His voice was the face of Riverhead Raceway. Yet, Bob Finan is not who you might expect him to be.
Finan’s longtime association with auto racing aside, he isn’t a motorhead, isn’t a gearhead. One isn’t going to find him ogling muscle cars or attending car shows.
That’s not him. He says he knows nothing about cars.
“I could tell when a car is not running right,” he said. “I could almost tell you what it is. Don’t ask me to do anything about it.”
The interesting thing about it is that Finan has spent the majority of his life around cars. Not just any cars — race cars.
While Finan admittedly isn’t mechanically inclined, he has skills that have defined his extraordinary career as a stock car racing public address announcer.
Finan, who will turn 65 in February, spent 47 years announcing races, mostly for Riverhead Raceway, a connection that continues even though he called his last race for the racetrack Nov. 12 and moved to Dunedin, Fla.
The man who announced racing legends like Charlie Jarzombek and Fred Harbach is a legend himself. Acclaimed as the longest-serving announcer in Long Island motorsports history, Finan has left behind a legacy that demonstrates the impact a PA announcer can have on a community. That is why Finan has been named the Riverhead News-Review’s 2022 Sports Person of the Year.
Finan’s introduction to auto racing came as a 13-year-old visiting Islip Speedway for the first time in 1971. Sitting in the front row by a turn where dust and pieces of rubber tire flew in the air, the young Finan was captivated by the spectacle.
He loved it.
“When I walked into that racetrack and I saw those Modifieds and then the Figure Eights and the Demolition Derby,” he recalled in a phone interview from his Dunedin home, “I just looked at my friends and said, ‘This is it! We are seeing something magical.’ ”
That magical sense never left Finan.
In 1973 he bought a season pass to Islip Speedway. He spent Sundays reading auto racing trade papers from front to back.
Finan’s life course turned in 1975. A promoter, Tom Galan, gave him an opportunity to announce a Modified qualifying race in Riverhead Raceway’s former creaky, wooden press box on stilts. Following a five-minute crash course, Finan recalled, Galan patted him on the back, said, “You got it,” and walked away.
Finan said: “I was definitely nervous, but there was a little bit of me that said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be able to do this or I’m not. This is really my only spot in this sport.’ ”
It was an unlikely start to a long career that surprised even Finan himself. “The comedian in me wants to say, ‘Yeah, I fooled them for 47 years,’ ” he said.
With no college and no formal training, the Brentwood High School graduate began working full-time as a track announcer and public-relations person for Barbara and Jim Cromarty at Islip Speedway and Riverhead Raceway. He worked for the Cromartys for 38 years until they sold Riverhead Raceway in 2015, but Finan remained, serving current owners Tom Gatz and Connie Partridge.
On race days, Finan scoured the pit area, notebook in hand, talking to drivers to collect information to include in his commentary, press releases and stories.
“Bob would always want to find out what the story was,” said Stephen Halpin of Wading River, Finan’s announcing partner for 29 years. “… It gives the fans a human side of who these people are who are racing.”
Dylan Slepian, a Modified driver from Lake Grove, said, “He just wanted to sharpen his pencil and have the latest information.”
So much of that information remains in Finan’s head. He can rattle off records, statistics and history at the drop of a hat, astounding people with his recall. Finan once explained to someone marveling at his computer-like memory for facts and track history: “It’s my passion. I love it more than life itself sometimes.”
For all of Finan’s retention ability, there are some statistics that are beyond even his encyclopedic knowledge. He never counted how many races he announced. “Sometimes” he remarked, “ I say to myself: Did I actually talk to a million people?”
Yet, there is an amazing figure that stands out. The number of race days Finan has missed over 47 years: three.
That’s it. Three!
He missed back-to-back shows 30 years ago to attend a brother’s wedding and a family birthday and he missed one in 2013 when his son, Bill, got married.
(Halpin, by the way, has a remarkable attendance figure himself, missing only two shows in 29 years.)
“At the end of the day, we’re carnival barkers,” Halpin said. “We’re just trying to get everyone riled up and ready to go.”
As Finan saw it, his job was about more than just announcing. He was working for the promoters, the fans, the drivers, the sponsors and the vendors selling food and merchandise.
Halpin, 51, said Finan made their announcing partnership comfortable from the start. “To sit next to him was a dream because you knew Bob was the voice of Riverhead Raceway,” he said.
“He is all about the show,” Halpin continued. “He’s always been about the show. He makes the School Bus Demolition Derby sound like fireworks are going off.”
Finan’s talent at his craft was unquestioned.
“He could have gone down South,” Halpin said. “He could have worked for one of the networks and all of that other stuff, but he definitely wanted to stay here … He could have been big time, no problem, but this is his big time.”
A series of events led to Finan’s decision to move to Dunedin. At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, Finan lost his job at a telemarketing business. While unemployed, he cared for his father, William, who was dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. His father died last August at the age of 90.
Finan said he would have preferred an “Irish goodbye,” quietly slinking away, but word got out that he was stepping down from the announcing booth.
Finan called his last scheduled race Nov. 12, when Anthony Nocella of Woburn, Mass., won the Islip 300.
Halpin said: “People keep asking me, ‘Who’s replacing Bob Finan?’ There’s no one replacing Bob Finan.”
Although the voice of Riverhead Raceway has left, Finan’s pen remains busy. He continues to write for the racetrack.
Finan said, “I’m at peace with it now because it’s the offseason.” He noted that when next season starts, though, it will be rough on him not to be behind a mic.
“When they open that racetrack the first Saturday in May for opening night and I’m sitting down here and I’m not in that booth, I might have to go to therapy,” he said, laughing. “I might need somebody to talk to.”
Editor’s Note: There was no Sports Person of the year named in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.