Many things have changed at the small oval near New London, Connecticut. The owner is new, the general manager is new, the race director is new and even the name is new. The shoreline oval is now known as the New London-Waterford Speedbowl. But one thing that isn’t new is Keith Rocco winning races.
The site of Rocco celebrating with the checkered flag on the frontstretch is quite familiar, actually. It was a site that was seen twice on opening night as the 30-year-old driver scored wins in his No. 1 Late Model and his black No. 88 SK Modified. Those wins were his 104th and 105th at the Speedbowl.
Now he’s just one win away. One away from tying the all-time record for career wins at the Connecticut shoreline oval set by Phil Rondeau at 106 many years ago. Remarkably, Rocco has managed to do this in just over nine years of racing at the Speedbowl.
“Never did it cross my mind that I’d have the opportunity to rack up this many wins in such a short period of time,” Rocco told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “But I have great equipment, I have great car owners, I have a great team. I’m not lacking anything. I have all the pieces of the puzzle to win races and that’s what is keeping me going right now. I’m sure at some point in time things can change but as of right now I’ve had everything I’ve needed to win a lot of races.”
The speed in which Rocco has obtained these wins may have him a bit surprised, but it has Tom DiMaggio, the track historian, almost mystified.
“I never thought somebody would break it in ten seasons, no way,” DiMaggio said. “It’s not surprising that Rondeau’s record is falling. It’s surprising how quickly Rocco is doing it. The fact that he’s just starting only his tenth full season and is already over 100 wins and is about to pass Rondeau is just incredible. It really is.”
Rocco was in the grandstands the night Rondeau hit the century mark. He was just a little kid who had no idea that he’d one day have the chance to break Rondeau’s record.
“They used to do victory lane right on the frontstretch and they came out with a banner and I thought that was huge,” Rocco said. “I remember as a kid going around telling everybody that Phil Rondeau won his 100th race. So to put that shoe on my foot and be in this position is absolutely awesome. I’m looking forward to it.”
Rocco is known for his aggressive style. Sometimes it bites him, like one night last year when he tangled with Shawn Monahan coming to the checkered flag one night in August, which resulted in him being penalized and sent to the rear of the field. But most other times it works out well for Rocco, who grew up about 30 minutes northwest of Waterford in Wallingford, Connecticut.
“I grew up at Waterford watching my father race,” Rocco said. “It’s where I started my career in full-sized cars. There’s just something about that track. I like the short bullring type of race track. It suits my driving style.”
Rocco’s win in the SK Modified on Saturday night was his 66th career win in that division. He is the all-time wins leader in SK Modifieds dating back to 1985, according to DiMaggio. Rocco has won at the Speedbowl in seven other divisions in addition to the SK Modifieds. He has 28 career wins in a Late Model in just four years, which puts him seventh all-time on that list dating back to 1971, according to DiMaggio.
The other thing that DiMaggio made sure to point out was Rocco’s age. He’s still relatively young and has plenty of years left behind the wheel. With that in mind, there’s no telling how many wins he may rack up when he finally hangs up the helmet.
“I’ve always had the impression that he’ll be at the ‘Bowl on nights that he isn’t doing something else,” DiMaggio said. “And as long as he’s there, there’s no reason why he can’t reach 200 by the time he’s at his mid-40s, if not sooner the way he rattles them off.”
Rocco doesn’t seem like he wants to look that far ahead, but he does think that 200 could be possible as well.
“Right now I think I could get close to 200 career wins,” said Rocco. “If I keep going at the pace I’m at right now, who knows where I could end up.”
On any given night at the Speedbowl, Rocco can probably be found battling with Ted Christopher for wins. Christopher is 56 years old and is almost an inspiration of sorts for Rocco, even though the two are rivals on the race track. When asked if Rocco has any idea how much longer he will keep racing, he points to Christopher as a reason why he can keep going for much longer.
“Racing is in my blood and it’s in my family,” Rocco said. “It’s not something that I’m just going to stop doing. You look at some of the best racers around. Ted Christopher is in his mid-50s and he’s still going strong. There’s guys that are getting up there in age that are still doing it, so I could see myself going until my mid-50’s or 60’s or who knows.”
One thing is for certain, though. When Keith Rocco is finally done racing, the New London-Waterford Speedbowl record book is going to look a lot different than it currently does right now.
“It’s cliche to say somebody is rewriting the record books,” DiMaggio said, “but it’s never been more accurate than speaking about Keith Rocco, because he truly is.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Northeast Editor -Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo Credit: Rick Ibsen/Speed51.com