In 1976, Chuck Amati teamed with Sam and Richard Short of Marion, Ill., and had a monster year.
Amati joined racers such as Rick Ferkel and Bobby Allen as they traveled the United States, searching for $2,000-to-win races advertised in National Speed Sport News.
Again, documentation is difficult to come by, but Amati’s win total in 1976 ranges from 30 to 50, depending upon on whom you ask.
It was along this time when he began wearing the racing suit adorned with sequins, and he picked up another nickname: the Rhinestone Cowboy.
In 1977, he re-injured his arm and had an abbreviated season. For the next couple of years he floated from ride to ride, until he landed with Richard Briscoe in 1980.
“If you give me a car that has good brakes, and will turn when it gets to the corner,” Amati told Briscoe, “I’ll win you some races.”
Briscoe did, and Amati did as he said he would. It was Briscoe’s biggest success to date, with young Scott Gerkin helping as a mechanic.
Twelve-year-old Kevin Briscoe spent much of the next two years riding with Amati and his girlfriend, Debbie, in their van. They walked the track together each night, with Amati telling the young boy how to read the track, how to set up the car, how to be patient, all the things the old veteran had learned.
Years later, when Kevin had established himself as an outstanding Indiana racer, Amati walked up and put his arm around him.
“Little Briscoe,” he smiled, “if I had known you were going to take all those things I told you and one day use them to beat me, I wouldn’t have told you so much.”
A couple of years after our first interview, I ran across Chuck at Terre Haute. It was a one-off ride, and he had a good finish. After the race, as I hovered in the background, I listened as the mechanic gently chided Amati.
“You could have passed so-and-so on the last couple of laps,” the mechanic said.
“I tried … couldn’t get by him,” Amati replied.
“You should have tried harder.”
“Listen,” Amati said quietly. “I tried him two or three times. The only way I was gonna pass him was to get into him, and probably send him over the fence. I’d rather run last than put a guy over the fence.”
I never forgot that moment, because in many ways it defined Chuck Amati. Sure, he wanted to win. But there was a code of ethics that defined his success, a self-imposed rule of conduct he refused to rationalize away.
In my eyes, that made all those wins more meaningful, because they came the right way. If he hit you, it was an accident. That’s how he raced you, and that’s how he expected you to race him.
Yet, he was never a passive racer. On the contrary, he was on-the-gas to the point of being wild. His crashes were often spectacular, because it was obvious you couldn’t try any harder than he did.
Although he respected his competitors, and tried to race them clean, it never diminished his powerful appetite for winning.
It was Christmas Eve in 1985. Early that morning, my phone was ringing.
“Chuck Amati here…”
I had gone through a painful divorce that summer, and throughout a gloomy autumn I was slowly beginning to put the pieces back together. Chuck was aware of my situation, and had called a couple of times with encouragement, or simply to listen.
“Hey, what are you doing for Christmas?” he asked. “If you don’t have someplace to go, I want you to come to my house and have Christmas with us … nobody should have Christmas by themselves…”
That was Chuck. He had a big heart, and he cared deeply about the people he encountered.
Throughout his career he enjoyed a huge fan following, and most people would say that’s because he was a winner. Fans, after all, like to follow a winner.
But it was much more than that. Chuck was one of the most genuine, caring people I’ve ever met, because that’s how he was put together. He didn’t need to be taught, or coached; it was inside him.
He loved kids, and he loved dogs. Really, he loved everybody. Does it get any better than that?
At the time of that phone call, things weren’t going well for Chuck. Unable to find a ride, he put together his own car in 1984, on his own dime. It was a short-lived effort, ending with a spectacular, high-flying flip at Eldora at the inaugural Kings Royal in July.
The crash was a significant financial setback for Amati, and he later confided that he spent several years paying off the bills related to the crash.
Yet, he didn’t give up. Every now and then we’d talk on the phone, and it was obvious he was at a difficult point in his life. He was in his late 40s, and had clearly reached the autumn of his career.
But, like most great racers, he couldn’t wean himself from the adoring fans, the thrill of competition, and the incomparable taste of winning.
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