POMONA, Calif. -- Joe Amato, the most successful driver ever in the National Hot Rod Association's premier Top Fuel class with a record five championships and 52 national wins, announced he will retire from driving following today's Auto Club of Southern California Finals at Pomona Raceway.
Amato, 56, said two laser surgeries in the last five months to repair torn retinas, and the potential of further eye damage, prompted his decision. Amato's doctor has diagnosed that Joe has thin retinas, a hereditary condition, and considers the high G-forces he experiences while racing a contributing risk factor.
Amato said he plans to remain active in NHRA as a Top Fuel team owner and, pending sponsorship, will field a car with a new driver for NHRA's 50th anniversary season in 2001. "My plan was to drive a fan appreciation farewell season in 2001 and try for a sixth Winston Top Fuel championship," explained Amato, of Moosic, Pa. "That was the announcement I was going to make today. However, in the past few days, I realized the smartest and safest thing for me to do is get out of the car now. That was a tough decision to make, but it's the right one for me and my family, my wife Donna and son Seth."
Amato had four tears in the retina of his right eye repaired in late June, causing him to miss the July 9 Winston Showdown in Bristol, Tenn. He won his comeback race, driving the DynoMax/Valvoline/Keystone Automotive dragster to victory in the July 16 Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Colorado.
Soon thereafter, however, Amato required additional surgery to repair a tear in the retina of his left eye. He then won a record 52nd national event Sept. 17 at the Keystone Nationals in Reading, Pa. and currently is fourth in the point standings.
Amato said he began using a different parachute configuration in recent months, which releases some air when it's deployed to help slow the car, thus reducing the G-forces he experiences. Amato admitted, however, he also has started braking before releasing the chute. "I must be completely honest with myself, and pulling the chute late is not a smart or safe thing to do," he said. "I have almost no margin for error and, in some cases, am leaving myself very little room in case something goes wrong."
Amato has competed in the 7,000-horsepower Top Fuel division since 1982 and finished in the top-10 in the point standings every year. He has made 99 final-round appearances, including four this season, and holds numerous NHRA Top Fuel records, including:
Five Top Fuel championships -- 1984, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992 -- more than any other driver. No one else has earned three consecutive Top Fuel titles.
His 52 Top Fuel national victories are the most in history.
The first 4.50-second pass ever in NHRA, with a run of 4.595 seconds in 1996. First NHRA Top Fuel driver to exceed 260 and 280 mph.
Speaking at a news conference, Amato said he had wanted to drive during NHRA's 50th anniversary season, which also will be the start of a new five-year, exclusive agreement for all NHRA national events to be televised on ESPN and ESPN2. "I've been thinking about retiring as a driver for a couple of years," Amato explained. "The timing seems right because so many positive things are happening in NHRA Winston Drag Racing in 2001 and I want to be a part of it. NHRA's 50th birthday is very important because it celebrates how far this sport has come. I've been lucky enough to play a role in that.
"What makes this decision so hard is racing has been my way of life for so long. I'm lucky because I've made so many great friends and have enjoyed the support of so many wonderful fans. I'll always be grateful to the fans, because they helped Joe Amato get to where he is today. I also want to thank the sponsors who have been with me for so long, including Valvoline, Tenneco Automotive and Keystone Automotive Oper ations."
NHRA President Tom Compton commented: "Joe has been a pioneer and friend to the sport of NHRA Winston Drag Racing, not only in terms of the innovation his teams have brought to the sport technically, but as a fan favorite. Next year will truly mean something special here at NHRA as we celebrate our 50th anniversary. We are confident that Joe will maintain a prominent role in NHRA as a car owner well into the next decade."
Amato said he is speaking with potential sponsors, but has not finalized primary sponsorship for 2001, and does not have any specific driver in mind to take his seat. He said further plans will be announced as soon as possible.
Statement from James J. O'Brien, president, The Valvoline Co., regarding Joe Amato:
"As a Joe Amato sponsor and friend since 1984, we're saddened to see Joe retire. At
the same time, we know Joe has already accomplished more than any Top Fuel driver in
NHRA history. We've been associated with some great champions in our long racing
history -- Joe Amato, Foyt, Yarborough, Andretti, Waltrip, Unser, Jeff Gordon, Steve
Kinser, Mark Martin and Muldowney. I can't think of anyone who's competed at such a
high level for so long as Joe Amato. The 3,500 employees of Valvoline, Zerex and
Eagle One have been proud to support Joe Amato over the years and we wish him the
best in the future."