Amato Racing

Introduce

Not surprisingly, there are thousands of drag racing fans who envision NHRA Winston Top Fuel World Champion and All-Star Team member Joe Amato as little more than a sublimely successful quarter-mile competitor. They may admire his prowess behind the wheel– indeed one would be hard pressed to mount an argument to the contrary– but they very likely see him as a one dimensional individual. Such a value judgment would be both hasty and entirely incorrect, for Amato is much, much more than just about the best Top Fuel driver to come down the pike in a long time. He is, by all accounts, one of the most innovative and successful businessmen to have involved himself in the aftermarket industry since . . . well, since the world began hearing how Joe Hrudka took a tiny basement-based endeavor and turned it into a multi-million dollar conglomerate.

Who is Amato?

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While Hrudka’s empire is well known even among the masses, it is men like Amato who have helped that empire grow and expand, for Amato’s Keystone Automotive is one of the largest warehouse distributor setups in the nation. Hard-core race fans have long noted the Keystone name and logo on Joe’s rather lengthy string of colorful and very competitive alcohol-fueled Funny Cars and dragsters; but for those of you who have thought of the operation as merely another speed shop, albeit probably a large and profitable one, let’s set the record straight right now. Keystone Automotive is housed in a series of buildings that total about 325,000 square feet of floor space, and no, that’s not a misprint. Joe and his brother Peter, and two minor partners, Lanny Ross and Jim Chebalo, employ slightly more than 400 people who are wildly enthusiastic about the boss’ successes in racing. The crew mans a stunning 38 incoming WATS lines to handle telephone orders from some 2500 speed and auto parts stores located throughout a 10-state midwest and eastern area. If there’s a part or piece made that’s considered aftermarket, it’s likely that Keystone handles it, as they represent more than 300 different manufacturers of everything from pistons to fender skirts and wheels to windshield tint.

The Success

This massive operation didn’t just spring up overnight. Joe had a retail speed shop business going when he was still a teenager–with his brother’s assistance and guidance. The wholesale and distribution end of the operation has “only’ been going for about a dozen years, but the strides the firm has made are indeed incredible. Still, there is a lot more to Amato than even that. Not only does the man race successfully, and oversee a hugely successful business endeavor, he’s a highly outspoken supporter of both the hyper formance industry and the organization –the Specialty Equipment Market Association–that helps keep the whole thing going. Amato is a past chairman of the group’s membership committee, and for the last two years easily won the highly coveted Ambassador Award, which is presented annually to the individual who collectively recruits the most dues-paying new members each year. Amato is always among SEMA’s top 10 when it comes to signing up new members, and in fact has his whole staff geared towards that goal. A shop owner calling in to place an order is just as likely to be asked if he’s a SEMA member as he is for his shop’s address! More than one SEMA executive has called working with Amato “a pleasure. He’s a real pro in every respect. He’s supportive and anxious for us to achieve our goals.’

How the man finds the time for all of these activities remains somewhat of a mystery, but find it he does. One clue might be the fact that his racing crew, headed by acknowledged expert Tim Richards, is among the most efficient and dedicated in professional racing, regardless of the type of competition one is considering. Assisting Tim are Joe’s father-in-law, Joe Reviello, Jeff Rodgers, and Jim Walsh, brother of the current Top Alcohol World Champ Bill Walsh. Wayne Cannon also flies in to most of the races to help out, and one certainly can’t ignore the contributions made by Joe’s wife of 18 years, Gere. It is her personality that sets the tone for the entire team, as her ready smile, willingness to work, and excellent rapport with the racing media has no doubt created a great deal of good will for Joe.

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Joe turned 41 in June, yet his active drag racing career spans a full quarter century. He started out in a ’53 Ford with flathead motivation, which was soon followed by ever-quicker and faster stockers and modified machines until he graduated to his first Funny Car about 10 years ago. Before he made the big move to Top Fuel four years ago, Joe and Gere raced no less than five alcohol floppers and three Top Alcohol Dragsters. He won five national events in T/AD, and finished in second place in the points standings in 1981, before making the transition to Top Fuel in ’82.

If there is one thing that Amato seems to lack it’s the colorful personality and abrasiveness that have become the hallmarks of some of the sport’s more outrageous individuals. But even mentioning that does the man a disservice. The point is that Joe Amato is a thoughtful professional in every way, and in truth, he’s becoming a much better post-race interview than he was during his early years of fuel competition. He is often so effusive in his praise of Tim Richards and the rest of the crew that his own accomplishments become secondary in nature. Yet the truth is that no matter how much Tim contributes to the team’s success, it is Joe that must cut the lights just right, keep the car running straight and true, and win the races.

That Joe is quick to praise the efforts of Richards should come as no surprise, for it was largely due to his mechanical expertise that Amato became the first man to top 260 miles per hour in the quarter-mile with a wheel-driven vehicle. Almost lost in the race reports which have been published since that first record-shattering performance at the ’84 Gatornationals is the fact that Joe has topped 260 no less than 20 times since then, far more than anyone else. Just as the 5-second elapsed time has become commonplace in both Top Fuel and Funny Car racing, so has the 260-mph speed where Amato is concerned.

Amato created a sensation of sorts when he showed up at that fateful Gatornationals with an outrageously high rear wing on his fueler. And while many were quick to credit the Eldon Rasmussen design with being the key to the 260-mph clocking, there was much more involved. Still, even now Joe readily admits that the wing may very well have been the key, and it remains a permanent fixture on his Al Swindahldesigned and built machine.

The Amato’s Race Car

Amato racing 4When it comes to engine internals, Amato’s race car is pretty much like everyone else’s, but the primary differences may be found in the way in which Tim Richards assembles those engines. Unbeknownst to many fans, Richards had enjoyed considerable success in the sportsman ranks before turning his many talents towards Top Fuel, and that’s probably the key. While many another crew chief does little more than assemble the parts provided by the aftermarket suppliers, Richards carefully measures, checks, and weighs each piece as it arrives at his shop. His engine assembly techniques are nothing short of what the best Super Stock engine builder goes through. Close tolerances, constant checking, a spotless environment, and hours upon hours of care are taken to ensure that the maximum amount of horsepower can be produced with a minimum of failures. Long before twin fuel pumps and dual barrel valves had become commonplace on fuel burners, Richards had designed a sophisticated fuel system for Joe that kept the engine rich enough at high rpm’s to keep it running hard, yet lean enough to produce gobs of usable horsepower. Tim’s solenoid-actuated lean-out system, now marketed by Nitrous Oxide Systems, was just about the first of its type, and is indicative of the kind of thoughtful approach that Richards has brought to every aspect of Amato’s racing operation.

While some track side wags may think that tubing is tubing, the winning drivers who have turned to Chassis Components for their race cars during the last few years could mount a convincing argument to the contrary. Amato’s “Swindahl car’ measures a whopping 260 inches from the front spindles to the rear axles, making it, at more than 21 1/2 feet long, one of the longest fuelers ever built. Were this still the era of push starts, we can think of a couple dozen tracks that Amato would have had a bear of a time turning around at! The wheel and tire combination is Cragar/ Goodyear, with those new 300-mphsafe units up front matched with the stickiest of slicks at the back. The rearend itself is a massive, yet lightweight, Strange/Ford live axle unit equipped with Hurst brakes. In front of the rearend there’s a Lenco 2-speed and then a Hays/glide-type clutch, meaning that Joe just mashes the throttle and hangs on. That, of course, is a wild simplification, but we think you get the idea!

A simple way of achieving success with any fuel burner is to get all eight cylinders firing for the entire run, which means that the key to 260-mph time cards is a sophisticated fuel system. In Amato’s case that means a huge Enderle injector and pump, one of Richards’ solenoid-activated leans-outs, and plenty of blower overdrive. As good as that’s been up to this point, by the time this story reaches print Tim will more than likely have installed a new dual pump, dual barrel valve fuel system on Joe’s dragster. As if Amato didn’t already have enough power, right? Richards utilizes a Mallory magneto to fire the Autolite spark plugs, with the engine being turned over by a set of Deltacell batteries.

Lubrication inside an almost 10-grand rpm Keith Black block is critical, so Richards utilizes Quaker State Racing Oil, Fram filtration, and a Black pump to get the job done. That oil is splashing around Brooks rods, TRW pistons and bearings, and a complete Crane Cams valve train. The valves are also TRW items, with the lightweight tubular headers being Cyclone products. The cylinder heads are from Dart Engineering. The last thing Joe does before he stages the car is to check a complete set of VDO gauges, and just take our word for it, today’s competitive Top Fuel driver does a lot more than just stab and steer. Driving one of these machines is a highly sophisticated endeavor, so checking for the right cylinder head temperature, fuel pressure, and the like is mandatory for success.

Despite the successes Joe has enjoyed in his Top Fuel racing, and despite the colorful appearance of his Bob Gerdes-painted and Glen Weisgerberger-lettered machine, it’s quite likely that this isn’t the car that’s going t carry the coveted Number 1 into 1986. At this point it looks like Don Garlits will take the NHRA points title, a situation Joe vows to correct next year. “I won’t kid you,’ he told us recently. “I don’t loke being second, but you’ve got to learn to take the bad times with the good in drag racing. Losing our championship is just going to make us try all the harder next year.’

Conclusion

It’s evident that every activity Joe Amato engages in is only considered to be a success, at least from his standpoint, if he comes out the winner. He’s proven that in both the business and racing worlds. In fact it wouldn’t surprise us if he became not only the next NHRA Winston World Champion, but the first man to top 270 miles per hour as well.

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