Phoenix Top Fuel preview (TOP FUEL)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: NHRA Communications (818) 914-4761 AMATO SETTING PERFORMANCE PACE IN TOP FUEL CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Joe Amato sat powerless in his Keystone Automotive Warehouse Dragster earlier this month at Pomona ...

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: NHRA Communications (818) 914-4761

AMATO SETTING PERFORMANCE PACE IN TOP FUEL

CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Joe Amato sat powerless in his Keystone Automotive Warehouse Dragster earlier this month at Pomona Raceway, watching rookie Gary Scelzi slip and slide his way to a Top Fuel victory in the other lane at the season-opening NHRA national event.

"I smoked the tires right away and then when I tried to get back into the gas, the blower belt blew off," Amato said. "I had a dead car."

But Amato's car was alive -- very alive -- earlier in the weekend. He qualified No. 3 and then ripped through eliminations with an unprecedented three consecutive 4.5-second passes, including an NHRA elapsed-time national record of 4.564 seconds.

Those runs arguably comprised the best weekend of Top Fuel performance in NHRA history, and they make five-time NHRA Winston champion Amato a strong favorite for victory at the 13th annual, $1,392,050 ATSCO Nationals, Feb. 20-23 at Firebird International Raceway. The race is the second event of the 22-event, $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series in 1997.

Amato, from Old Forge, Pa., won the season finale last year at Pomona Raceway, the first hint of the strong performance to come. Another hint was provided during a test session in mid-January at Firebird International Raceway. He led all Top Fuel drivers with a pass of 4.613, 307.16.

But all the proof anyone ever needed to see came at the season- opening Chief Auto Parts Winternationals. Amato had the low elapsed time in each of the first three rounds of eliminations.

Despite losing in the final, Amato trails Scelzi by just two points in the NHRA Winston point standings because he earned a 20- point bonus for setting an elapsed-time national record.

"One race doesn't make you magic," said Amato, 1990 ATSCO Nationals winner. "But if you look at our last 25 runs, we've been consistent. We're definitely a factor." ATSCO NATIONALS TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK

*Quite a start: Gary Scelzi had a perfect debut in the Team Winston Dragster earlier this month at the Chief Auto Parts Winternationals, qualifying No. 1 and winning the race.

Scelzi, from Fresno, Calif., became the first NHRA driver to win in his pro debut since K.C. Spurlock won the Funny Car title at this event in 1990. Scelzi replaced Blaine Johnson in the dragster owned and tuned by Alan Johnson. Blaine Johnson suffered fatal injuries in a qualifying crash last August at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

"I had someone riding with me," Scelzi said of his victory. "I want to thank Blaine. I won it for him.

"I have a picture of Blaine in the cockpit. When I turn on the fuel pumps, it's the last thing I see and I rub it for good luck."

Scelzi's top qualifying pass of 4.620 seconds, 314.79 mph made him the quickest and fastest rookie pro in NHRA history.

*Quite a start, part II: Cristen Powell, 17, showed driving savvy beyond her years in her Top Fuel debut by qualifying seventh and losing to Kenny Bernstein in a close quarterfinal at the Chief Auto Parts Winternationals.

Powell, a high school senior from Portland, Ore., produced a pass of 4.644 seconds in the Royal Purple Motor Oil Dragster in the quarterfinals, falling just short of Bernstein's 4.623 in the Budweiser King Dragster.

"What an honor it was," Powell said. "I'd been thinking for the last month, I'm going to be driving against guys like Larry Dixon and Kenny Bernstein and Joe Amato and Cory McClenathan. It was a great experience."

It will continue, too. Powell is scheduled to race in all 22 NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series national events this year.

*Speedy: Shelly Anderson set an NHRA speed national record of 316.90 mph in the Parts America Dragster at the Chief Auto Parts Winternationals.

Anderson, from Ontario, Calif., broke the record of 316.23 that she set at the Chief Auto Parts Nationals in October 1996 at Dallas.

*A Pedregon in Top Fuel?: There's a chance that a third Pedregon brother could join the professional ranks later this season.

Frank Pedregon, brother of Funny Car drivers Cruz and Tony Pedregon, may drive the Top Fuel car owned by six-time NHRA Winston Funny Car champion John Force.

Force originally talked about having his Funny Car teammate, Tony Pedregon, test the car before Force drove it in competition, but it also appears that Frank Pedregon is a candidate. Frank has driven Federal-Mogul Dragsters and Federal-Mogul Funny Cars since the early 1990s.

"I've told John, 'When you get the car together, come talk to me,'" Frank Pedregon said.

*Look for more: It's quite obvious after just one race that the performance bar has been raised this season in NHRA Top Fuel racing.

All eight drivers in the quarterfinals of the Chief Auto Parts Winternationals recorded passes of 4.699 seconds or quicker, a first in NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series competition. That's right, the winners and losers were quicker than 4.70.

Here's another example from the season opener: Defending NHRA Winston champion Kenny Bernstein produced a run of 4.617 seconds in the Budweiser King Dragster during the quarterfinals and lost.

Joe Amato made a run of 4.587 in the Keystone Automotive Warehouse Dragster to beat Bernstein in the quickest race in NHRA history.

Despite his barrage of 4.50-second runs, Amato thinks a run in the low 4.60-second range will suffice at most tracks.

"I think the conditions were Star Wars there," Amato said of Pomona Raceway. "If you try to run 50's in eliminations, you're going to see a lot of tire smoke. I think if you run 60's, you'll be the man."

*Inspired: Kenny Bernstein won the NHRA Winston championship last season after enduring three consecutive tough years. Joe Amato wants to follow the lead of his good friend and golfing buddy this year, winning the championship after a few down years.

"If he can do it, we can do it, too," Amato said. "It definitely inspires you."

*Schedule: Pro qualifying starts at 2 p.m. Feb. 21 and continues at 6 p.m. that date with the first night qualifying session of the season. Qualifying ends with sessions at noon and 4 p.m. Feb. 22. Final eliminations start at 11 a.m. Feb. 23. Federal-Mogul sportsman competition starts at 10 a.m. Feb. 20.

*Tickets: Tickets are available for the ATSCO Nationals. Call Firebird International Raceway at (800) DRAG-INFO or (602) 268-0200 for ticket information. Tickets also can be purchased from Dillard's. To order through Dillard's, call (800) 638-4253.

*On TV: ESPN2 will televise two hours of same-day, final-round competition from the ATSCO Nationals at 7:30 p.m. (MST) Feb. 23. ESPN2 also will televise Friday-night qualifying for the first time with a two-hour, same-day show starting at 7:30 p.m. (MST) Feb. 21.

*On the Web: The NHRA home page on the World Wide Web at http://www..goracing.com/nhra/ offers more information about NHRA Winston Drag Racing, including qualifying and eliminations results, news, point standings, statistics and driver biographies. -30-

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Frank Pedregon , Larry Dixon , Kenny Bernstein , Tony Pedregon , John Force , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Cory McClenathan , Shelly Anderson , Cristen Powell