Written by Ainsley Jacobs
Photography by Kevin DiOssi
Tommy Annunziata and Jim LaRocca are a match made in drag racing heaven. The duo’s dynamic is equal parts hard work, talent, determination, and pure comedy. The men are all business when it comes to getting the job done, but they aren’t afraid to harass—and laugh at—each other along the way. It’s a partnership formula that’s proven successful, and both Annunziata and LaRocca are looking to capitalize on this collaboration with their latest build.
Together, LaRocca and Annunziata captured the 2017 NMRA ProCharger Coyote Modified championship title with their supercharged PHL Racing 2014 Ford Cobra Jet Mustang, “Jessica.” When they wanted to step up to NMRA Edelbrock Renegade, though, Annunziata cringed at the idea of cutting up a true Cobra Jet, especially one that he purchased new from the dealer.
Nonetheless, the men began their 2020 season in Florida at Bradenton Motorsports Park and the 26th Annual NMRA Spring Break Shootout with Jessica in tow. There, Annunziata qualified 12th (of 13) with a 5.256 at 146.85 mph run, then went out in round one of eliminations despite a dramatic improvement to 4.909 at 146.75 mph. Knowing they had brought a knife to a gunfight was a tough pill to swallow.
“The ’14 Cobra Jet needed a tremendous amount of work to get it competitive for Renegade, and I didn’t want to front half it and destroy the interior,” noted Annunziata, who did the math on paper for the costs of converting his car versus purchasing a whole new one and ultimately chose in favor of the latter option. “We went to Bradenton 418-pounds overweight. It just didn’t make sense to keep at it, when other guys have purpose-built cars.”
Annunziata put Jessica “on the shelf” and sought her replacement. He quickly came across a for sale post from NMRA VP Racing Madditives Street Outlaw driver, Tony Hobson, who had decided to part with his 2014 Mustang.
“I wanted nothing to do with building another car, but Tommy wouldn’t leave me alone. I got bait and switched!” snarked LaRocca, who not-so-secretly loved being pulled back in.
Starting with something built fresh, specifically for a class such as Renegade, seemed like the smartest choice. Hobson’s former entry featured a tubular front end, carbon fiber doors, an upgraded rearend, spindle mounts, and more bells and whistles that whetted Annunziata’s and LaRocca’s appetites. About a month after their Florida outing, the partners snapped up the S197 and were eager to get rolling, but the pandemic slowed their roll.
Instead of lamenting the racing hiatus, Annunziata focused his energy and attention on his family. His youngest son, Daniel, is a standout baseball player with a rigorous schedule while his oldest son, Thomas, is an up-and-coming star in both the SuperKartsUSA and United States Pro Kart Series go-karting series, with a bright future in Formula racing. Annunziata also has a 5-year-old daughter, Alivia, whom he adores.
“It’s a difficult balancing act to manage everyone’s schedules with my own racing schedule and how busy I am with work,” said the proud father. A mortgage banker by trade, who is hardly ever at home, Annunziata knows that, despite the stress and pressure, he’s blessed to be able to do everything he does. “They’re the world’s greatest kids and I try to give them everything I can. I couldn’t do any of this without my wife, Roxanne. She holds the house down and takes care of everything.”
Growing up poor instilled a relentless work ethic in Annunziata who channeled the struggles of his early years into his success as an adult. The attitude serves him well in racing, as challenges are nonstop and the weak are whittled out. So, when the pandemic put a kink in his plans, Annunziata wasn’t phased by the unexpected downtime. Fortunately, LaRocca shares the same sentiments, and the men simply got to work rebuilding their new Mustang to their own specs in preparation for whenever they would be able to get back to the track.
First, the duo toted the 25.3 SFI-certified chassis to Farks Supercars in New Jersey for some suspension changes. “We went with a longer upper control arm in the rear, a new wishbone setup, 7-inch-travel shocks, and more adjustment in both the front and rear,” noted LaRocca, who admittedly gave the Farks team a hard time with his list of requirements. The team there also installed Racecraft components front and rear, along with Santhuff shocks from Afterworks, TBM brakes, and a Ford 9-inch rearend.
“They all think Jim is crazy because he thinks of everything down to the last nth-degree of how a car can go down the track and if he sees something he doesn’t like, even if it won’t affect anything, he remakes it,” laughed Annunziata of his friend of 30-plus years perfectionist nature. “But everyone is happy to work with him, because they learn so much. Jim even lets me voice my opinion, and then he just does it his way anyway!”
One of the biggest changes the men desired from this new-to-them Mustang was to get the car as light as possible so that they could put the weight required to be Renegade class-legal wherever they wanted it, in order to keep the nose down and clock quick 60-foot times. The car was stripped, lightweight components and fasteners were used, and ultimately the new girl tipped the scales at 2,800 pounds—nearly 100 pounds below where she needed to be—a far cry from her predecessor’s predicament.
“I built a nice garage at my house to do oil changes and things for myself so I could get away from my performance shop,” joked LaRocca, who successfully operated LaRocca’s Performance for years and stays busy working in the information technology industry by day, of where he maintains the car he campaigns with Annunziata. “Now it’s a race car shop… again.”
LaRocca pulled the 5.0-liter Coyote engine and its 3.0-liter Whipple supercharger from Jessica and sent the heads out to Kris Starnes of Kris Starnes Power fame for porting and the Bear Block Motors casting off to Tommy Martino at Martino Race Engines to be bored and honed. Once the Coyote’s main components were back, LaRocca built it up using a Bryant crankshaft, Carrillo connecting rods, MMR pistons, Ferrea valves, COMP cams, and more.
“It’s similar to our Coyote Modified engine, but we went more radical on the cylinder heads and used lighter weight internals for Renegade,” elaborated LaRocca, who transplanted it all into the new S197 and christened the car “Jessica II.”
New Kooks headers were fabricated to utilize a side-exit design, and the engine was coupled to a Rossler Turbo 400 transmission and Neal Chance torque converter. The entire powertrain was then wired to run on a Holley Dominator EFI engine management system, and LaRocca pieced together a custom harness that allows for everything to remain attached to the engine with just a simple disconnect from the firewall.
Sticking a tried-and-true Whipple supercharger, but moving up to the latest 3.8-liter unit, Annunziata and LaRocca knew they didn’t need a different power adder, but they did change the gearing in the transmission and rearend to more adequately utilize the power the blower would produce.
To keep the car’s character consistent with its predecessor and to pay homage to the original Jessica, Jessica II was wrapped with the same attention-grabbing flame theme that has become icon to Annunziata and LaRocca’s team. It’s so similar, in fact, that the men often have fans stop by to ask if it’s the same car as their championship-winning machine.
The finished product was exactly what they had hoped for—something akin to their previous setup but able to handle more power and much more user-friendly.
“The removable stock-parameter front nose and larger transmission tunnel made it a lot easier to work on, even though we’re working on it more!” quipped LaRocca, who especially appreciates not having to dig around or crawl under the dash. “Before, it would take me a weekend to pull the motor out and put it back in. Now, I can do it in two hours.”
Finally, it was time for Annunziata to get behind the wheel and for LaRocca to call the shots (even more than he usually does) at the track. The New Jersey/Florida-based boys cruised back to Bradenton in March for the 2021 BMR Suspension NMRA Spring Break Shootout with high hopes, but it was a rough weekend full of new-car blues. Although he had run 4.73 at 149.75 mph with a 1.10-econd 60-foot time in testing, once again, Annunziata found himself unusually low in the NMRA Edelbrock Renegade qualifying order. Fifteenth going into eliminations, after having run only 5.722 at 143.80 mph, he wasn’t even able to make the first round as the engine had evicted a connecting rod out through its block and created an unwanted bearing inspection window in the process.
“In Coyote Modified, we knew how hard we could push everything and never turned it up too hard. Now, in Renegade, we’re starting to find the limits on camshafts and transmissions and other parts,” confessed Annunziata, who’s seen an uncomfortable number of blown head gaskets after cranking up the boost.
Despite qualifying much better at the following race in Georgia with a 4.689 at 152.76mph pass which put him tenth in the large combined NMRA Edelbrock Renegade/NMCA Edelbrock Xtreme Street class and making it all the way to the semi-finals, things ultimately didn’t go well overall.
“We blew another head gasket,” Annunziata said despairingly of what happened at the Scoggin Dickey Parts Center NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals presented by MAHLE Motorsport. “We had to scramble to make Georgia with whatever pats we could find. We had some pistons that were close to what we needed, so we said ‘screw it’ and made it work anyway.” Keeping the heads sealed to the block is an ongoing challenge at this boost level. “That was the second race we found out we hurt the head gaskets, and we weren’t sure what it was—maybe it was me bouncing off the rev limiter too much,” noted the man who regularly sees 9,200 rpm on his tachometer.
Refusing to quit, the friends put Jessica II in the trailer and made the long drive out to St. Louis, Missouri, for their third NMRA Edelbrock Renegade attempt of the season at the NMRA/NMCA Super Bowl of Street-Legal Drag Racing at World Wide Technology Raceway. They arrived in time to make a test hit on Thursday before the event and it was a solid shot with the car, but it came at a cost—a hurt transmission.
“The trans was hanging and we thought it was the transbrake, but later found out the planetaries had gone so when I let go, it wouldn’t leave because it was hanging in reverse a little,” detailed the driver. Quickly, and along with their invaluable teammate and crew man George Brower, Annunziata and LaRocca got to work swapping in a new gearbox and changed the rear end. After spending all day and most of Friday underneath the Mustang, Annunziata lined up to begin qualifying with what was intentionally a “soft” pass. Still, he was able to click off a new personal best of 4.596 at 152.62 mph to wind up ninth in the combined NMRA/NMCA category, but the heads had lifted yet again.
Begrudgingly, the men decided to pack up and drive 17 hours home instead of continuing to thrash.
“We still run a wet block in the car and didn’t want it to blow water out all over the place,” noted Annunziata, who made it back in time to surprise his son at one of his baseball games. “Jim said he just didn’t have the steam, or the gaskets, to make the repairs. So, we were done.” In addition to the gasket trouble, too, the guys are also seeing an issue of bent camshafts. Perhaps its related to the high-revs, or how much more power the big blower is producing, or perhaps it’s indicative of another issue altogether. Regardless, Annunziata and LaRocca are working hard to get it sorted out so they can quit spending money by exceeding the mechanical limits of their components.
As they work through the new car blues, they’ve armed themselves with a backup plan: building a spare, second engine.
“On the mod motors, you’ve gotta pull ‘em out to do the head gaskets. This way, we can just swap the entire engine instead,” said LaRocca, who believes in working smart, not hard.
With half of the 2021 Holley NMRA Ford Nationals drag racing season already done and gone, Annunziata and LaRocca made it a point to test more.
“Other than the Thursdays before the races, we hadn’t been able to test the car at all,” added Annunziata, who spent time at Maryland’s Cecil County Dragway prior to the NMRA Ford Performance Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park in June. “We haven’t been able to try different launch rpm or converters or gears or anything. All we had done so far was get Jim to get the fuel and timing curves close.”
When it came time for the event in Norwalk, Ohio, it wound up being more of the same uphill battle for the men. They fought an electrical issue, which turned out to be a bad crank trigger sensor, and ended up qualified further down in the order than they have liked with an early exit in the first round of eliminations to boot.
The hits kept right on coming, too, as they had to sit out the following race in Martin, Michigan, while waiting on parts. Keeping a positive attitude as always, though, Annunziata knows he and LaRocca have a promising combination—they just need the stars to align so they can get more test laps and data in the books. Only one race remains in their tumultuous 2021 season, and they are hopeful that they can close out the year on a high note.
With troubles that could cause friction for partners who don’t have such a solid relationship, Annunziata and LaRocca rally together to solve the issues together instead. Their friendship goes back to when Tommy was 18 years old and needed help with his 5.0 Mustang, and LaRocca told him “I have no problem teaching you how to fix it, but I’m not going to do it for you,” and forever earned the young man’s respect… even though the tables have turned a bit as the years progressed. “Now, Jim wants me as far away from the car as I can possibly be. He says I can drive the car, but I can’t touch it!” laughed Annunziata
LaRocca’s patience, mentorship, and expert skill have added up to a successful career for both himself and for Annunziata. When he’s not busy working on their Edelbrock Renegade entry, LaRocca also works with Bill Putnam’s impressive NMRA JDM Engineering Limited Street Mustang as well.
“Jim is the reason that car flies,” Annunziata proudly boasted of his friend’s involvement with the UPR Products-backed and championship-winning car. “He’s the brainchild behind the engine combination.”
No matter where the future takes the men—and they’re hoping that’s back to the winner’s circle—Annunziata and LaRocca are having a blast building something truly meaningful: memories, not just a car. And, without a doubt, they’ll argue and bicker and give each other hell the whole time, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Owner: Tommy Annunziata/Jim LaRocca
Driver: Tommy Annunziata
Hometown: New Jersey
Class: NMRA Edelbrock Renegade
Crew: George Brower/ Annunziata/LaRocca
Car Year/Make/Model: 2014 Ford Mustang Cobra Jet
Engine builder: Martino/Starnes/LaRocca
Displacement: 315 cubic inches
Block: Bear Block Motors
Bore: 3.63 inches
Stroke: 3.7 inches
Crank: Sonny Bryant
Heads: Ford 5.2-liter
Cam type: COMP Cams
EFI system: Holley Dominator
Power adder: Whipple 3.8-liter
Fuel brand and type: VP Racing Fuels C16
Headers and exhaust: Kooks
Transmission: Turbo 400
Transmission Builder: Rossler
Rearend: Ford 9-inch MR
Body and/or chassis builder: Ford 2014 Mustang Farks Supercars
Suspension (Front): Racecraft
Suspension (Rear): racecraft
Brakes (Front): TBM
Brakes (Rear): TBM
Wheels (front): Weld Racing
Wheels (Rear): Weld Racing
Tires (Front): Mickey Thompson
Tires (Rear): Mickey Thompson
Aftermarket body modifications: Lift-off nose carbon doors
Safety equipment: 6.50 cert
Vehicle weight: 3,125 pounds
Quickest ET: 4.59 seconds
Best 60-foot: n/a
Fastest mph: 156.89