Russell Debuts for Amato at Pomona When five-time Top Fuel champion Joe Amato announced his retirement at Pomona last November, among those offering best wishes was triple Top Fuel titlist Gary Scelzi. However, Scelzi had more than congratulations...
Russell Debuts for Amato at Pomona
When five-time Top Fuel champion Joe Amato announced his retirement at Pomona last November, among those offering best wishes was triple Top Fuel titlist Gary Scelzi. However, Scelzi had more than congratulations on his mind. "Once it became known at Pomona that I wasn't going to race in 2001," Amato recalls, "a number of people approached me with suggestions about my new driver.
One of them was Gary Scelzi, who told me about Darrell Russell, a tough competitor of Gary's in the Federal-Mogul Top Alcohol class. That was a strong recommendation. So much so, in fact, that when I was on vacation in Maui with my wife, Donna, I decided to call Darrell. I guess you could say I interviewed him for the job on the phone from Hawaii. We had a good conversation and I definitely was impressed, and invited him to come to my Christmas party in mid-December, and we finalized our deal there."
Russell brings Scelzi's support and four NHRA Division Four championships to his professional debut in this weekend's (Feb. 1-4) NHRA Winston series opening AutoZone Winternationals at California's famed Pomona Raceway. It's the start of NHRA's 50th anniversary season and new five-year exclusive TV relationship with ESPN and ESPN2.
Russell, 32, of Hockley, Tex. (near Houston) will drive Amato's dragster, with backing from Valvoline and Keystone Automotive Operations. Amato, who retired after two laser eye surgeries last summer to repair torn retinas, said he continues to seek a new primary sponsor. Russell earned his Top Fuel license with successful test runs two weeks ago at Firebird Raceway, near Phoenix. On his first full quarter-mile pass, Darrell went 4.77 seconds at over 301 mph. In Top Alcohol racing, Russell had never topped 256 mph.
Why Russell? "I guess there's always a question if it's better to hire an experienced driver or go with someone new," Amato explained. "I decided I wanted to try to develop a new talent, because that way I could teach him the ropes, and hopefully he wouldn't already have any bad habits. I also thought it would be good to pair a young driver with my new crew chief, Jimmy Walsh (an Amato crew member for more than 15 years), so they could grow together as a team. "We went to Firebird for the National Time Trials and I was really proud of how Darrell handled himself. He's gone fast and won before in sportsman racing, but I know he felt pressure, because he needed to get down the track to earn his license. He had a lot to learn about the car and the team and I could see he was absorbing it like a sponge. Darrell's a good listener and asks good questions and his feedback about what the car was doing impressed me."
Says Russell: "Getting a chance to run in the NHRA Winston series is a thrill. Getting to drive for Joe Amato, a legend in our sport, is unbelievable. I plan on being a good listener because there is so much I can learn from Joe." Meanwhile, Ron Krisher, No. 4 in Pro Stock points last season with two victories, will drive his "old" Eagle One Pontiac Firebird at Pomona. Krisher's 2001-model Eagle One Chevrolet Cavalier isn't ready, forcing him into last year's car. Krisher got off to a "spectacular" start at this race a year ago, when he lost control and flipped in first-round eliminations.
Amato Retires Snoopy, Too
Joe Amato began two long-term relationships en route to his first NHRA Top Fuel championship in 1984. One was with Valvoline, which continues into the 2001 season, with Amato's new driver Darrell Russell. The other was with Snoopy, the popular "Peanuts" cartoon character, whose image graced Amato's dragster for 17 consecutive years. But when the NHRA Winston Drag Racing season begins this weekend in Pomona, Snoopy will join Amato in drag racing retirement. "A lot has changed for Joe Amato, and after 17 years, we've 'retired' Snoopy," Amato explained. "After all, Charles Schulz left us last year, and with me getting out of the car, the time had come. Snoopy gave all of us a lot of smiles and brought me a lot of luck. It was a difficult decision, but like my retirement from driving, it was the right thing to do."
Getting to Know Darrell Russell
Since the NHRA Federal-Mogul series is considered a training ground for future pro stars, it's easy to understand Darrell Russell's analogy that "I feel like I've been in college football and now am the first-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys."
Russell is moving up from sportsman competition into the team owned by Joe Amato, the most successful Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, with five titles and 52 victories. He debuts in the Valvoline/Keystone Automotive dragster this weekend at Pomona, the first of 24 events in NHRA's 50th anniversary campaign. The six-foot, 165-pound Russell is a four-time Division Four champion -- 1994, 1996, 1998, 1999 -- and has 20 divisional event wins. (Division Four is NHRA's South-Central region, including Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Mexico.)
He also has seven Federal-Mogul class national victories, including the 1997 U.S. Nationals. Russell started in Super Comp dragsters in 1988, then advanced to Top Alcohol in 1991. He was named Division Four Driver of the Year three times and was a six-time Federal-Mogul All-Star representative. He's 32, married to Julie, and they reside in Hockley, Tex. (near Houston). Concludes Russell: "I'm just a regular guy with the opportunity of a lifetime."
Benson Preps for Daytona
"What a difference a year makes" could be Johnny Benson's slogan as he prepares to debut the No. 10 Valvoline Pontiac Grand Prix in the Feb. 18 Daytona 500. Benson ran a lap of 184.087 mph during mid-January tests at Daytona, a race he came close to winning last February, beginning a roller-coaster season that almost saw his team close its doors. It eventually joined forces with MB2 Motorsports, which fields the M&M's Pontiac of Ken Schrader, and now is co-owned as well as sponsored by Valvoline, the first major consumer products company to co-own a Winston Cup team. "Last year was pretty stressful," admits Benson. "I wasn't sure how long we'd be around. When MB2 came on board, it kind of saved us. Then, Valvoline put us on solid ground. The commitment Valvoline has made to Winston Cup racing, and its fans, is pretty impressive to me."
Eagle One-Shav Glick Award
NHRA founder Wally Parks is the winner of the second annual Eagle One-Shav Glick Award, presented by the appearance care products company for distinguished achievement in motor racing by a Californian. The award is named in honor of the longtime "Los Angeles Times" sportswriter. Dan Gurney was the first recipient last year. Presentation is scheduled to be made April 29 at California Speedway prior to the NASCAR Winston Cup NAPA Auto Parts 500.
Also: What's the most important thing to watch for during the 2001 motorsports' season? Valvoline.com columnist I.N. Sider says, "It's the Economy, Stupid." The "Behind Closed Garage Doors" analysis/commentary column resumes this week and appears twice monthly on the Valvoline.com web site.