EDWARDSVILLE — When Joe Amato was 16, he quit high school to run the family business.
From there, Amato’s journey has taken off faster than his Top Fuel dragster.
The business — A&A Auto Parts — grew from one to 24 stores.
His passion for speed transformed him into one of the top drag racers in history and his passion for life races him through a daily routine that would tire most far younger.
And now, fresh off of his 70th birthday party, Amato is putting his golden touch to commercial real estate projects that have seen abandoned, once popular shopping centers turn into vibrant, viable enterprises that exceed their prior golden days.
Born and raised in Scranton’s South Side, Amato was a typical high school student who also played basketball. And then his father developed heart problems and couldn’t run the family’s business — A&A Speed Shop in Moosic.
As he would so many times in the future, Joe Amato got in the driver’s seat and the business took off. A second store was opened by the time Joe was 19 and a third opened soon after.
In all, 24 A&A Auto Parts Stores were operating with three warehouses that serviced half of the U.S.
“I had no choice,” Amato said of leaving school in the 10th grade. “I became the bread winner in the family.”
Hard work, luck
Amato looks back on the early years of hard work and passion and how it all came together.
“I guess the harder you work, the luckier you get,” he said. “But I opened the door every morning and I locked it at night. I bought and I sold.”
Amato said he “had a knack” for dealing with people.
When he was 13, Amato was drawn to racing. He raced go-carts in the Gateway Shopping Center — the same complex he upgraded and brought back to life.
But it was a trip to the U.S. National Drag Racing Championships when he was 16 and he saw “Big Daddy” Don Garlits race. That sealed the deal for Amato and racing.
“I bought a 1953 Ford and souped it up,” he said. “I had plenty of parts available at our business.”
He raced at Pocono Drag Lodge, Island Dragway and Forty Fort Airport.
“It was the challenge,” he said. “I guess I had a need for speed. It gets in your blood. I’m a speed adrenalin junkie.”
And, he said, racing was good for his business, making many connections that lasted for decades. He sold parts to all race drivers who had become close friends.
“I would race on Sunday and sell on Monday,” he said.
His career is well-documented — a five time national champion who raced from age 16 to 60. He built a business that grew from three employees to more than 1,100. He sold A&A in 1998.
“I guess you can say I cashed out,” Amato said.
Dabbled in stocks
He invested in the stock market, but “it didn’t feel right.” He turned to real estate and did a few housing projects, but his passion took him to commercial development.
He has a assembled a “good team” and Amato loves to talk about his projects — Gateway, City Center in downtown Wilkes-Barre, East End Center, West End Plaza in Brodheadsville and others. He beams when a new deal is finalized with a tenant.
And Amato has adjusted to the age of technology. He likes to travel — at least three months are spent “out of the area” while doing business on his computer and cell phone.
“I can work seven days a week from anywhere,” he said.
And he does. He loves to ski in Colorado or Europe and he loves to golf. He also does yoga and he bicycles everywhere.
“The key is to have good people on your team,” he said. “This area has the best people. They work hard, they’re smart and they’re loyal.”
Amato can live anywhere, but Northeastern Pennsylvania is his home. He has houses in Glenmaura in Moosic and Harveys Lake.
“This is home,” he said. “This is where my family is and where we came from.”
But if he’s in Palm Beach, Florida, or in Italy, Amato can get on Skype and have a meeting.
“I’ve had a great run, split into two lives,” he said. “I had a racing career and a business career.”
He rises early, takes care of chores around the house and then he’s off to the office.
“I tend to my business,” he said. “And I try to get a couple of holes in.”
He likes Italian food, seafood and sushi. He prefers action movies (no surprise there) and he loves to watch football, especially the Patriots, Dolphins, Jets and Steelers.
He’s not a fan of politics, saying there’s been too much negativity. He understands that sensational news sells things, but he said it also creates a perception that depicts the region as less than it is to outside watchers.
“Every area has its problems,” he said. “It’s all how it is portrayed.”
He likes this region because “it’s big enough to give you what you need, yet small enough to enjoy and relax.”
Amato has a generous side too. A foundation provides help to charities, especially those that help kids and animals. He looks at life always as a positive and never dwells on the negative.
“It’s helped me be a better person,” Amato said. “I like to help people, but I know I can’t fix everything. A spray can of magic can only go so far.”
Friends on ‘Joey’
On June 13, Amato celebrated his 70 years with a party for the ages. More than 300 people turned out for the bash on Amato Drive in Glenmaura. But the biggest present came the following day.
Eight days ago Amato and his longtime fiance, Andrea Donten, were married.
At the party some of Amato’s closest friends shared stories about their pal that paint a clear picture of the kind of person “Joey” Amato is.
“Joey called me one day and told me he had to talk to Ann Landers,” said attorney Mike Cefalo, a friend of Amato’s for 45 years. “I told him Ann Landers was dead.”
But Amato was adamant, telling Cefalo that he had just read her column in the paper. After Cefalo explained how Landers died and her image was still circulated for the column, Amato told him why he needed to talk to her.
“There was some agency in Michigan that trained seeing-eye dogs,” Cefalo said. “They were having financial difficulties and Joey wanted to help.”
Cefalo got the contact information to Amato and then didn’t hear anything more for three weeks.
“So I called him to ask whatever happened with that and he told me everything was taken care of,” Cefalo said. “He told me they were OK. That’s Joey Amato.”
Cefalo said Amato worries about everybody. He said most people don’t realize how concerned he is about those less fortunate.
Racing’s ‘First Lady’
“He helps so many, but he never flaunts it,” Cefalo said. “He does it out of the goodness of his heart.”
Linda Vaughn flew in from California for the party. Vaughn, known as the “First Lady of Racing” for years, was the blond bombshell who was the iconic Miss Hurst Golden Shifter for decades and has been a part of the racing scene since the early 1960s.
As a surprise for Amato, Vaughn dressed up as Marilyn Monroe to sing “Happy Birthday” to him.
Hurst Shifters sponsored Amato for years, she said. Vaughn said Amato’s stores sold Hurst products for years and benefited from having his car in Victory Circle so often.
“It’s amazing what he has done for motor sports all over the world,” Vaughn said, noting that Amato is in the Motor Sports Hall of Fame. “He absolutely is one of the greatest personalities in the sport.”
Ray Labosky has known Amato since the late 1960s. Labosky, 71 of Moosic, built Amato’s A&A stores and his home. He started out working on Amato’s race car team.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “Joey asked one day if I could build buildings, and the rest is history.”
Labosky said Amato has given many people the opportunity to better themselves. And, Labosky said, Amato was always a shrewd businessman.
“He made deals,” he said. “He never minded if you struck a deal and drove away with a Chevrolet; just don’t drive away with a Cadillac.”
Labosky said Amato is forever the competitor, whether it be in a drag racer or on the tennis court or golf course.
“He always wants to win,” he said.
Labosky said Amato has a keen eye for business and for working with people who will help him and themselves.
“With Joey, what you see is what you get,” Labosky said. “He’s a genuine guy. He has a doctorate degree in common sense. He’s not afraid to take chances, but when he does, he knows his chances for success are good.”