Energized Amato extends Russell's contract through 2006
By Rob Geiger, NHRA.com
Feeling bullish on the future of NHRA drag racing, Top Fuel team owner and legendary former driver Joe Amato has restructured the contract of his replacement, Darrell Russell, to extend through the 2006 season. Amato, who turned over driving duties to Russell in 2001, cites his team's promise and the burgeoning economy as two of the main reasons for the move.
Russell certainly has proven his worth in three years at Amato Racing. He won the Rookie of the Year award in '01 with two wins, including his first start ever as a pro. He followed that up with another multiple win season in 2002 where he matched his sixth-place finish from his inaugural year. Last season, despite failing to capture a victory, Russell and crew, led by tuner Wayne Dupuy, pushed their way to a career-high fourth-place ranking.
"It's time for us to go all-out," Amato said. "There are some big players in the class and we want to run with them. It's time. We've been right there, but now we've got some years together as a group and everyone has gelled. It's time to push it even harder.
"I'm excited about the economy. I've been playing this game for a long time and I've been a part of the business world for a long time. It's all very cyclical. The last few years everyone out there has been doing their best just to tread water and survive. Now we've all made it through that stretch and we're starting to see an upward movement.
"When the economy is healthy like this you see advertising budgets increase as companies work for market share. Our philosophy is that we offer a very attractive package in a sport that is experiencing phenomenal growth. At some point those two things will meet in our favor."
Essentially working with a bevy of associate sponsors rather than one large backer, Amato has piecemealed his way through the last few years, trying his best to watch expenses. Now, although the search for a sole Corporate USA backer continues, Amato has decided to green-light all of Dupuy's requests for new equipment, including a new racecar.
"We absolutely want to sign a big deal," Amato said. "But we have a strong enough base of associate sponsors that even if we don't sign up a big sponsor right away, we'll spend the money it takes to challenge for the title. We all know you can't get a deal parked in the garage. You have to be out there. And if you're gonna be out there, you might as well go all-out. The better you perform, the better your chances of someone coming along that likes your team and wants to sponsor you."
With a record five Top Fuel championships and 52 national event victories to his credit, Amato is the toughest act to follow the class has ever known. Yet the pride of Moosic, Pa., sees something in the likeable and talented Russell that convinced him to lock his star pupil up for at least three more years.
"People are the most precious commodity," Amato said. "With a hired driver, and I think we'll see more and more of this as the years go by, you have to make an investment just like an NFL team does in a draft pick. The No. 1 pick usually doesn't win the Super Bowl his first year out. He has to mature. It's no different in drag racing.
"Darrell is a big asset to this team. He's a great driver who is getting better all the time. He presents himself well. He's clean cut. The sponsors love him. He works well with Wayne and the boys. He's the complete package you need. Evidentially, other big-money team owners think the same thing because they've tried to sneak around and hire him away. That's a poor way to do things but we've already seen those tactics backfire on some people and their own guys leave on them. Bad karma, I guess. I've put out the time and effort to develop Darrell's talents and I wanted him to stay with us."
For his part, Russell is as focused as ever on delivering Amato his first title as a car owner. The increase in pay the new contract calls for allowed his supportive wife Julie to relinquish her schoolteacher job and devote more time to family projects. She will also have the flexibility to join Russell on the road more than once or twice a year, as she has in the past.
"Joe's taken all of the worry out of my life," Russell said. "The only thing I have to think about now is driving the car and winning races. It's a huge relief to know things are stable, both on a personal and a professional level.
"I've said from the start that having the best driver of all-time call you and offer you his ride is beyond anything you could ever dream about. That feeling hasn't diminished at all. It's very satisfying to know that he thinks enough of what I've done for this team over the past three years that he wants me around for three more. I hope this goes beyond that. I'd like to stay with Joe for as long as he wants to race."
Beyond collecting trophies he has five in 15 final-round showings Russell sees his role on the team leaning heavily on staying mentally and physically fit as well as maintaining positive sponsor relations.
"I'm not a real big guy but I'm probably taller than most," Russell said. "Therefore I need to watch my weight even more closely than others might have to. I have a trainer I work with at the gym and I try to watch my eating habits. Staying in shape also benefits you mentally, which helps tremendously on the track.
"Like most teams, we never stop searching for sponsors. We have some great, long-time companies that have backed Joe's teams forever, like Keystone Automotive, Valvoline, Fram-Autolite, DeeZee, DriverFX.com, Lite Glow, Superwinch, and Bilstein Engine Flush. I feel it's a huge privilege to represent these companies and I always try to conduct myself in a way that would make them proud to be associated with us.
"We've also continue to search for new corporate funding. There is a constant flow of people coming to visit us at every race and learn about the sport to see if it's something their company might want to get involved with. I like to jump in there and show these people what we do, what it takes for the car to be prepared for a run, whatever they want to know. I know I'm the new face of the team and I gladly accept that role."
That attitude helps Amato stay positive as his group surges forward.
"The NHRA has the best package it's ever had," Amato said. "And this team wants to be a big part of the continued rise we're seeing. We've got the people in place, the equipment we need, and we've figured out how to get those two facets working together in unison. That's a big part of the equation. Once we sign a big deal, we'll be tough year after year. That's the goal. That's where we want to be and we feel like we're very close."
This story is copyright 2003 National Hot Rod Association. It may not be reprinted or retransmitted in any form without the express written permission of NHRA.com.
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