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...
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.