The ad in the old Long Island Press read: "Wanted: 100 Men Not Afraid to Die."
This was 1971. And, as the wife of an NYPD cop working tours around the clock, June Finan always was on the lookout for ways to entertain sons Bob, Tommy and Jimmy. The ad for the 100-car demolition derby at old Islip Speedway promised to do that.
So, she rounded up her boys and a handful of neighbor kids, loaded them into her Ford Fairlane station wagon, the one with the three on the tree shifter, drove them from Brentwood to nearby Islip one July night for an evening of auto racing and motorized mayhem.
"I wouldn't have known a stock car from a soccer ball back in the day," Bob Finan, 64, recalled. But he said the moment forever changed his life.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Bob Finan said strangely enough that he's not into cars. "I'm not a car guy," he said. "If they're not racing, they don't interest me. For me, racing is magical. The sights, the sounds, the smell, the spirit. … When the racing bug bites, there's no amount of calamine lotion in the world that's going to cure you."
- "Bob and Stephen are like the Laurel and Hardy of Riverhead Raceway, the Abbott and Costello," driver John Fortin said. "They played off each other, were a great team together. Bob made it fun for the drivers, fun for the fans. He was an entertainer — and he's going to be missed."
- Finan recalled how he was once asked to call a charity softball game with the New York Islanders at Baldwin Park. The organizer, who ran a local repair shop, told him a guest was coming in for the first inning. "Up walks [Yankee Stadium announcer] Bob Sheppard, and Sheppard, who was from Baldwin, looks at us and says, 'He fixes my car. I'm going to announce the first batter — then I'm leaving.' So, for like 30 seconds, I got to work with Bob Sheppard. A highlight of my career."
The longest-serving racetrack announcer in Long Island motorsports history, Finan will call his final race at Riverhead Raceway on Nov. 12, bringing an end to a 47-year career. He's outlasted Islip Speedway and Freeport Municipal Stadium and untold other tracks on Long Island, where motorsports once was king.
He's headed into retirement in Dunedin, Florida, leaving behind generations of stock car drivers, their families, pit crews and racing fans for whom his voice on summertime Saturday nights was like hearing the late Bob Sheppard announce the next at-bat by Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium.
"I've been doing this since I'm 16, and I'm 59 now and I can't recall a time when he ever wasn't there," longtime Riverhead racer and former champion Modified and Figure-8 driver John Fortin said. "I started at Islip, then raced at Riverhead, and Bob's been the announcer my whole career."
"He didn't care if there were five people in the stands or 5,000," Stephen Halpin, who has partnered in the booth with Finan for 20 of those 47 years, said. "He brings the same enthusiasm."
As Halpin, 51, of Wading River, said: "And he doesn't do it for himself. He does it for the competitors, for the crews in the pits, for the fans. He does it because he cares."
A path never envisioned
It was a path Finan never envisioned.
A Brentwood High School graduate, Finan didn't go to college and has no formal training.
But as a 13-year-old seated that night in the front row at Islip — often the worst seat when it comes to auto racing — Finan came home covered in dirt, dust and pieces of chewed-up race tire.
"I just loved it," he said. "I got enthralled by it. I was hooked."
Before long, Finan sought out the trade papers covering short-track auto racing, among them the Gater Racing News out of upstate Liverpool, reading about all the drivers, thumbing through the black-and-white photos of cars, learning the lingo, and memorizing stats. He pooled his paper route money — he delivered the Daily News — and bought a season pass to Islip.
It wasn't long before he found himself working the pit crew for driver Joe Santiago in the old four-cylinder Mini-Modified Division.
"They handed me a wrench," Finan said, "which is kind of like giving Picasso a wrench. It ain't gonna work."
What Finan learned firsthand is that unlike the big-league drivers on TV, local drivers often worked full-time jobs and paid most of their expenses out of pocket — tires, fuel, car repairs — with limited funds coming in from local sponsors. He always remembered that.
Finan got his first break when Riverhead promoter Tom Galan let him call a Mini-Modified heat race, after giving him a five-minute crash course at the mike before a Friday night show in 1975.
Galan liked what he heard, and when Barbara and Jim Cromarty leased Islip, starting in 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 remained there after the Cromartys sold Riverhead in 2015, working under current owners Connie Partridge and Tom Gatz.
In his role as track announcer, Finan introduced drivers, their cars, and told fans basics of the race to come, such as how many laps and which division: Modified, Late Model, Super Pro Truck, Blunderbust, Figure 8, Enduros, Demolition Derby. But he didn't stop there.
He'd mention a driver's hometown, what they did for a living. He'd talk about their sponsors. And, in between, he'd pitch food on sale at the concession stands or T-shirts and memorabilia on sale at the trackside booths. He told stories, mentioned birthdays. Or graduations.
He cracked jokes. And, he'd impress upon fans — especially parents — to visit the pit area after the evening's races had ended, urging them to meet the drivers and see their race cars. He did all he could to put a human face on racing.
"When I went to Islip that first time, I remember the announcer saying, 'Here from Brentwood, driving car No. 20,' and there was that attachment for us," Finan said. "It was like, 'Hey, we're from Brentwood. We're gonna cheer this guy' …
"Short-rack racers are some of the only athletes, performers, entertainers who have to pay to perform. Not only are they putting on the show, they're customers. It costs a lot of money to put a set of tires on a car, and you're gonna need four tires every week. … Racing at this level is not just for the faint of heart, it's also not for the faint of wallet."
Didn't do it for the money
Halpin said, "Because of him, you not only knew about a driver's sponsors, but you knew what they did, like if 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 mike in my face asking how I felt, and the whole time he also was 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 calling races — and that's about 20 weekend nights a summer — Finan missed just two appearances, one to attend his son's wedding. He's appeared on ESPN2, called races all over the Northeast, and wrote weekly roundups for trade racing papers and online for the Riverhead Raceway website. He didn't do it for the money, since announcing was a side job at best.
"Since I was in diapers, he's been the voice of Riverhead Raceway and Long Island motorsports," said driver Jim Laird Jr., 35, of Rocky Point, whose family has three generations in local racing. "He's always had a way to captivate an audience that's very rare these days. You couldn't match his enthusiasm, but it's also that he's a historian. You go to Riverhead Raceway, you think of Bob Finan.
"He's Long Island racing history, himself."