Stewart-Haas Racing announced Tuesday that versatile Max Papis will take over its No. 14 Chevrolet for this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, following Tony Stewart’s leg-breaking crash in a sprint car race earlier this week. The IndyCar, F1, sports car and NASCAR racer has 35 career Sprint Cup starts, and scored his career best finish of eighth at the Glen in 2009. His most recent NASCAR start was in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series at Tours Speedway in France, where he finished second on July 6.
Wednesday, he and Greg Zipadelli, Competition Director for Stewart-Haas Racing, met the media to discuss his debut with the team.
Q: Greg, walk us through how you selected Max to drive this weekend.
GREG ZIPADELLI: Max and I have worked together in the past when I was at JGR with Joey (Logano). He helped us and went to Road Atlanta test with us and helped, and then Steve Addington and the 14 car wanted to do a Road Atlanta test about two weeks ago, and we reached out to Max, and he was able to do it. Tony had some commitments and was going to come down the second day.
They had the car that we’re racing, the primary car at Road Atlanta. We tested it with Max. He did a really good job. Steve felt like he had a good relationship with Max. They communicated well. So in all honesty it was a perfect shoo-in for us, because as I said, we had been working together recently. There was also a little dialogue between Steve and Max. I’ve had a relationship with Max for a while now, so we just felt like it was our best bet to be able to communicate well over the weekend and get the most out of the car that we could.
Q: Max, what were your first impressions of Stewart-Haas Racing as you tested with the team back on July 30 at Road Atlanta?
MAX PAPIS: Yeah, first of all, I want to wish Tony a quick recovery. I mean, he had odd circumstances, and it’s never good that something like this is happening. But obviously I was here in Stewart-Haas Racing like a long time ago when I actually raced for Haas Racing in Sonoma, and I was just a part of the test schedule, to go there and help them out, and obviously when the situation with Tony arose, I felt that if they needed my help, I was here and I was available.
I know I have the confidence and the ability to go out there and do the best for them. I called Zippy and I told him if you need my help I am going to be here and available, and I let go and let the Lord take care of everything else.
Q: Zippy, I’m just wondering, you guys have just basically talked about this weekend. Is there any way to talk about what you’re expecting beyond this weekend? Are you thinking that Tony could come back any time soon? Is this going to be something that takes weeks or months, or what’s a general timeline?
GREG ZIPADELLI: Well, I don’t think we have a timeline right now. I think Tony has one more surgery that needs to be addressed. I think at that time in the next 24 to 48 hours we will have a much better idea of exactly what the healing process will be and will be able to do a better job of is it six weeks or is it longer? Honestly, we really do not have an answer for that right now. As soon as we do, we will try and do a good job of keeping everybody updated of what it looks like.
As far as next week and on, we’ve got a few candidates and we’re talking to a few people. We’ve got a lot of people that have obviously reached out. We’re not sure if we can put one person in until Tony gets back or we’re going to have to do multiple people.
Our main priority was this was such short notice, and it was to get Max in here yesterday, get the seat and all the things that we needed to change in this car and get this car headed to Watkins Glen this afternoon, take care of all the stuff that we’re doing now, and then we’ll get behind some closed doors and kind of really decide who will be the best candidate for the 14 car and SHR to try and maintain what we can in owner’s points. That’s all I have for you right now.
Q: But it is something that you’re looking at that’s going to take at least a few weeks?
GREG ZIPADELLI: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s a few weeks, so we need the next two or three weeks lined up, and that’s what we’re going to start working on this afternoon or tomorrow, and as soon as we have something, I promise we’ll do our best to get it out to you. But there’s nothing there now. It’s taken us all day yesterday we were in Atlanta for the tire test, had to wake up pilots, get on a plane yesterday morning, fly home. We didn’t get to the shop until 8:30 by the time we landed. Honestly we were just a little bit behind all day, and Watkins Glen and dealing with our sponsors and making sure that they were all on board and doing everything we can to make the best of a bad situation. So like I said, as soon as we get done with this, we’ll start working on the next few weeks.
Q: There’s been so much speculation: What is your position on Tony racing in all these extracurricular things?
GREG ZIPADELLI: Hey, it’s a tough one. We all know that. We all know Tony loves to do those races. We know that that’s his golf game, that’s his hunting, his fishing, all the things that the rest of us do. You know, there is a difference in the amount of responsibility we have and obligations to other people, and that’s where I think that’s kind of where it gets sticky.
I think it makes him better at what he does here, but it obviously leaves the door open for a situation that we’re in now. I think that as many races as he’s run in the past, we’re probably lucky that this is the first time we’re dealing with this to be perfectly honest with you. You know, we’ll do our best at Stewart-Haas to put pieces together and sit down and evaluate it. I would be a lot easier to look at and talk about things right now because we’re in the situation that we’re in moving forward.
That doesn’t mean anything other than we will talk about it, we’ll discuss it and we’ll try and do what’s best for Stewart-Haas and our partners in the future.
Q: As far as I can recall, a shoulder injury in 2006 in the Cup car is the only injury I can recall. How are you guys dealing with this? What’s the morale? And what was your reaction, because I can’t recall any other injury? Were you surprised? What’s everybody feeling? What are you thinking? And is this a discussion that you guys will have with him going forward?
GREG ZIPADELLI: Well, yes. I mean, obviously I was in a hotel room in Atlanta when I got the call. We always get updates. He texts me every night after a heat race, qualifying; doesn’t matter what time it is or what’s going on. And when my phone went off, it wasn’t a text or the call that I had expected. Honestly, like I said, he’s run so many of these races and flipped in those things. I think me and him and everybody around us didn’t think Superman could get hurt. This is his day.
As far as morale, everybody at Stewart-Haas, all of our partners have been extremely, extremely positive, supporting in all the things that we need to do to keep racing, and hopefully, like I said, we’re certainly wishing him a speedy recovery.
Q: Zippy, obviously as someone who has worked with Tony for a long time, this possibility probably always existed even when you were a crew chief, and I just wondered how the team handled it. I’m sure even people at SHR are familiar with what Tony does in his spare time, but how has it affected the people on the 14 team?
GREG ZIPADELLI: Well, I mean, let’s face it, first and foremost everybody is worried about Smoke and how soon is he going to be back. He’s a crucial part of Stewart-Haas Racing. I mean, he’s the man. Everybody, I think, right now has pulled together and doing whatever it takes to get this car to Watkins Glen and have the best day that we can there, and we’ll kind of take it week by week.
I think it’s real early to say to you anything other than that because that’s truly the atmosphere and the situation that we’re dealing with here. I think will people be frustrated, will people be disappointed down the road and things of that nature? I don’t know, hopefully we’ll do a good job of encouraging them and going to the racetrack and having good runs, and we’ll make the best of the situation.
Everybody here is disappointed because Tony is not in the car this weekend, and we’re all, like I said, wishing him a speedy recovery. I hate to be so generic, but in all honesty that’s just really where we’re at right now, you know?
Q: Max, I know this was short notice, but you did test the car. Would you consider this one of the best opportunities you will have to collect a win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series?
MAX PAPIS: Obviously it was a very short notice, but as I always say, if things are written, they are written, and in one way the things I’m the most proud of is that through the years, when I sat in the NASCAR car for the first time in Daytona in 1996, I’m sure none of you guys and even me would have ever imagined an Italian guy could have been sitting in a car. Now I have this opportunity, I’m going to do the best I can.
Obviously I’m not going to go out there to run 20th or 25th. I’m going to go out there to make everyone proud and do the best job I can, and I know that my best job is pretty good. I have confidence in what I can do, and I have confidence, as well, that my personality and my spirit, it’s something good for this team.
Like in circumstances like this, I believe that the joy that I bring in my heart and I joy that I have for the sport hopefully is going to bring up the morale of everyone in the organization, and obviously if we add this to a good result it would be even better.
Racecar drivers are athletes, so you can’t cut the wing of us in a way. You can get hurt walking on the street or doing something like that, and we are good in what we do, and Stewart is good at what he does because he is Stewart. He’s a guy that is one of the unique guys that can go and drive anything.
I think at the end of the day, you can make out of this like big things or you can make out of this like something that happened and could have happened in your garage or driving out of the street or hurting yourself walking out here. It’s just a matter of a situation.
The things that I enjoy to watch here in this organization is how fast everyone reacted and how decisions were made and intelligent decisions were made, and I think this proves the spirit of doing things right is all around here.
Q: You sort of touched on this, but I was wondering going into this weekend’s race, what are your expectations from a competitive standpoint as far as what you hope to accomplish, and what’s the team’s expectations of you to do, and are they different in any way? In other words, are you going to go out there and obviously you hope to win, and is the team saying, look, we just want a good finish out of here?
MAX PAPIS: How I look at this, and I told Zippy this yesterday, as well: I’m 42 years old. I’m proud of what I’ve done so far in my career. I don’t look at this like a career-changing, I look at this like an amazing opportunity in a terrible circumstances, and that’s it. I’m just going to go out there and enjoy every lap I have, enjoy every second I have with the guys, and keep that seat warm for Smoke until he’s going to come back. And who knows, maybe in the future we’re going to have some laughs to share about what I did in this car or anything. You never know.
I think that things are written, and I believe that sometimes if you push for opportunities, they don’t come, and sometimes things come because of [other] reasons. There are hundreds of guys out there that can drive this car, but I always say it’s not about the money you make, it’s not about anything that you do, but it’s about the story you write. And I guess that so far I’ve been writing a pretty decent story to get a call from Stewart-Haas Racing.
Q: Have you spoken to Tony at all?
MAX PAPIS: No, I didn’t talk to Tony. I sent him an email when I was testing his car telling him that his lap belt fit me, so it was actually funny stuff. I don’t tell you the answer…
I only talked to the crew chief and Zippy. Obviously it was very short notice. I was going to go and do an appearance yesterday. I turned my truck around with my kids in, and I came over here to work on the seat. Again, it’s doing the best out of difficult circumstances.
Q: Do you know the exact location of Tony’s fracture? How high it was above the ankle?
GREG ZIPADELLI: I don’t know exactly where it is. It is above the ankle, below the knee. I hate to be so generic about where it was. A lot of the particulars and things, like I said, Tony is still in Iowa, and I talk to him. We get reports. He’s doing OK. It’ll be another, like I said, 24 to 48 hours before we have all the details.
MAX PAPIS: The thing he told me is he’s going to be able to have kids in the future, so that’s no problem!
Q: Greg, you just said that you had talked to Tony. How are his spirits, and has he told you that he’s ready to get in a sprint car again so don’t ask him not to do it?
GREG ZIPADELLI: I didn’t give him the opportunity to tell me he’s ready to get in. I told him to hurry up and get his butt down here because I was going to break his other leg, like some of my ancestors used to do, old school, and maybe beat him with it, jokingly. But he’s in good spirits, a lot of pain, trying to get comfortable, but overall he’s obviously worried about what everybody thought and apologetic and feels like he’s letting everybody down here. At the end of the day the reason we’re all here is because of him, so I know he’ll get back in it and make it up to us.
Q: I assume you were joking when you said that you’d break his other leg, but will you actually sit down and talk to him and discuss whether he should be racing outside events, and will you suggest that he not?
GREG ZIPADELLI: Yeah, I think a lot of that stuff will take care of itself in time here. Most importantly is that he gets healed and gets the proper attention that he needs so that it’s not something that bothers him down the rest of his life and we get him back in this 14 car. What he races down the road, like I said, I think it opens up a lot of discussions, and I think it’s way too early to really get in the middle of any of these details.
Q: I know you can’t answer a lot of questions looking forward, but as Tony talks about being in a racecar, it’s almost like it keeps him mentally straight to be in a car. Can you imagine a Tony Stewart out of a car for a number of weeks, and how will his being out of the car affect what information the team can get or what he provides the other teams at Stewart-Haas?
GREG ZIPADELLI: I think it’s you guys that are afraid of him out of a car and what he’ll be like in a couple of weeks, back hobbling around!
No, I never imagined this. He is old-school, tough, we’ll just deal with it and get the job done to the best of his ability, which is usually pretty darned good.
As a company, like I said, we’ll do our best. We’ll hopefully get him healed up and to the racetrack and being part of this group and team as soon as we can and get him back in the car as soon as he can and keep his thoughts.
As far as what the team is doing and the racecar and all those things, we’ll do our best to keep him in the loop and take the information that he has. Yesterday in between doctors’ visits and this and that, we texted and we talked, and we talked about Max and some other people, and he’s been as big a part of the decisions that have been made here right now as anybody else.
Q: Max, you were slated for the Rolex race at Road America this weekend, and fresh off your first win at Indianapolis a couple weeks ago (LEFT), what was the process of being able to get out of that and take this opportunity and have you talked with your team about their plans this weekend?
MAX PAPIS: That’s a good question. I was ready, and here at Stewart-Haas Racing we had actually everything organized for me to go and run the Grand-Am race there in Elkhart Lake. We had a plane organized and everything. But first of all, I need to say thanks for Remo Ferri Racing. I talked to Remo yesterday. He’s a good friend of mine for many years. And I told him I was going to actually be at the track tomorrow testing, go back to Watkins Glen on Friday and Saturday, and fly back with Boris [Said] or someone back for the race.
But he told me that he felt that it would have been a better thing for me to stay focused and help Stewart-Haas Racing in this great opportunity for me and in this difficult circumstances.
In one way I was a little sad because I feel that I’m an old-style guy. I feel like there are only a few left, like Stewart, like me, like maybe Mario Andretti, where you go and drive a Sprint Cup car, you go and drive a sports car, you go and drive a midget the day after, and that’s a little different. So I’m sad I’m not going to be there, but I want to thank them for the opportunity and that they are going to let me stay focused on this and helping Stewart-Haas Racing.
I guess that I need to find myself something to do in the afternoon of Saturday because when the qualifying is finished, maybe there’s not going to be much to do. I might just maybe go and watch the Grand-Am race on TV or something like that!