team was a victory for Wells too.

"I saw him standing there," Papis said of Wells, who hired Papis to drive in 1996 for what is now PPI Motorsports in Rancho Santa Margarita. "I went over, I hugged him and I told him, 'Thanks [for] that day in Michigan when you believed in me and you made me sit in your car and you helped me with this year,' and said, 'You're a part of this.' "

Papis, formerly of Newport Beach, left Wells' team before last season to drive for Rahal, leaving behind Toyota's developmental engine program for a proven Ford racing package.

"We've had some great drivers come through our doors at PPI and he's no exception," Wells said. "Although we couldn't provide him equipment that allowed him to prove his skill, Bobby Rahal has. It was so fantastic to have him prove himself and validate himself to the racing world, to the people that didn't believe that when he was with Toyota."

Among those who didn't believe in Papis was Toyota management in Japan, Wells said, "and I guess he [showed them]."

But Papis' victory also was a testament to Wells' decision in 1996 to hire him after Jeff Krosnoff was killed during a race in Toronto.

"Obviously, we were pressed for time when Jeff was killed, and we had to do something within two weeks," Wells said. "Max obviously turned out to be a fantastic find.

"When he was driving for me, that particular Toyota [engine] wasn't ready [to compete up front]. I think he took a lot of hits that were unfair."

Papis, 30, is one of the series' most emotional drivers and Sunday's race was packed with emotion. It was the first race since the death of driver Greg Moore, Papis' close friend, and it was Papis' first victory in what is essentially a hometown race for the current Miami Beach resident.

Yet, Papis said the moment that stands out wasn't crossing the finish line, driving with arms raised down pit lane, celebrating on the podium, or the realization that after 60 CART races, he finally had his first victory. It was in those few seconds when he passed Paul Tracy 10 laps from the finish.

"I remember that I would have never been able to do that four years ago, without all those miles I've done with PPI, without all those [miles] testing, all those [miles] running in the back of the field, I would have never been able to really have the confidence to do what I did," Papis said.

"That moment for me was just much more than overtaking for the lead. You know, it showed to me that now I have the confidence to do certain things on the ovals that I can do on street and road courses, and this, for me, meant a lot.

"I never would have expected to win my first race on an oval four years ago. Now I made it, and I'm pretty proud of it."

CHAMP CAR

PPI's driver, Cristiano da Matta, started 23rd but finished 12th to earn one point in the champ car series for Wells' team. Oriol Servia, making his debut for Wells, was 19th.

NASCAR

Wells' first-year Winston Cup entry wasn't even in the race over the weekend.

Driver Scott Pruett failed to qualify for Sunday's race in Bristol, Tenn.

Having secured one of the series' premier sponsors, Tide, but having failed to qualify for the starting grid for the second consecutive race and third time in six races, Wells said Tide hasn't dropped the hammer on him.

"They can't even come close to putting the pressure on me that I'm putting on myself," Wells said. "I probably won't be saying that in October if we keep [messing up]."

And, Wells says, it's not all Pruett's fault.

"He's in the car five out of seven days through May," he said. "At Bristol, we had a top 10 qualifying car and he just rode it off [into the wall] during qualifying. In Darlington, his car was a pig. And Rockingham, I don't even count it; he had never even been in the state.

"Realistically, he's been thrown into an element that's tough, and it's going to take a day or two."

ATLANTICS

Alex Gurney had a tough debut driving for the All American Racers team owned by his father, Dan Gurney. Alex, of Newport Beach, didn't finish either of the two races over the weekend in Homestead.

Gurney qualified fourth in the first of two 50-lap races and eighth in the second. But in the first race, Gurney was hit from behind and then tagged in front of his car on the first lap, so he finished last. In the second race, he was running ninth but exited after 30 laps with electrical problems; he finished 22nd out of 24 drivers.

"It's not the way we wanted to start out, but the encouraging thing is we showed some speed qualifying fourth and running quick laps in practice," he said. "It hurts that on a double weekend, we couldn't score any points. I think we'll be strong at every race this year, and try to make up for it from here on out."

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