By Mitch Peoples
Berryville VA - One need only mention the name of Johnny Rocca in drag racing circles to conjure up images of early days with fellow racers “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, gasser greats K.S. Pittman, and Stone, Woods and Cook. “Gassers” as they were called, consisted of 40’s Willys coupes and pickup trucks, 50’s Thames panel trucks, and mid 50’s Chevrolets; all known for their wild wheelstands.
Growing up in Virginia’s backwoods, Johnny realized education would prove the road to success. Years of hard work in farming brought Rocca closer to his dreams with an Electrical Engineering degree from Maryland University. This education allowed him to spend years building a reputation as a successful highway contractor. He specializing in traffic signals in and around Washington, D.C. Rocca recognizes and 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. It was late in 1959 when a friend invited him to a drag race. Johnny never looked back. Although lacking in the sponsorship to make a living at racing, Johnny was nevertheless hooked. Rocca stepped away from racing for nearly 10 years while returning to full-time farming and business interests. By the late 80s, Rocca had teamed up with good friend and fellow racer K. S. Pittman on the nostalgia circuit and the pair toured for several years.
In 1990, Rocca advanced to a newer, more modern class: the 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"; one of three versions. Johnny then built a '49 Mercury, named the "Iron Horse" from a dream Johnny had about his grandfather. The Iron Horse ran quick and fast -- a world record holder on the IHRA circuit.
Now Rocca races a version named the “Dark Horse”. A Native American, a Tuscarora Tribe Indian, and a member of the Iroquois Federation, made up of six tribes. When racing, Rocca will try to find a reservation close to the track and set up a visit with youth from the reservation school. Most teach job skills, but unemployment is so prevalent on the reservations that it is difficult to live there. “Despite common beliefs, there are no government subsidies on reservations”
Rocca insists. “The reservations are poor. Most housing lacks common necessities such as plumbing or electricity and streets are dirt roads. That's reservations right here in America. The government has thrown us off 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”.
Johnny Rocca, let the Spirit of The Gathering catch him and he plans to attend this historic event Oct. 30 - Nov.1. Johnny Rocca is a role model of hope for our Indigenous People and we are grateful he accepted our invitation to attend The Gathering.
"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 been a recognizable character at the track with his appearance and his tenure and success, 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.
About the Author:
Mitch Peoples is a resident of Berryville, Virginia and Johnny Rocca fan and car racing historian.
Native American Indian Drag Racer Johnny Rocca to Attend The Gathering - a Role Model of Hope for Indigenous People
Embrace the Spirit