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John Finger Knows How to Bring the Thunder to Historic and Vintage Races – Autoweek

by Oct 28, 2022Blog0 comments

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The 78-year-old South Carolina racer is a proven sports car guy with the heart of a NASCAR Cup car
John Finger is a sports car guy with a stock car soul.
Finger built a racing resume on road courses, scoring wins in IMSA (including a 2000 class victory in the 24 Hours of Daytona) as both a Mazda factory driver and a privateer and dominating SCCA hillclimbs on practically every mountain within reach.
But Finger, who lives in prime stock car racing country in Greenville, S.C., always felt the attraction of the grip and growl of big-horsepower NASCAR vehicles. As his sports car career ended, he jumped with both feet into historic and vintage car racing, especially enjoying bringing stock car thunder to that discipline and making noise against the sports car entries.
Finger is 78 and still racing, and a lifetime of driving across motorsports disciplines has left him with a race shop filled to the rafters with all manner of cars, equipment, motors, memorabilia and enough automobile parts to stock a small Army vehicle depot. And he’s poised to buy another old race car at any moment.
Finger has a web of connections across the stock car racing world. If a vintage NASCAR vehicle becomes available, he typically knows about it quickly and will be among the bidders. The same is true for the big engines that power stock cars from Daytona to Phoenix and beyond. In one corner of his shop is a formidable row of six Dodge racing powerplants, one carrying the label of the former Evernham Motorsports team. Finger says he picks these up at auctions for a fraction of the real cost.
“The rules where I race aren’t necessarily clear, so I quote Smokey Yunick,” Finger said. “The rules say a 358 engine. They don’t say which one. So I race a Chevy with a Dodge motor. This kind of stuff is fun, safe, fast and relatively inexpensive compared to anything else. You can buy a motor—maybe sneak up on one at an auction–for eight or nine thousand. It’s basically an $80,000 engine.”
Finger’s shop is an eclectic mix of racing stuff. An inventory would last through Christmas. In some other decade. On lifts are former NASCAR vehicles driven by Jimmy Spencer and Scott Pruett. A Kyle Petty car dressed in Wells Fargo livery sits with its hood up, a project underway. A former Petty Busch Series car is nearby. In another room, the one Finger calls the museum, is a bright red Ford last raced by driver Geoffrey Bodine and team owner Bud Moore, a classic by any measure. A Smokin’ Joe’s crew shirt hangs on the wall.
Finger describes the Pruett Chevrolet, still carrying Oakwood Homes sponsorship, as a “real NASCAR road race car.” He races it frequently in vintage/historic events. And “race” is the appropriate verb. Historic racing events are often more “show” than “go” as drivers and owners are sometimes touchy about damaging their often expensive vehicles. Finger has no such qualms running against BMWs and Maseratis.
“The stock car group races pretty hard,” he said. “There’s a group of us that are going to race hard. I outran Bill Elliott a couple years back. After the race I’m talking to him, and, talking about another guy, he said, ‘I should have turned him over there in the esses.’ I guess we’re the rough bunch of the weekend. But at those races, everybody wants to see and hear the stock cars because they make a bunch of noise.”
In a career that saw Finger win at Long Beach and Miami (“From sea to shining sea,” as he puts it) and places in between, his ARCA victory at age 57 at Watkins Glen in 2001 remains a highlight. He was leading late in a former Roush Racing Ford and survived a crash with several other cars on the white-flag lap to win under caution.
He ran the Busch (now Xfinity) Series race the next day at the Glen and finished 24th in another Ford. He had hoped to add a Cup race to his wide-ranging resume but wasn’t able to put together a workable deal.
“It wasn’t that I had anything against running ovals, but there’s more to running road courses in the fastest cars,” he said. “It’s like a chess game. I still enjoy it, and I still feel comfortable, although I’m not nearly as brave as I used to be. I don’t want to go quite as fast. When you hit your arm or knee, it hurts more than it used to.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Finger used an assortment of cars and powerplants to absolutely dominate the SCCA’s Chimney Rock (N.C.) Hillclimb, a solo event that sent cars up the mountain on a narrow road with numerous hairpin turns. Go too fast, and you’re off the mountain and into a tree. He won the overall title there 12 times, one year hauling a large video camera attached to the car to get a better view of his line.
Now he shares his racing expertise with kids as part of a program run by the Chandler School in Greenville. His John Finger Racing hauler still carries cars to road courses around the Southeast, helping to introduce students to the finer points of motorsports.
“It’s basically using a Late Model setup for road courses—not at all like the current Cup cars,” Finger said. “It’s an inexpensive way to race, and the car is simple. The kids can see how the braking works and how the wiring fits and all that.
“I have a little more interest in safety than I used to.”
“I’m still subject to run about anything at any time, but I have a little more interest in safety than I used to.”
Once owner of a Mazda dealership in Greenville, Finger worked during the day there and then put in long hours in his race shop. “I worked half the night at the shop back in the day getting cars ready before we loaded them to go race,” he said. “I always wanted my cars ready to race when we left here. I heard too many stories of guys working on their cars in the trailer while they were driving to Daytona.”
Although Finger has bought and traded more race cars over the years than he can remember, he’s always on the hunt for another bargain. And another car he can drive too fast on another road course.