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Rocca Jumps Countries, Cars : Driver Decides It’s Better to Practice What He Screeches

Not long ago, Al Rocca had an identity crisis. It was not in his head. It was under his hood.

His job at a Nissan dealership in Woodland Hills was going so well, it became the source of trouble. While Rocca was selling Nissans, he was racing a Toyota.

“I had a problem with being a general manager of a Nissan dealership and driving under a contract with Toyota,” Rocca said. “It turned out to be very difficult to meet people from Nissan and drive for Toyota.”

Rocca even taped a Toyota commercial in which he’s jumping for joy in front of his race car with the “Oh, what a feeling” jingle blaring in the background. On several other occasions, Rocca met Nissan representatives--his bosses while wearing a suit and necktie--at race tracks where he was wearing a Toyota driving suit.

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All of which the Nissan folks thought was about as humorous as slamming a big toe into a bedpost at night.

“It just wasn’t ethical for me to preach to my customers how good Nissan was and then go out and race a Toyota,” Rocca said.

So Rocca, mindful of both ethics and keeping his job, switched affiliations on the track. On Sunday at Riverside International Raceway, he’ll drive a Nissan in the GTU class of the International Motor Sports Assn. Times / Ford Grand Prix of Endurance.

The emphasis is on the word endurance. The race will last six hours.

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It’s the kind of race that’s perfect for Rocca. A native of Lima, Peru, Rocca first started racing go-carts in 1968. He was the junior champion in Peru that year and went on to rally racing in South America.

He left Peru in 1975, persuaded somewhat by the leader of the socialist government, the late Gen. Juan Velasco, who had branded racing as a “capitalistic sport.”

“It was considered a sport for the rich,” Rocca said. “It wasn’t a sport for the masses. It was just too American to race.

“In Peru, you have to be born rich to race. Then you have to be able to drive well. Then you have to get out of the country to prove yourself. There are 6 million drivers and they all drive as good as you do, right? The chances are slim to none, so you definitely have to try much harder.”

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Rocca tried extremely hard and it paid off. He won three SCCA regional championships in his first year of racing in the United States.

Rocca sees few differences between American drivers and South American drivers. Most of the differences, he said, are in the race itself.

Much of the secret to racing in South America is not in passing other drivers, but trying not to allow spectators to become part of the car’s grille. It’s not unusual for fans to scurry across the track with cars approaching at 150 m.p.h.

“There’s not as much crowd control in South America,” Rocca said. “If you expose the average American driver to that it will probably freak him out.

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“I definitely respect American drivers, but there’s not much difference between them and South American drivers.”

In Sunday’s 14-car race, trying to coax the car into surviving for six hours figures to be the biggest battle. Dave Day of Garden Grove will co-drive with Rocca, and that’s their game plan. Their 265-horsepower engine was built with a long race in mind.

But Mazdas have won this race at Riverside the past five years, and Rocca admits the Mazdas have more power than his car and are reliable.

“But if we can stay out of trouble and keep going around the track--our car is very reliable--we should finish in the top five,” Rocca said. “That’s our goal, since we are grossly underpowered compared to the Mazdas.”

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No stock car driver has won four consecutive championships in the 33-year history of NASCAR’s Winston West Stock Car series, but Jim Robinson of Reseda is one championship away from changing all that.

The 12-race 1986 season starts Sunday with the AC-Delco 300 at Sears Point International Raceway in Sonoma.

Robinson, who won the Saugus Speedway track championship in 1977, will look for his first career win at Sonoma’s 2.54-mile course.

Last year’s rookie of the year, Glen Steurer of Simi Valley, is also favored to finish well.

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Twenty-six cars will battle for 75 laps for a total purse of $66,725.


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