Rockingham: Rocca to aim new team toward title quest

ROCKINGHAM, NC (March 30, 2001) - Respected drag racing veteran, Johnny Rocca, will bring his Leesburg, Va.-based USA Racing team's Pro Modified "Ironhorse" '51 Mercury to Rockingham Dragway for this weekend's International Hot Rod Association ...

ROCKINGHAM, NC (March 30, 2001) - Respected drag racing veteran, Johnny Rocca, will bring his Leesburg, Va.-based USA Racing team's Pro Modified "Ironhorse" '51 Mercury to Rockingham Dragway for this weekend's International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) season-opener, the 31st Holley Spring Nationals, sporting a talented new driver in Paul Athey, major sponsorship from New England's Mohegan Sun casino, plus high expectations.


Johnny Rocca's "Ironhorse". Photo:USA Racing

Above all, the popular driver-turned car owner, Rocca, is hoping for anything but a repeat of last year's initial performance at the historic quarter-mile facility, located along the sand hills of scenic North Carolina. At that race, the team failed to qualify, pushing their IHRA/Summit Drag Racing series title hopes toward the back of the pack. "Its extremely important to get a good start at the beginning of the season," said Rocca, reflecting on last year's disappointment. "We had a poor start last year and did not qualify at the first two races at Darlington (SC) and Rockingham, which consequently wound up affecting our showing at the end of the year," he continued. "We ended up fourth, when we could have been in contention to win the IHRA championship at the final race." At that season-ending contest last year, also held at Rockingham, Rocca tuned his crowd favorite, supercharged entry to the team's best mark of the season, clocking a strong 6.229-second elapsed time during qualifying, close to their former IHRA record-holding mark of 6.227, established in 1999. For 2001, Rocca will indeed bring a proven engine combination to the fight, on the strength of a powerplant, built using components made by reigning NHRA Top Fuel champion, Alan Johnson. What's more, he'll be using a `horse' of a decidedly different color, as his once familiar '51 Mercury's deep blue tone has been changed to a vibrant, red-to-yellow paint scheme showcasing the livery of Uncasville, Connecticut-based Mohegan Sun. One of the northeastern United States' premier meetings, entertainment and gaming destinations, Mohegan Sun's annual revenues last year topped $814-million. In fact, Rocca's newly announced driver, Paul Athey, is an executive host at Mohegan Sun. Additionally, his grandfather was once Chief of the Mohegan Indian Tribe. At 24 years of age, "Many Ponies" Athey is equally poised to forge his racing relationship with Rocca, which also becomes one of the first all-Native American Indian teams in major motorsports history. Already, the duo scored high marks in its initial debut, during an exhibition event in Gainesville, Fla., where Athey's wild burnouts and powerhouse runs brought roars from the huge crowd. "Someone's got to make it exciting," laughed Athey, who formerly drove in IHRA's Alcohol Funny Car division, while adding, "I'm ready to rock and roll." Athey, who is still adapting to a difference in driving style, definitely finds the left-handed Pro Mod position an action-filled challenge. "Its totally different," he said in comparing the two. "In the funny car you kind of manhandle it, as (before) I would crank the steering wheel elbow-to-elbow to kept it on track. "With the Pro Modified, you finesse it," he said further. "You want to move the wheel a little bit, because when you move it, the suspension is going to counter-react.

"It's just very, very touchy." Still, Athey has no reservations about the ultimate goal during his first-ever pass in IHRA national event Pro Modified competition. "Just go out there during the first pass - and have the number one qualifying spot," he exclaimed with a tinge of both seriousness and humor. Rocca was equally playful, yet steadfast in surmising his team's position for the new season, leaving no doubt about the tenacity of USA Racing's title quest. "The Native American Indians were always famous for being able to sneak through the woods and nobody could see us," said Rocca. "Maybe that's how we're going to approach the season this year. "We're going to sneak right up on them, and they're not even going to know we're there." A total of four qualifying rounds will take place during the 31st Holley Spring Nationals at Rockingham, with two each scheduled on both Friday and Saturday, March 30 & 31. Final eliminations are set for 12 Noon on Sunday, April 1. The Norwalk, Oh-based IHRA will contest an 11-race Summit Drag Racing national race schedule in 2001, with each event to be shown via a tape-delayed, one-hour Sunday evening telecast on the popular and widely viewed U.S.-based cable television entity, The National Network (TNN). For more and updated information, please contact the team's official website at; www.usaracing.com, or phone, (703) 777-5901.

-USA Racing

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Series Drag
Drivers Johnny Rocca , Paul Athey