INDIANAPOLIS – On his weekend off from serving as a Verizon IndyCar Series race steward, Max Papis atoned for a previous sin by winning a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
A Sportscar Vintage Racing Association victory with teammate Curt Vogt in the B class of Saturday’s Indy Legends Charity Vintage Pro-Am was particularly gratifying considering all the grief Papis has received for ignoring a black flag in last year’s Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational main event.
“This time, I told the guys in the control room, I’m color blind,” Papis joked after he and Vogt drove a 1970 Ford Boss 302 to victory.
The day before the race, the 47-year-old Italian came clean on what happened in last year’s SVRA event at IMS.
“I’m going to be in the highlight of the driver meeting because, for whatever reason, I didn’t see the black flag for like 14 laps in a row,” he said. “Honestly, the first five laps, I didn’t know it was my car number or if it was (Paul Tracy). I eventually said, ‘It must be me.’ I just disobeyed because I wanted to be a highlight in the driver meeting. (Laughs.)”
Papis, hired last year as an INDYCAR race steward, soon became aware he wasn’t going to hear the end of it about his disqualification.
“The guy who gave me the penalty is the guy who reviews the video with us,” he said. “So I have to hear it from that guy and from the people I work with in INDYCAR all year long about not stopping for the black flag. In the beginning, I kept lying. I said I didn’t see it. Then I just told the truth. I just didn’t want to stop.”
If confessions are indeed good for the soul, Papis offered another about his driving days, which included racing in Indy cars, Formula One and NASCAR. Although he has such extensive experience, which includes a decade in CART and the Verizon IndyCar Series with three wins, the two-time Indianapolis 500 starter admitted his ignorance about the rules when he was competing.
“Have I learned something? Yes,” he said. “I learned being out there as a race steward that I didn’t even know about the rulebook when I raced. I never read it. At times, I would get upset when someone would say, ‘Didn’t you read the rulebook?’ I’d think about it and say, ‘I’ve never read the rulebook in my life.’
“I’m trying to remember all the stuff I didn’t do when I was racing so that I can kind of understand the driver a little bit better. It’s a good mix in terms of what I do with INDYCAR and the relationship I have with the driver. So far, the only guy who has called me multiple times bad words is my friend Tony Kanaan at Detroit.”
His informed understanding of these rules, Papis suggests, has fostered a constructive, give-and-take relationship with today’s drivers. Papis is a steward with two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk and chief steward Dan Davis.
“I cut some slack to my friends and competitors when they don’t know exactly,” Papis said. “I know because I didn’t know either. It’s my job of going to them and to tell them that if something happens, this will be the consequence. I really feel like this is why I’m extremely welcomed in the community because I don’t just have a rulebook in my hand and say that’s how it has to be done. I remind my fellow competitors of stuff that I didn’t know when I was out there racing myself.
“We’re very impartial in how we go about the business. We feel like Arie and me, we’re coaches of all the guys there. My phone and myself, I’m always welcome to any comments. We obviously have our own point of view. I feel like we have a very open relationship with the driver. Although at times we’ve got to be harsh with them, they understand when they go over the line. We haven’t created that. We’re just implementing the rules.”
Papis holds the Indy car record for winning a road- or street-course race from the furthest starting spot — 25th at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 2001. His successful sports car resume includes winning the Grand Am Rolex Series championship (2004), the Rolex 24 At Daytona (2000, 2002) and 12 Hours of Sebring (2004, 2007). He’s also started the 24 Hours of Le Mans seven times.
After showing he can still drive, he said with a smile, “I’m not retired. I’m between sponsors.”
And he’s also actively pitching the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational as a fun event.
Papis excited SVRA founder/president Tony Parella by saying he’s talked his famous father-in-law, Emerson Fittipaldi, into participating in the IMS race next year. Fittipaldi won the Indianapolis 500 twice as well as two Formula One championships.
“Unfortunately, he’s in Brazil,” Papis said of Fittipaldi. “But he told me he’s going to come over here next year, he’s going to clear his schedule. I really think he’s going to be here next year.”
While still known as “Mad Max” when behind the wheel — Willy T. Ribbs mentioned the nickname in describing how aggressive Papis was driving in practice — Papis reiterated how much he enjoys being a level-headed race steward.
“I’ve really liked joining Jay Frye (INDYCAR president of competition and operations) and his team, being one of the stewards with Arie Luyendyk and Dan Davis,” Papis said. “I really feel like we’ve made a big difference within the sport on creating some guidelines and giving some consistency.
“It’s something that’s been helping me as well when I drive, like here at Indianapolis. I kind of understand better what’s happening up there in the control room. I’m proud to be part of INDYCAR officiating and helping the sport back.”
Papis returns to INDYCAR Race Control as a steward this week for the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America. The race airs live at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.