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NHRA: Amato Hopes to Continue Momentum at Visionaire Nationals

14 August 1998

BRAINERD, Minn. -- With eight races remaining in the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series season, Joe Amato is feeling pretty confident. And his sudden burst of warm-fuzzies are there for good reason.

With three victories and two runner-up finishes this season, along with five No. 1 qualifying positions and the reclaimed bragging rights to the title of quickest and fastest Top Fuel dragster on the planet, Amato is a major contender once again for a title he hasn't worn since 1992: Winston champion.

The five-time Winston champion, the circuit's most recent winner at Seattle's Prolong Northwest Nationals, is definitely filling leader Cory McClenathan's rearview mirror. He trails by only 18 points. And at Seattle, Amato's Tenneco dragster pulled away from the McDonald's dragster in the final, giving McClenathan a very good look at his competition from his front window view.

Amato's season plan is working to perfection. He hopes to continue that momentum at the 17th annual VisionAire NorthStar Nationals, Aug. 20-23 at Brainerd International Raceway. The $1.5 million race is the 15th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

One of his keys for a successful season was to have a solid venture through NHRA's demanding three-race West Coast swing. He accomplished that with flying colors, winning at Seattle and making a final round appearance in Denver.

"Obviously, we're really satisfied with the direction of our program," said the Exeter, Pa. resident. "We wanted to do well in the western swing and I think we accomplished that with a win and a runner-up. Last year we weren't as fortunate and lost a lot of ground during those three races. We have the power this year and Jimmy (Prock, crew chief) has done a good job of harnessing it and applying it to all of the different conditions we face at every event. We've really had a lot of flexibility this season in our tune-up. That's made a huge difference in our performance."

The team performed to perfection at the end of the 1997 season, and many drag racing insiders felt 1998 would be a runaway year for Amato's camp. However, a first round loss at the season-opening Chief Auto Parts Winternationals, followed by second round exits at the Gatornationals, Pennzoil Nationals, and FRAM Nationals put the team in a catch-up mode right away.

"We had a lot of high expectations surrounding our program this season because of the way we ended last year," said Amato, who posted one win and two runner-up finishes in the last five races of 1997. "Everyone thought we'd have the car that would come out of the gate really strong. Well, it took us a couple of races to adjust and adapt to the technology. That's just the way racing is.. When technology moves forward, sometimes it forces you to make changes and do things differently. Now we feel like we're in the best position we could be in for the final eight races. At the end, though, we want to be holding on to our sixth Winston championship trophy."

To accomplish his goal, however, he'll have to duel with McClenathan till the end. The match-up is becoming a defining rivalry of the 1998 season. The two are even after four final round battles to date. McClenathan edged Amato at Richmond, Va. and Denver. Amato got revenge at Englishtown, N.J. and most recently, Seattle.

McClenathan has five victories this season, and Amato has much respect for his primary opponent. At the same time, however, he can't totally focus his efforts on McClenathan alone. If he does, defending Winston champion Gary Scelzi, three-time winner Kenny Bernstein or Team Mopar's Mike Dunn are very capable of stealing the championship trophy in the blink of an eye.

"Cory started off really hot, but he's not the only gun out there at this point," Amato said. "There's about six guys who are very capable of making a run at the Winston championship. We're going to keep grinding it out and keep the pedal to the metal and go rounds and hopefully we'll be in the mix when the last few races roll around. That's the plan."

* Amato tough at Brainerd: When Joe Amato's running well at Brainerd International Raceway, it usually means he's right in the thick of the Winston championship battle. With six victories at the Minnesota quarter-mile, Amato is the track's winningest Top Fuel driver.

A look at the statistics reveals even more. If history is any indicator, a final round appearance is a good probability for Amato at the VisionAire NorthStar Nationals. During his five Winston championships, Amato won at BIR in four of those seasons (1984, 1988, 1990 and 1992) and was runner- up the other (1991). The other two times he recorded victories at BIR, he finished second in the Winston standings (1983 and 1989).

* Kalitta back in action: Veteran driver Connie Kalitta will make his return to NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series competition at the VisionAire NorthStar Nationals. Kalitta, 60, temporarily left the seat of his American International Airways dragster last season to devote more time to running his aviation business. The Ypsilanti, Mich. driver is a past winner at Brainerd International Raceway, earning the Top Fuel title there in 1985.

Kalitta will join nephew Doug, winner of the recent Autolite Nationals in Sonoma, Calif., as driver of the team's second entry in the 6,000 horsepower category.