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   The Chrome Horn - News



Dueling Wrenches Bring Him to Success

On Friday, December 10th, Keith Rocco continued to live the dream that surrounds winning the 2010 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Championship. Rocco was the first National Champion to receive the championship trophy at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte North Carolina.

“It is great to represent the series,” said Rocco about his accomplishment. “NASCAR plans such great things for the champions to do. It is like a dream come true. The way that things have changed from twenty years ago to today is just incredible.”

“The NASCAR Hall of Fame is a great place to have the banquet this year. We want to thank Whelen Engineering for what they do for the sport. The banquet and everything that they do for the champions is absolutely phenomenal. They really know how to make a champion feel like a champion!”

This year NASCAR had re-evaluated the NWAAS Championship program which made the structure more feasible for short track racers like Rocco to run for the championship. “This year they lowered the number of cars to twenty for a full field that helped guys like me. With the way the economy is the car count is dropping off, so that change definitely helped us.”

Rocco raced hard and received the maximum number of points (810) that earned him the 2010 National Championship. The last driver to reach this milestone under the same format was the late Larry Phillips in 1995. “It is absolutely unbelievable. We worked so hard at it for so many years. You cannot just imagine coming back and trying to repeat the season that you just had and improve on it. This year is the year that made the difference. You came right out of the box and charged every week to win races which is what we have always tried to accomplish. It is just great for my team and car owners.”

During 2010 Keith Rocco raced primarily in his home state of Connecticut. His race weekend started on Thursday night at Thompson International Speedway, then moved to Stafford Motor Speedway for Friday night racing and wrapped up on Saturday at Waterford Speedbowl. “Racing has always been a part of my family. My father was racing before I was even born. In the late 80’s my father started the tri-track theory. The tri-track theory consisted of the three major tracks in Connecticut: Stafford, Thompson and Waterford. At that time a team on low budget could run and stretch their money across all three tracks. I grew up around it and that type of schedule makes me happy to race just like my father. He follows me all three nights a week and does not miss a race. And it could not make him prouder doing what I am doing.”

“Nightly it is tough competition running two by two and sometimes being unable to come through the field. There is a lot of strong competition in Connecticut. We had great car counts at the tracks this year considering how the economy was. The last few years it had been higher. At Stafford we had a full car count. At Waterford it went back and forth. Sometimes they had it and some times they did not. This year things stabilized and that played a huge role in our success this year. So we just had to keep the wheels on most of the time.”

Early on in his career Rocco was both mentored and influenced by two local race favorites. One was Ted Christopher who gave him the opportunity to fill in for him as he drove towards his own goal of a National Championship. “I definitely think back when Ted Christopher won the National Championship back in 2001, my brother and I were actually crew members on his cars. We always compete with Teddy and racing with him is great knowing how he thinks. Ted is one of the best in racing including the Modified Tours. He is one of the best in racing. No matter what he gets in he is able to win. To be able to compete with him and match his record with the title is absolutely amazing. Working with him definitely helped my learning career. I respect Ted for that.”

The second person was the mentor that taught him to swing a wrench and hopefully someday fill his shoes, his father, Ronnie Rocco. “My father got me to where I am at. He taught me from the day that I was old enough to walk. He had me in the garage with wrenches. I was just brought up around it.”

There is no doubt what the goal has been for Keith Rocco. Since the driver first came to the banquet as a 16 year old crew member to celebrate Ted Christopher’s National Championship in 2001, the Wallingford, CT driver has worked tirelessly to capture the title finishing 2nd last year in the national standings, 4th the two years in a row prior to that.

To get there, Rocco will tell you, you have to surround yourself with the best people- mission accomplished. The support from family, the team and car owners has been essential.

Two key ingredients to this success has been the duo that head up the wrenches of the 88 and 57. Accepting the 2010 Lunati Crew Chief Award was twin brother Jeff Rocco of Wallingford and Shane Hopkins of Burrillville, RI. While there are two separate cars for the different tracks, the effort is a true collaboration between crew chiefs and driver.

Jeff handles the crew chief responsibilities for the John Rufrano owned 88 car that runs at Stafford, the car housed in their grandfather’s garage in their hometown. “Shane and I more or less work together at all the tracks. We throw ideas back and forth constantly, what to do with the car, how to make it better. We all get along really well,” explains the ’older’ twin Jeff. “I think it’s the chemistry, that’s why we’ve had so much success.”
“I grew up with my brother, everything we did in racing we did together,” continued Rocco. “I mean from the time my father built us a homemade go-kart we were 12 years old running around a parking lot, that’s how far our relationship goes back. We’re best friends, we do everything together and that carries over at the races because when you’re so close to somebody, when you care, you go that extra distance, get that little extra you need.”

Shane Hopkins oversees the 57 car owned by Mark Pane, the Waterford Speedbowl Championship modified. “Basically I’m at all the tracks,” explained Hopkins. “Racing three nights a week.” The start of the relationship, between Keith and Shane was not particularly smooth and seamless like it is now. Specifically the first night they raced together. “I was running the 6 car at Thompson and we were looking for a driver four years ago. Keith was just starting to come up.” Hopkins can’t hide his smile at this point as he continues. “Sometimes you see something in a driver and you can just tell if they’re going to be good or not and you could tell, the kid had all the talent, he just needed to be calmed down a bit. We put him in the car and the first race we wrecked the car. The first thing Keith said to me was ‘am I fired?’. I said ‘no, you’re not fired, I’ll let you know when you’re fired,” Hopkins chuckling at the tenuous beginning. “We’ve got a real good relationship, we work well together and we’ve been off winning races ever since.”

“I’ll tell you, you can’t stop that kid, he does the majority of the work on these cars. He runs around like a madman and does the majority of the work,” Hopkins continued. “What do you say about a kid like that? All’s he wants to do is race and that’s what he does. It doesn’t matter who comes up to him, if they have a legend car, a late model or a truck, they say ‘you want to drive this thing tonight? He gets in and drives it.”

Hopkins, reflecting a bit before the beginning of the awards banquet, glancing at the 88 ad 57 modified on display in the actual banquet room, summed up his thoughts. “The kid really came into his own, especially this year. Once you taught him that you don’t have to be rough to move people around, he’s seen that for himself, he’s a totally different driver out there.”

Jeff echoed earlier nearly the same statement. “We put the hard work in at the garage, but honestly, you can’t take away the fact he has a ton of talent behind the wheel and he’s really matured over the years. I think that’s why this year he’s stepped out. Every year he gets a little bit better and a little bit better and this year, he’s got that patience and he’s so got the drive. That combination is why we’re here.”

So what is next for the 2010 champion? “After tonight we are going to have to start all over again. This year was kind of a dream season. We will have to regroup and go after it again next year. We will pretty much race as we did this year.”

“To start off a new year of racing after you have had a season like this you cannot go out and think that you will not win a National Championship again. You just have to put it behind you and start all over. If we go out and try to beat this year it is just going to get frustrating. You have to start on a clean slate. It will be frustrating at the tracks if we do not click them off as we did this year. So we are just going to go out next year and pretend that this season just did not happen “

As far as a ride with the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour has Keith been offered a ride? “We have been approached by a few teams and have been wheeling and dealing and hopefully something will work out.”

Source: Denise DuPont/Polly Reid/TheChromeHorn.com
Posted: December 11, 2010

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