Over the past few years, when something wild or controversial happens in a Late Model race at Rockford Speedway in Loves Park, Illinois, it would not be a surprise if Alex Papini was somehow involved in it.
Last Saturday night was another classic finish at the well known quarter-mile, high-banked oval.
Papini was leading on the last lap of the 30-lap feature when Jake Gille got on the inside of Papini in turns one and two. Gille got ahead of Papini and attempted to get in front of him going into turn three. But, Gille turned a little early and clipped Papini enough for Papini to scrape the backstretch wall.
The two went into turn three where Papini drove up to Gille and got him up to the wall enough where Gille lost his momentum allowing Papini to go by and win the race.
Fans had mixed reactions with some cheering and others booing just a tad louder as Papini stopped in victory lane.
“Fans were throwing beer cans and water bottles on the track as I drove by after the checkered flag,” Papini recalled. “They were so loud I could not hear myself talk.”
Back in the pits, Papini and Gille had a good conversation and each went on their way.
“I was laughing over the whole thing with Jake,” said Papini. “He said he knew that when he did what he did, that I was going to get back at him and I did.”
“Yeah, I was a little clear and took it, and he took it back. A little too hard but he did,” Gille remembered. “We are good, I don’t get to worked up on last lap stuff. Especially since nobody tore anything up more than cosmetic. I told him I’m good with racing me the way I race you, just don’t almost wreck us both next time.”
All of this sounds like a typical Saturday night action you would see at your local short track, but why did the fans react the way they did that night?
Was it because they didn’t like seeing two drivers make contact with each other for the win, or did it have to do with who won the race?
The majority will say that it was for who won the race.
Alex Papini is a 25-year-old driver from Machesney Park, Illinois. He grew up around the racetracks in the Midwest watching his father Al Papini.
Alex’s life changed on April 1, 2001. His father was racing at Rockford Speedway that day. During the feature, his father had a massive heart attack and crashed into the wall between turns one and two. Alex lost his father that day, and it made him more eager to be a driver himself.
“I started racing when I was 16-years-old,” recalled Papini. “I was wild and crazy when I started racing, I wanted to win so bad. I did what I had to do and I wasn’t going to take any s—.”
It started a reputation that still lingers with him today. He recognizes that reputation and understands why it’s there.
“This is all I ever wanted to do, and I am so damn passionate about it,” Papini explained. “I have spent every dime on my racing. This is all I have, and this is all I have done. This is my world.”
Since he started racing in 2006, Papini’s aggression has gotten him kicked out of Rockford Speedway, he guesses, about five times in his career. His longest came at the end of the 2011 season that carried over to the start of the 2012 season.
“I know when I did something, it was wrong,” Papini said. “I have a temper; it is something that I got from my dad. I think I have gotten tossed more than he has in his career.”
He will admit that he doesn’t come to the track to make friends; he comes to win each and every time.
“I remember the late Dale Earnhardt saying that it didn’t matter if the fans were booing or cheering, he knew he did something right to cause that reaction,” recalled Papini. “I don’t mind being the bad guy. I am not looking to make friends, I bring my own to the track.”
At the same time he admits that if his father was still here today, his attitude might be a little different.
“I was real close to my dad and he probably looks down at me shaking his head sometimes,” Papini admitted. “He is probably telling me to don’t do as he did, but do what he says sometimes. I would probably act different if he was still here.”
While he maintains the tough guy image, he has made friends at the track. One of those friends understands the meaning of forgiveness and moving forward.
“Until last year, we were actually still close friends and it seemed like we clashed a lot last year,” Jake Gille recalled. “But, it’s a new year and we’ve known each other since we were little kids. So far as racing, the slate kind of gets wiped clean at the beginning of the year. I want to be clear that I don’t agree with most of what happened last year, but it is a new year and so far we are good.”
Papini and Gille had a rough 2014 season amongst the two of them.
“He was super aggressive. We wrecked several times and I even went over and took a swing at him, which wasn’t right either,” Gille said. “When he got kicked out for an incident in the pits, he blamed everyone except himself. He seems to have taken some responsibility for that now, so we will see how this year goes.
“I was brought up in a racing family that if you hold grudges forever, you won’t have any friends on the track and that doesn’t end well.”
Papini understands that he sometimes gets more recognition for the entertainment he brings to the track rather than for the number of victories he has in his career. Over the course of the past two seasons, he has captured 23 feature wins at Rockford.
He is now taking more pride on having great battles on the track with other drivers, and if they are great side-by-side battles with a little banging to the checkered flag, he is proud to be a part of those moments.
He is winning more and more and even won the track championship in 2013, something his father didn’t accomplish at Rockford Speedway.
The stories he wants to share are those close battles, not what he did to get kicked out of the track.
We could be in the middle of watching a driver transition, or we could be watching someone that is worth paying the price of admission to see race in person every time he hits the track.
Only time will tell what type of legacy that Papini will leave behind when his racing career comes to an end at Rockford Speedway.
– Kevin Ramsell, Speed51.com Director of Business/Midwest Editor. Twitter: @KevinRamsell
Photo Credit: Kim Kemperman