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Explaining that he wanted to "make a difference," NASCAR driver Max Papis announced Thursday he will field a team in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series for fellow Italian Kevin Gilardoni, with hopes of developing the 21-year-old driver to compete in the NASCAR ranks in America soon.
Papis, who has competed in all three NASCAR national series and currently works as a racing and business advisor for Richard Childress Racing driver Austin Dillon, said he will spend a bit more time in Europe to support his new Max Papis Racing operation, but will also keep a large presence stateside working with Dillon.
Gilardoni is expected to come to the team's Mooresville, N.C., headquarters in mid-February to get acquainted with the cars and team members before the Euro Series begins April 12 in Spain. Papis even plans to have the Italian compete in a handful of late model races in the U.S. during down times in the Euro schedule, which will include events at famed facilities such as Germany's Nurburgring as well as Valencia, Spain.
"I would like to create this bridge in order to give opportunities to people that have the same dream I had," Papis told reporters Thursday. "And at the same time obviously doing it with NASCAR, it's a great opportunity. I would have not done it with any other series because obviously I know what's behind the vision of everyone in the NASCAR series."
The NASCAR Whelen Euro Series considers Papis' involvement a "huge step" for the series, with impact immediately and in the future.
"The series has started to grow since it was created in 2009, and our common goal with NASCAR and Whelen Engineering and this team is to bring it to the top level of motorsports in Europe," said NASCAR Whelen Euro Series General Manager Jerome Galpin.
"We also would like, as Max said, to develop the bridge to bring the best European drivers racing NASCAR to the U.S. so definitely I think Max's part of it will be his experience. His knowledge of racing both in Europe and the U.S. will be a huge step forward for us, and especially we're going to build a path for younger drivers."
Gilardoni comes from the same small village of Como, Italy, as Papis. His most recent racing includes eight wins in 26 races en route to the 2012 Italian Formula Renault 2.0 championship. He finished third in the Renault production-based Megane Trophy Eurocup Series last year with a pole and seven podium finishes.
"My dream now is becoming true, so my target is always to do my best, and over time, step by step with Max's advice, I hope to be in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series," Gilardoni said, acknowledging his appreciation for the opportunity. "I think from him I can learn everything to be at the top. Everyone like me and other drivers, we (are) really excited and really upbeat. For me, (this is) very important, and I will do my best to be like (Max).
"And why not be in NASCAR in USA?"
When Papis was asked why a successful driver like himself would want to get involved with the risky ownership side of motorsports, he laughed, then explained earnestly.
"The main reason that drove me to have the team is not actually the desire to be a Hendrick or a Richard Childress," Papis said. "I don't think that you will see me doing that kind of route. But it's been more to be able to give back to the sport and do it in a way, in a series that is affordable, in a series where I can make a difference. ? I look back when I was back in Europe at 15, 16, 17. I had a dream to come and race in America. I didn't know how.
"I want to be the person that a kid like Kevin ? that has a dream of coming and working in America, I get a call and I create a small, humble platform where they can start their dream, and I can use my connection to do that.
"The love for the sport is so big in my heart."
From a business perspective, Papis is encouraged by the more-than-respectable crowd attending the Whelen Euro races during the series' first two years and the excitement it has generated.
Speaking at last year's World Innovation Conference in Cannes, France, NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O'Donnell reiterated the sport's intent and commitment to expanding NASCAR's stock car concept in other countries.
After the Cannes conference, O'Donnell told USA Today that the sanctioning body is seeing progress.
"People see that, and the light goes on that this is a pretty good product and compelling," O'Donnell told the newspaper. "We're trying to sell two things: the competitive nature of the sport and that it reflects what (fans) may be driving on the street."
Papis has seen this firsthand, and that's why he was so willing to up the ante and field a team.
"We planted the seed about three years ago. I was able to, thanks to Joe Gibbs Racing, to bring a Cup car to Monza to do a demonstration, and thanks to NASCAR, as well, they really helped us a lot," Papis said. "We planted the seed, and I really felt that that created a lot of enthusiasm because people are not used to hearing the sound of a V8 engine.
"And the way that the NASCAR Euro Series is approaching the business, it is very fan-friendly. The garage is open. We are basically bringing to Europe all the enthusiasm that has been missing there for a lot of years and the way of doing things in America that are basically fan-friendly. So the excitement has been really big, and that's the reason why I decided to join them right now, because I really feel that the potential of growth is incredible, and I want to be part of it."
Of course for anyone who knows the big-hearted Papis, racing is always about much more than a good business decision. For example, he chose the No. 99 for his team as a tribute to his good friend, the late Greg Moore -- even asking Moore's father for permission to use it.
And judging by Papis' comments this week, the ability to give back and to provide this opportunity to another young driver is the prevailing motivating factor.
"The love for the sport and the love for my family are the two biggest things that fill my dreams and fill my life every day," Papis said.
Kevin Gilardoni will drive the No. 99 for Max Papis Racing. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Gilardoni)
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