Pro Mod Challenge Joliet preview

6th annual NHRA Lucas Oil Route 66 Nationals Route 66 Raceway Joliet, Ill. Native American gives back to local communities through Pro Mod racing JOLIET, Ill. (May 27, 2003) -- Having ended the last event on the NHRA AMS Staff Leasing Pro Mod...

6th annual NHRA Lucas Oil Route 66 Nationals
Route 66 Raceway
Joliet, Ill.

Native American gives back to local communities through Pro Mod racing

JOLIET, Ill. (May 27, 2003) -- Having ended the last event on the NHRA AMS Staff Leasing Pro Mod Challenge in the sand trap at the end of Old Bridge Township Raceway Park quarter-mile race track in Englishtown, N.J., Johnny Rocca will use the incident as a learning experience for Native American youth.

Following his final qualifying pass, Rocca, from Leesburg, Va., was unable to stop his '49 Mercury Pro Mod, nicknamed "Dark Horse", and exited the track into the sand pit used to assist drivers in bringing their car to a safe stop. Rocca was unhurt in the incident but his car was heavily damaged.

Fortunately, with time off before this weekend's NHRA national event stop at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., Rocca's crew, led by crew chief Darren Mayer, has the car ready for the fifth of 10 exhibition events on the NHRA AMS Staff Leasing Pro Mod Challenge being held Friday through Sunday as part of the NHRA Lucas Oil Route 66 Nationals.

Although plans are indefinite for the Chicago area event, at each of the 10 stops on the NHRA AMS Staff Leasing Pro Mod Challenge, Rocca has youth from local area Native American schools visit with him at the track, sharing the message that by continuing their schooling or learning a vocation, such as one of those associated with motorsports, there is a way out of the unemployment and alcoholism so common on today's Native America reservations.

Growing up in rural Virginia, Rocca decided he would succeed through education. After years of hard work in farming, Rocca attended and graduated from the University of Maryland with an Electrical Engineering degree. He spent years building a successful business as a highway contractor, specializing in traffic signals in and around Washington, D.C. Rocca not only recognizes, but emphasizes the importance of success through education.

Rocca is the only Native American drag racer racing in the professional ranks on the NHRA national event circuit. Years have gone by since Johnny Rocca learned of his Native American heritage. The impact of his family history gave Rocca the determination to make his own way in the world. Graduating from college paved the way for business success. His financial advantages enabled the extensive racing career which he has enjoyed since the late '50s.

The 62-year-old Rocca, who says he doesn't feel that old, saw his first drag race in 1959. He was a barber in Falls Church, Va., when a friend invited him to a drag race. Immediately, he was hooked.

"When I walked into that track, they were running gassers, altereds and a couple of "slingshot" dragsters, Boy, I heard it, smelled it, tasted it and I was hooked," said Rocca. "It was addicting. I loved the sounds. I loved the cars. I knew I was a little bit mechanically inclined, having grown up a very poor Indian who had to patch together his own transportation, so I said, 'Shoot, I can do that.' I came back the next week with my old '53 flathead pure stock Mercury. I came to the line, the flagman brought the flag up and away I went. I was exhilarated and began my 45 year love affair with drag racing."

The initial foray into drag racing inspired Rocca to build what he calls his first real race car. Rocca recounts, "I had an old '32 Ford out in the barn, put it on '29 Ford rails, which was the way to go back then, powered it with an Oldsmobile engine and ran C-Altered. I became what you might call notable. I had the first altered to run in the 10s ( 10 second range). Of course, by today's standards 10 seconds doesn't sound like much. But back then that was astronomical. After all "Big Daddy" (Don Garlits) was only running in the nines at the time with the fuelers. From there I built a gasser to match race."

Rocca match raced against the best -- Stone, Woods and Cook, K. S. Pittman, etc. " When the big guys weren't racing each other, they needed a 'Washington General' to run against," recalled Rocca of his match racing days. "Hardly anyone remember the Washington Generals. They were the team the Harlem Globetrotters played game after game. The Globetrotters were the feature and, you know what, the Washington Generals never won. Try as I might, I was always on the losing end too, just like the Washington Generals. But the pay was good. The big guys got $500, I got $200. To me that was big money back then."

Other interests were calling and Rocca returned full-time to his farm and business interest. He stayed away from the race track from around 1974 until the mid-80s. It was another buddy that refocused Rocca on drag racing when he invited him to a race in Englishtown, N.J. By the late 80s, Rocca had teamed up with K. S. Pittman on the nostalgia circuit and the pair toured for several years.

In 1990, the IHRA came calling regarding a new class -- Pro Mod -- 526 cubic inch blown alcohol doorslammers, sit on the left, with any type of body, a throwback to the days of AA Gas Supercharged. Rocca jumped in, building a 1933 Willys in which to compete. That first Pro Mod was nicknamed the "Tin Indian". Actually, there were three versions of the "Tin Indian" over the years. Next came the '49 Mercury, just like the one he had as a kid, the "Iron Horse". The Iron Horse ran quick and fast -- a world record holder on the IHRA circuit.

Every time Rocca tried to quit again, sponsors came along to keep him going. Now the evolution has produced the Dark Horse, another '49 Mercury. Rocca found his forum in drag racing. However, his life has been based on more than his racing career.

"Until now, we have generally refused sponsorship for the Dark Horse from anyone unless it is Native American related. This whole car, this whole operation is now dedicated to my native people," said Rocca.

"I am a Native American, a Tuscarora Tribe Indian, a member of the Iroquois Federation, made up of six tribes. When we go to a race, we try to locate a reservation close to the track location and set up a visit with youth from the reservation school. Most of the reservation schools teach job skills, but unemployment is so bad on the reservations that it has become a tough place for people to live. A lot of people think the Indians get paid by the government but the bottom line of the story is that they don't get paid a damn thing -- not one stinking cent.

"The reservations are poor. Most of the housing doesn't have plumbing or electricity and streets are dirt roads. That's reservations right here in America. The government has thrown us off those lands so many times because every time the Indians found something that the land was good for they would take it away. They finally gave us the worst land they could find and they called it a reservation. Since you couldn't work the land, the only other choice was to build. Along came casinos. So now the government is fighting us on that. Fortunately, the Supreme Court sided with us. So there's hope for the native people in that area.

"Even so, we still have a lot of young people out there that are looking at a life of alcoholism, welfare and unemployment because there are no jobs on the reservation. So what we are trying to do is show them that in the racing industry, not just drag racing, there are places for them. They can be successful. They can be somebody.

"The school picks a group of about 10-15 to visit with us at the track on Friday and see up close exactly what we do. Some of them have never seen a race of any type. Maybe we're building some future racers, some future crew members. If we can motivate one of those youngsters into a job or career and make the quality of life for them and their families better, it's well worth the investment and time.

"It's about recognition for the Native American. That's why I still wear my hair long. These are warrior braids. I have them because I am entitled to wear them. I still dance and all the other things related to my native people. I am very much into the way of my people. I hold myself out that way. I wear my moccasins. I dance when I win, when I'm happy. So this is where I've evolved. The waning, sunset part of my career is really dedicated to my people. I'm very much into it," concluded Rocca.

Rocca has produced some of the most recognizable cars and nicknames of cars in drag racing, from the Fuel Altered days, to the NHRA Top Alcohol Dragster "The Chicken Chokers," to the Tin Indian, Iron Horse and Dark Horse, but Rocca's dedication to his Native American Heritage and his family will live longer. He only hopes that he serves as a messenger of his tribe and of the lessons he learned through his hard work. The times Johnny Rocca spent with his Grandfather learning of his heritage and with his tribe learning their way of life, have produced a true American Hero.

Married to Barbara for over 30 years, the two have raised a daughter, Jessica, and a son, Seth.

Rocca will attempt to qualify his supercharged Dark Horse Mercury Pro Mod twice each day on Friday (May 30) and Saturday (May 31), with eliminations for the eight-car field beginning Sunday afternoon (June 1).

The Pro Mod action from the last event in Englishtown N.J. can be viewed on ESPN2 on May 31 (Saturday) at 7:00 p.m. If you can't be there in person, for a close-up of this weekend's Pro Mod action from Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill. (Chicago) tune in to ESPN2 on Sunday, June 22 at 5:30 p.m. All times are Eastern Time and subject to change without notice.


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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Johnny Rocca , Don Garlits