The ad in the old Long Island Press read, “Wanted: 100 men unafraid of death.”
It was 1971. And as the wife of a 24-hour NYPD cop, June Finan was always looking for ways to entertain her sons, Bob, Tommy, and Jimmy. The advertisement for the 100-car Demolition Derby at the old Islip Speedway promised this.
So she rounded up her boys and a handful of neighborhood kids, loaded them into her Ford Fairlane station wagon, the one with the three of them on the tree shovel, drove them from Brentwood to nearby Islip one July evening for an evening of car racing and motorized mayhem.
“I couldn’t have told a production car from a football back then,” recalls Bob Finan, 64. But he said the moment changed his life forever.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Bob Finan oddly said it was him not in cars. “I’m not a car guy,” he said. “If they don’t race, I don’t care about them. For me, racing is magic. The sights, the sounds, the smell, the spirit… When racing fever bites, there’s not a lot of calamine lotion in the world that’s going to cure you.”
- “Bob and Stephen are like Laurel and Riverhead Raceway’s Hardy, Abbott and Costello,” said driver John Fortin. “They played against each other, together they were a great team. Bob made it fun for the drivers, fun for the fans. He was an entertainer – and he will be missed.”
- Finan remembered being asked to phone once a charity softball game with the New York Islanders at Baldwin Park. The organizer, who ran a local repair shop, told him a guest would be coming to the first inning. “Here we go [Yankee Stadium announcer] Bob Sheppard, and Sheppard, who was from Baldwin, looks at us and says, “He’s fixing my car. I’ll announce the first batter – then I’ll go.’ So I worked with Bob Sheppard for about 30 seconds. A highlight of my career.”
Finan, the longest-serving circuit announcer in Long Island motorsport history, will announce his final race at Riverhead Raceway on November 12, ending a 47-year career. It has outlasted Islip Speedway and Freeport Municipal Stadium and countless other Long Island tracks where motorsport was once king.
He is retiring in Dunedin, Fla., leaving generations of stock car drivers, their families, pit crews and racing fans for whom his voice on Saturday summer nights was like hearing the late Bob Sheppard the next Race of Derek Jeter announces Yankee Stadium.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 16 and now I’m 59 and I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t there,” said the longtime Riverhead racer and former Champion Modified and Figure 8 driver John Fortin said. “I started at Islip, then raced at Riverhead, and Bob has been the announcer my entire career.”
“He didn’t care if there were five or 5,000 people in the stands,” said Stephen Halpin, who has been a partner in the stands for Finan for 20 of those 47 years. “He brings the same enthusiasm.”
As Halpin, 51, of Wading River, said: “And he’s not doing it for himself. He’s doing it for the competitors, for the pit crews, for the fans. He does it because it is important to him.”
A path never imagined
It was a path Finan had never imagined.
A graduate of Brentwood High School, Finan did not go to college and has no formal education.
But as a 13-year-old sitting in the front row at Islip that night – often the worst seat when it comes to motor racing – Finan came home covered in dirt, dust and chewed up race tires.
“I just loved it,” he said. “I loved it. I was hooked.”
It wasn’t long before Finan was hitting up the trade papers that covered short-distance car racing, including the Gater Racing News from inland Liverpool, reading about all the drivers, flipping through the black-and-white photos of cars, learning the lingo and memorizing statistics. He pooled his money for the paper route – he delivered the Daily News – and bought a season pass for Islip.
It wasn’t long before he found himself pitting for driver Joe Santiago in the old four-cylinder Mini Modified division.
“They gave me a wrench,” Finan said, “that’s like giving Picasso a wrench. This will not work.”
What Finan learned firsthand is that unlike the big drivers on TV, local drivers often held full-time jobs and paid most of their expenses out of pocket — tires, fuel, car repairs — with limited funds from local sponsors. He always remembered that.
Finan got his first break when Riverhead promoter Tom Galan had him call out a mini modified heat race after giving him a five-minute crash course on the mic before a Friday night show in 1975.
Galan liked what he heard, and when Barbara and Jim Cromarty rented Islip from 1977 until its demise in 1984, they gave Finan a job with their telemarketing company and put him in the trackside booth—first at Islip and later at Riverhead. He stayed after the Cromartys sold Riverhead in 2015, working under current owners Connie Partridge and Tom Gatz.
In his role as track announcer, Finan introduced the drivers and their cars and explained the basics of the upcoming race to the fans, such as: B. The number of rounds and the division: Modified, Late Model, Super Pro Truck, Blunderbust, Figure 8, Enduros, Demolition Derby. But he didn’t stop there.
He mentioned a driver’s hometown, what they did for a living. He would talk about their sponsors. And in between, he would offer food for sale at the concession stands or T-shirts and memorabilia for sale at the trackside stands. He told stories, mentioned birthdays. Or degrees.
He was joking. And he impressed fans – especially parents – to visit the pit area after the evening’s races were over, urging them to meet the drivers and see their race cars. He did everything to put a human face on racing.
“When I first went to Islip, I remember the announcer saying, ‘Here from Brentwood, by car #20,’ and there was this attachment to us,” Finan said. “It was like, ‘Hey, we’re from Brentwood. We’re gonna cheer for this guy’…
“Short rack racers are some of the few athletes, performers and entertainers who have to pay for their performance. Not only do they run the show, they are customers. It costs a lot of money to put a set of tires on a car and you will need four tires every week. … Racing at this level isn’t just for the faint of heart, it’s not for the faint of heart either.
Didn’t do it for the money
Halpin said: “Because of him, not only did you know about a driver’s sponsors, but you also knew what they were doing, like whether the driver was a postal worker or something. It’s the human element.”
“When I got my first win,” Fortin recalled, “he was the first guy with a mic on his face who asked me how I was feeling, and the whole time he was also whispering in my ear, ‘Don’t forget your sponsors , Don’t forget to thank your wife.’ … And the last time I won last season, he still did the same thing.
In 47 years of racing – and that’s about 20 weekend nights in the summer – Finan has only missed two performances, one to attend his son’s wedding. He has appeared on ESPN2, naming races throughout the Northeast, and has written weekly recaps for trade magazines and online for the Riverhead Raceway website. He didn’t do it for the money, as advertising was a side job at best.
“Ever since I was in diapers, he’s been the voice of motorsport at Riverhead Raceway and Long Island,” said driver Jim Laird Jr., 35, of Rocky Point, whose family has been involved in local racing for three generations. “He always had a way of captivating an audience that’s very rare these days. They couldn’t match his enthusiasm, but it’s also true that he’s a historian. When you go to Riverhead Raceway, think of Bob Finan.
“He’s Long Island racing history himself.”