During his two decades as one of Top Fuel's most successful drivers, Joe Amato wasn't the flashiest driver in the pits and he was seldom outspoken or controversial, but he did have an uncanny knack for finding the winner's circle.
From his early days in the Pro Comp class through his record five NHRA Winston Top Fuel championships, the affable and popular Pennsylvania businessman seemingly won at will. In addition to his five Winston titles, Amato's résumé includes 52 victories in Top Fuel and another five behind the wheel of an alcohol-fueled dragster.
A longtime fan favorite due to his easygoing nature and willingness to interact with the public, Amato competed in 99 final rounds in Top Fuel and won the Budweiser Shootout at Pomona a record six times. He finished in the top 10 an incredible 19 straight years, from 1982 through his sudden retirement at the end of the 2000 campaign.
Amato's success on the dragstrip was paralleled by his achievements in the boardroom. As president of Keystone Automotive Warehouse, he became one of the world's largest distributors of high-performance automotive parts and accessories and was able to parlay that status into a number of successful long-term sponsorships. As a result, his racing efforts were never underfinanced.
As were many of the sport's stars, Amato was introduced to drag racing at an early age. He recalled the events that led him to his first event:
"When I was 11, my father sold his deli and opened an auto parts store. Some of the guys who worked for my father would race on weekends, and they would take me with them to the track. I've been hooked on racing ever since. My first car was a '53 Ford. I fiddled with the distributor and worked on the carburetor until the tach would go to 5,000 rpm, a thousand more than when I started."
Five years after his father opened the auto parts store, Amato was faced with a monumental decision, one that would shape both his life and his career. His father was forced to quit working after undergoing open-heart surgery, and several of his employees left the company. At just 16, Amato chose to quit school to run the family business. His father never fully recovered and died four years later, leaving Amato to manage an expanding business that had grown to five stores specializing in speed accessories.
Despite the heavy workload, Amato found time to race, and he soon realized that the more successful he was in racing, the more prosperous his business became. He campaigned a series of moderately successful Alcohol Funny Cars before switching to an Alcohol Dragster in 1979 and scoring his first NHRA national event victory, in Pro Comp at the Gatornationals in Florida. He scored again at the 1980 Le Grandnational-Molson in Canada, and in 1981, Amato enjoyed a breakthrough season, winning three national events.
Buoyed by his success, Amato made the leap to Top Fuel in 1982. He did not reach a final round in his rookie season, but he did manage a respectable sixth-place finish in the points standings. A year later, he won three times and challenged Gary Beck for the Winston title.
At the 1984 Gatornationals, Amato and longtime crew chief Tim Richards debuted a new chassis design that featured a number of major changes, the most obvious of which was a rear wing that was mounted higher and farther back from previous designs. With that car, Amato became the first Top Fuel driver to eclipse the 260-mph mark. He also won three races during the season and captured his first Winston title.
Amato made the sport's first 280-mph run in 1987 and won the Winston championship again in 1988, but arguably his most successful season was 1990, when he won six national events, tying the NHRA record for most Top Fuel dragster victories in one season (since bettered by Gary Scelzi). Amato continued his roll in 1991 and 1992, compiling eight more wins and winning his fourth and fifth Winston titles.
Following a winless 1995 campaign, Amato slipped to 10th in the standings, but with new crew chief Jimmy Prock, he won 18 more titles from 1996 through 2000. In addition, Amato continued to make drag racing history by producing the sport's first 4.5-second pass, 4.595, at the 1996 Western Auto Nationals in Topeka.
Amato never experienced a bad crash in his career, but the thousands of runs he made eventually took their toll on his health. He suffered through chronic back pain in the latter years and decided to call it a career following the 2000 season after a detached retina began to interfere with his vision. Two weeks after undergoing laser eye surgery to correct the problem, Amato was back in the car and back in the winner's circle, in Denver.
"I was sitting in the doctor's office, and he was telling me that I might not drive anymore," Amato said in Denver. "And then I come back from laser eye surgery with holes in my retina and win the race. To me, that is the comeback of my career. Someday, when I sit down and write my memoirs, this weekend is going to be a special chapter in my book."
Amato's final victory as a driver came at the 2000 Keystone Nationals at his home track, Maple Grove Raceway, and in front of a large number of friends and fans. He had planned to host a Last Blast tour in 2001, but the persistent problems with his vision forced him out of the cockpit for good following the season-ending event in Pomona.
"I had a lot of sleepless nights and did a lot of thinking," said Amato. "This decision didn't come easy, but sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do. I've had a great career, and I have a great life with a beautiful wife and a nice son to spend my time with. I have to look back over the last 20 years of what I've done in the sport and judge myself by that. I'm proud of the consistency over the years with different cars and crew chiefs to be able to be a top five driver most of the time."
Upon his retirement, Amato immediately announced plans to become a team owner and
hired rising Federal-Mogul Dragster star Darrell Russell as his driver. It didn't
take long for Amato to get his first taste of success as a team owner; Russell won
the 2001 NHRA season-opening AutoZone Winternationals in Pomona.