Joe Amato can’t sit still. The five-time Top Fuel champion says, “The glass is half full for me.” And every day brings a fresh idea or challenge or adventure. “I’m retired – but I can’t be retired,” he said. “I need to get up in the morning and have something to think about. You can play only so much golf.
“I’ve got a couple of land-development projects,” Amato said. “I’ve got seven shopping centers that I bought and rebuilt. I like to buy old stuff that’s beat up and fix it up and rent it. It’s fun.” The first property he took on is a 200,000-square-foot, 25-acre strip mall at Edwardsville, Pa. “Right in town. It was a total dump,” Amato remembers. “Now it’s 95-percent filled.” He says, “It’s just something to do.”
Amato says he has been enjoying the NHRA’s Legends Tour that began last year as a lead-up to this weekend. He said it has been “kind of exciting. They kind of bring all the old geezers out and are putting us back to work. It’s fun.”
Just to clarify, Amato doesn’t classify himself as a geezer. But he gets a kick out of fans who have approached him and asked for him to pose with their children who are in their 20s but once had their picture taken with him at a race at age four or five.
“It’s kind of cool the people remember you. At least you made a mark on the sport. That’s kind of nice, that you have a good history, a good run, and di some things that made people happy and like it. That’s like giving back a little bit, you know? The sport that was good to you, you can give back. That’s a good thing.”
Since he left the sport, he hasn’t slowed down at all. He and wife Andrea split their time between their primary residence in Florida and their lake house in Eastern Pennsylvania – when they aren’t in the middle of their 100 days of globetrotting. They ski two or three times a year, have swept through Europe on their “Life Is Good Tour,” and treated or joined friends and family members along the way. Nearly five years ago, in 2014, Amato received a diploma from Pennsylvania’s Old Forge High School at age 73. “I quit school in the 10th grade to run my father’s business,” he said of his youth in Scranton, Pa. He built Keystone Automotive into a roaring success, in no small way by selling parts to fellow racers through the years and branding his dragster with the business logo that got attention every time he stuck it in the winners circle. Now, he whimsically says, “That’d be fun to go to college. I see all the fun the kids have. It’s like Party Central.” However, he said his success comes from acting on “gut feelings and street smarts – I have a lot of both of those. I think that got me where I am, more than college and book smarts. I’ve always had the ability to find the right people in business.”
If Amato has regrets, he doesn’t share them. “My wife and I are both very upbeat people. We don’t want any downers around us,” he says. As for his career, the man who always wore Snoopy-decorated underwear beneath his firesuit says, “I’m happy where I ended up. It was exciting. How many people are dumb enough to strap themselves in a car and go 300 miles an hour? It was a good run. You’re dealing with fans – that made it exciting. The competition is what drove me more than anything, the ability to go head to head with somebody and you’ve got to have the right car and drive it right.”
He used those gut feelings and street smarts in his racing days and was a psychologist of sorts. “Everybody has big egos, and you clash. And there’s only one winner on Sunday. Sometimes there’s hurt feelings.” Losing, he said, “bothers you. It bothers you more if YOU mess up than if the team messes up. You feel like you let the sponsors down, the team down, the fans down. That never changes. That’s a growing curve. If you’re going to push the envelope, you’re going to have a malfunction once in a while. If you don’t push it, you’re probably never going to have a red light – but you’re probably never going to get a holeshot win, either. It’s a fine line. It’s a cruel game.
“All the classes are so much more competitive today,” Amato said, citing technology for more parity in performance. Aside from the Unfinished Business promotion, he has no dreams of returning to drag racing. “If you could just drive the car, that’d be the fun part. But there’s a whole lot more to it than driving: the business part, getting the money, the politics. It’s a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week commitment on your brain and your life to be successful. I’ve been there, done that. I think in life, once you’ve closed a chapter, you open another chapter and move forward. That’s where I am now.”
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019