Max Papis isn't driving on Bridgestone tires as much as he is driving on pins and needles. With only one Lola chassis at his disposal, and unable to take the kind of risks that one might expect of "Mad Max," Papis has been one of the more amazing stories in the CART FedEx Series.
The defending champion at the 20th Grand Prix of Monterey featuring the Shell 300, Papis is tied with Paul Tracy for third place in the standings among Championship Auto Racing Teams drivers. Through four of 20 races, he is 10 points behind first-place Michel Jordain Jr., despite being more than four months removed from his only day of testing this season--a half-day, at that--and driving a 2001 chassis affectionately called Old Faithful.
Papis will start 17th among 19 drivers on the grid today at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. (He won last year starting 25th among 26.) Toyota-powered Lolas took the top three qualifying spots, with Brazilian drivers taking three of the top four. Cristiano Da Matta averaged 115.970 mph to win his first career pole position, and next to him is Sweden's Kenny Brack, the top qualifier Friday and second best Saturday. Bruno Junquiera was third, and Tony Kanaan fourth in a Honda-Lola. Da Matta was fined $10,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct for failing to get his car off the racing line after his engine let loose late in the session, hindering other lap times.
Tom Wieringa, the Sigma Autosport team owner who fielded a car driven by Oriol Servia last season, is happy with Papis, the only driver in the field with a blank sidepod.
"More and more people are calling us the little engine that could," Wieringa said. "We had a mechanical failure in Motegi [Japan] or we could be leading the championship."
There might be help on the horizon. Sunoco, the petroleum company, announced Saturday it will be an associate sponsor the rest of the season, and Wieringa said he might soon have an announcement involving two Fortune 500 companies.