Q & A: Ted Finkenbinder
On being inducted to the Calistoga Speedway Hall of Fame and racing for nearly 60 years
Interview + Photos: Saroyan Humphrey
Feature | It’s a weekday at Finkenbinder Motorsports, and Ted Finkenbinder is making morning coffee at his three-stall, open-wheel racing shop in Fairfield, California. Two shop cats greet visitors as they enter the cavernous workspace. “That’s ‘Momma’ and somewhere around here is ‘Blue,’” he says of the two friendly strays that have adopted his racing shop as their domain.
Behind the coffee maker are about a hundred black and white 8x10 racing photos wallpapering the wall from the 1960s and ’70s. They show Finkenbinder’s hardtop and super-modified race cars in action at local dirt ovals. “That 62 car was the first car I ever built,” the 77-year-old says, pointing up with youthful enthusiasm. “That was in 1964. The next year was the ’66 car. That’s when I started racing …”
Today he’s talking with his chief mechanic, Dave Higgins, about the recent Cascade Wingless special event at Southern Oregon Speedway, where his regular dirt track driver, Geoff Ensign, won for the third year in a row. “It was an exciting race,” Finkenbinder says with a chuckle. “It wasn’t a gimme, that’s for sure.” It’s obvious he’s still a kid at heart when it comes to short track racing.
Along with five other Northern California racers — Billy Albini, Martin Faw, Rich Govan, Wally Talbot and the Tiner family — Finkenbinder will be inducted to the Calistoga Speedway Hall of Fame on August, 30, 2019. The annual ceremonial event is held the night before the two-night Louis Vermeil Classic at the historic half-mile dirt track at the Napa County Fairgrounds.
But as Finkenbinder celebrates his racing career, he will also be contemplating his future in the sport. His business and racing financial support system, Western Industrial Xray (WIX) is currently struggling with the bankruptcy of its primary client: PG&E. “I’ve worked with PG&E, off and on, since 1968. It’s what’s pretty much kept me alive. I’d like to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to race until the day I die but …” he says, reconsidering. “But as long as I can make it work and still have a reasonably competitive car … I don’t know. It’s not anything to worry about, really. Everything you see here in the shop is paid for.”
As an owner for the last 30-plus years, Finkenbinder has fielded sprint cars and midgets on dirt and pavement for some of the biggest names in the sport. He’s also worked with young, up-and-coming drivers for one-race agreements, or multiple racing seasons, if the chemistry is working. He’s won a USAC West Coast sprint car championship and countless main events. His black number 3F machines are a mainstay at West Coast short tracks and they’re always in the hunt.
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How does it feel to be selected for the Calistoga Hall of Fame?
I feel there are a lot of people more deserving of it than me. More than anything, I fear getting up in front of everybody and talk. I’m not a good public speaker. When I won the [USAC] championship [in ’98], I had to do an acceptance speech in Indiana, and I think I said, “Thank you” and got out of there. It scares the shit out of me and I get way too sentimental. Especially something like this [hall of fame] because it ain’t just me. It’s my wife, my family and friends, they deserve it, not me.
I think you just started writing your speech, right there.
That’ll last about two seconds and then the tears will come.
You don’t strike me as being a sentimental person; do you have a favorite memory from Calistoga?
Well, there’s the fact that I never won there. The best I’ve ever done was leading with two laps to go and going down the back straightaway and blew up. I never drove personally at Calistoga, but I never missed a race there. I always love going to Calistoga.
How did you get started racing?
It all started with my dad. We raced match races with horses.
We lived in Klamath Falls [Oregon], and my dad was a ranch hand. Every Saturday they’d have a match race and I think I was in eighth or ninth grade and we had a pretty fast little quarter horse. I don’t remember too much about those days, but I remember one time a girl came over to match up against us. We’d won a couple of races and she come over to beat us. The word gets around on those horses, you know. So, I gave her a break on the start. We didn’t have a [starting] gate; we’d just drop a flag and you’re off. She beat my ass … and that wasn’t supposed to happen (laughs). My dad had 40 bucks on the race and he never let me live it down.
Then, when I was in the Navy, I was running around with a guy name Bob Greville and he had a ’40 Ford with a Chrysler hemi in it. This was down in Long Beach in about ’62-’63. We’d go to Lions Drag Strip and I was helping him out on the car, killing time in the Navy.
I wasn’t really excited about drag racing. Then we went to Ascot [Park]…. Now that was exciting! The racing wasn’t over in two seconds and it lasted a little while. (laughs) I said, “This is for me!”
So, when I got out of the Navy in ’64, I came back here to Fairfield and I ran into a guy named Bob Purcell and I went to the races with him and helped him crew a little bit.
I found a coupe in a lady’s garage. Now, I’m not kidding ya, the only thing wrong with it was it had a split on the left front fender. It had all the mohair upholstery. I don’t know how long it had been sitting there in the garage; her husband had died. This car was perfect. Well, about four hours later, it looked like that (pointing to the photograph of the No. 62 hardtop stock car).
I didn’t have a [racing] motor, so I picked up a Pontiac motor with three twos on it from the junkyard and put it in there. It didn’t run worth a shit. So, the next year, I did a little more work, got some money together and started building a motor. I raced two or three years in my own car and then I started driving other people’s cars, then I started building them again …
But after going to Ascot, that was it. I liked the round-y thing, liked watching ’em and the action!
You lived in Northern California when you were growing up?
I went to school in Fairfield. We lived in Klamath Falls but I didn’t get along with my stepmother. So, I left home when I was 14 and came down here. My uncle had a garage with a room upstairs and I lived in that garage and worked in a box factory after school. I delivered papers.
I finished school and I was kinda out of control at the time. I got caught selling illegal firecrackers on the Fourth of July. Well, my uncle, he was on the reserve police force in Suisun, he kinda threatened me, and said, “You got a choice, you either go in the service, or I’ll turn you in.” So, I went in the Navy. I probably shoulda stayed in the Navy because it was a pretty good life. I enjoyed it.
When I got out of the Navy I worked as a bartender for a while and worked with Frank Purcell, Bob’s brother, doing pumps. We ran around the country servicing irrigation pumps and stuff. Finally, I went to work for Kaiser Steel in Napa.
When you came back to Fairfield, where did you start racing?
I started at Vallejo. That’s where we raced the hardtops. I never missed a race for 13 years. From ’65 to ’77. When Vallejo shut down [in ’79] everybody kinda moved to Petaluma.
I also raced at Altamont. A little history on that place: I was the second car to ever get on the race track when it was first opened [in ’66]. Then the super-modifieds came in and I messed with those for a couple of years at West Capital.
Then I went up to Idaho in ’78 or ’79. I was doing x-ray for oil and gas pipeline stuff and in ’84 the oil and gas business just went to shit, so I packed up and came back here.
Who do you remember racing with in your days as a driver?
Well, Rich Govan. He’s also going to be inducted this year. And, Leroy Geving! We were good friends; a lot of history. There’s probably a lot of things we did, we shouldn’t be talking about. Vallejo Speedway was a Peyton Place, you know.
I can tell you a story about him. We went to the Sacramento Mile for the Champ cars in about ’67-’68. Well, he had a ’65 El Camino and we’re stuck in traffic trying to get out of there and we’d had a few drinks. We were known for having a few drinks back then. Anyway, he jumped that thing onto the damned sidewalk and took off, scattering people. How we got home without getting killed, I don’t know. (laughs)
There was the “Sundrop Kid,” Larry Damitz. That guy was incredible. He was still racing [until he passed away at 87 in 2017]! He was the smoothest guy qualifying. It never looked like he was going fast. He’d just float her in there and that’s just the way he was.
How did you get started as a sprint car owner?
[After I came back from Idaho] I bought Sam Bailey’s last sprint car and I drove it twice. Once I started at the back and it was ok … and then the next time I started on the front row of a heat race at Petaluma and won the damn thing — and quit. That was it! (laughs) It scared the shit out of me. Going from a 3,000-pound hardtop to a 1500 pound sprint car was … so, I quit.
And, oddly enough, as an owner, I started off with a bang. In ’87 or ’88, I hired Brian Crockett, who worked at Bailey Brothers, and his crew chief, Woody [Eric Van Ornum]. They worked together quite a bit and we kinda formed a team — and the first five races we won. Then in the sixth race, we were leading at Petaluma and the left rear wheel came off. I’d put it on and … they gave me the nickname ‘wingnut’ (laughs). So, I lived with ’wingnut’ for a couple years.
But I thought, this is way too easy. Well, I found out how easy it ain’t! (laughs)
You weren’t fooling around with a driver like Crockett.
Yeah, we were deadly.
Then, Crockett wanted to take his own car to Arizona for a four-race series. So, I put Steve Kent in the car. Well, we won three out of the four races and ran second in the last one and Brian Crockett beat us. But we won the series.
Business was picking up; you’ve had other accomplished drivers in your cars.
Brent Kaeding drove my car at Marysville, and we won over there and that kinda started me bouncing around with the more known drivers. The car started making a name for itself and I started getting phone calls. I never really had a permanent driver. Then [Australian] Jamie Cobby hit me up at some point there in about ’90-’91. When Cobby drove for me … Dean Mills told me, he counted ’em up, he said, that during those two and a half years that we raced, we won 53 main events.
Cobby came over here last year, 25 years later, and we went to Watsonville [for the Pombo/Sargent Classic], won the heat, won the dash and was leading the main event and one of those young, anxious kids took us out when we got in traffic.
Then somewhere in about ’96, ’97, I started racing asphalt because USAC had started the Pacific Coast Nationals. It was the first authorized USAC series out here and it was asphalt and dirt. They did that until ’98. Well, Ken Pierson won it the first two years. We were traveling all over, going into New Mexico, Colorado, racing dirt and asphalt. It was combination points.
So, when we started racing the asphalt, we were at Altamont and Jimmy Sills was supposed to drive and he didn’t make it because of traffic or something. So, Jason Leffler was there racing his midget and we put him in our sprint car. He was so small and the seat was kinda big, so we put coats around him to fit in the damned thing. He had to start in the back because he didn’t qualify and about 16 laps into [the main event], Jeff, one of the crew guys, says, ‘… We’re gonna win this damned thing!’ And he did. He won his very first [sprint car] race ever in my car!
And then he got big. I have a signed picture of that win from him at the house.
You won the USAC championship in ’98.
That was the only time I ever really chased points. I did it with five different drivers. I got the big ring. That was the last year they gave out the rings.
Tell me about the time Tony Stewart drove your car.
[In 2002] Tony drove my [asphalt sprint] car at Altamont [for a USAC Western Sprint race] and won with it. He was racing [NASCAR Cup] at Sears Point. He called me up and he wanted a car to drive, I said, “OK, we’ll get a car together.”
So, he flew [to Altamont] in a damned helicopter [from Sears Point]. I’ve never had nobody fly in with a helicopter to my race.
To tell you how good this guy is; he gets in the car, it was the first time he’d sat in the car and we adjusted the seat a little bit. He went out in hot laps, broke the track record. Boom! Right out of the gate. He came back in and says, “Drop the panhard bar in the back 3/16 of an inch; it’s just a little loose. Take those tires off and put the ones that we hot lapped with back on.” So, I put the used tires back on because he liked that matched set better than the new ones I just put on. Anyway, obviously, he was fast time. We ran second in the heat race but we still had to start sixth in the feature because that’s USAC rules.
So, the green flag drops on the main event and about 15-20 laps into it, we’re running about third and I remember, somewhere about 8-10 laps to go… all of a sudden, it just went whooot [and dropped back]. I’m thinking, holy shit, what happened to my car? I’m just nervous as hell; I’m sweating. Here I’ve got this world-famous guy in the car. … Then he lit that thing off — cooled the tires for two, three laps — and here he comes. One lap before the end, there were two cars in front of him. He used one of ’em, the lapped car, for a pick and slid up underneath the leader and won the damn race. It was the slickest thing that I’d ever seen. The crowd went nuts. That guy is a wheelman.
Kyle Larson drove your car, too. It was his first time on asphalt in 2009.
Yes, he drove the car [at Roseville] and hated it. I don’t know whether it was the setup or … but he was driving it in too straight and it was pushing like a freight train. He finally got it around a few times pretty good. Anyway, for him to go from that to what he’s doing now, is … but he did have some trouble with it. He was just trying to get some kind of history on asphalt. He was young [17 years old].
Are you still running the Silver Crown series?
Well, I don’t have the money to go back there [Midwest]. But I do have asphalt and dirt Silver Crown cars. They’re in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with my friend, Chuck Cline. It’s easier to transport out of Oklahoma, if we decide to race. But it’s so damned expensive. If I had a lot of money and some sponsorship, that would be a different story but …
Geoff Ensign has been a regular driver for you in your dirt sprint cars. What’s made that work so well?
Yeah, he won Turkey Night [at Ventura in 2016]. He’s not a prima donna. He’s a good ol’ boy. He wants to race and he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. He’s been driving for us for a while. Geoff wasn’t setting the world on fire until we got together. He was kinda struggling. But I guess with my horsepower and Dave’s expertise, he started coming on. We’ve won a lot of races. He’s not a prima donna. He’s just a fun guy to race with.
Would you say a lot of race car drivers are prima donnas?
Some! Some don’t want to get their hands dirty. They just want to show up with their goddamned helmet and go. Well, they probably have about as good a chance as a fart in a windstorm to get in my car. Because there’s no money in racing, you know, and I probably give it everything I got. Every penny it makes goes back into it — and some that shouldn’t. But we’ve managed to come out with some pretty strong cars. They’re always competitive.
You know, there are so many of these young kids coming up. Unfortunately, they’re not the type to start building the shit themselves, like Geoff Ensign. They blow daddy’s money. That ain’t the way to go. When I started, our speed shop was a local goddamn junkyard.
Who makes up your team?
Dave Higgins [chief mechanic]. If a car crashes, you want Dave there. He gets along real well with Geoff. He don’t give a shit about looks, as long as it runs. We’ve won a lot of races together.
Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of great people. I mentioned Woody earlier. He worked with me and set up the race cars through the ‘90s. We won a lot of races. There’s Ricky Humphers out of Sacramento. He and I built the asphalt sprint cars together. Hell, we even won the ‘best in competition class’ at the Autorama [in Sacramento] one year. It’s a beautiful car. He was always at the shop working. There’s Jeff Jewel. He was a shop foreman for a long time. He kept the tools organized. He went everywhere with the car, too.
Everyone who’s worked with me has been a good friend and it’s part of what’s made this an incredible history for me.
Who’s been building your engines over the years?
[Sam] Bailey built my first engine in ’67 — top of the line. We didn’t have fuel injection. We had the Weber carburetors … and my entire motor, brand new everything was 3,500 bucks. You can’t even buy one Weber carburetor today for 3,500 bucks.
Sam and I go way back. He built that first motor for me in his garage. That was long before they ever had Bailey Brothers [Performance Center] out there [in American Canyon, California]. I’ve stuck with ’em. I can’t tell you how many motors we’ve got from them.
So, how many race cars do you own?
Well, I keep the spec sprint at the house. There’s the midget (pointing). Those two are 410s, a 360 and there are asphalt cars in there [garage next door]. One of ’em needs a motor and one of ’em needs a rear end.
They told me one time you got to be 70 years old before you can own a midget. Well, I got one. (laughs) That one’s got an Esslinger in it and the two in Oklahoma got Chevys.
You’ve given a lot of drivers a shot.
Really, what happened was, after Tony won [at Altamont], I kinda thought, where do I go now? And that’s when I started messing with the young kids. There have been so many people who have driven my car. I gave Colton Slack a shot recently. I saw him in a spec [sprint] and give him a shot to see what he could do. Davey Hamilton — senior and junior — have both been in the car.
Now I got this new kid that’s been driving the asphalt [sprint] car: Dillon Tucker. He got in the car the first time and won with it. We’ve raced over at Stockton [99 Speedway] a few times and he’s got two clean sweeps, a third, and a crash when we broke the rear end. I can’t really count that against him. He’s been fast.
What do your drivers bring to the table when they drive your car?
With the young kids, I just tell ’em, ‘Hey, buy some tires,” or whatever, if you want a shot at it. As long as it ain’t costing me a hell of a lot. Obviously, you don’t ask Tony Stewart to buy tires for ya’ … but he never took any of the money, either. His contract was the paper bag that he got from the track promoter when he left. (laughs)
More than anything, I like getting their input on the cars here at the shop. Because racing just ain’t Saturday at the race track. It’s what goes on [at the shop]. It’s the camaraderie through the week and after the race. They need to be involved and want to participate.
You’ve certainly have gone at it full bore.
For me, it’s because I’m not racing for points. I don’t like being strapped to a specific deal. “… Go where you want to go, do what you want to do” is my motto. Years ago there used to be open-competition races. They’d put up a bunch of money. … But now there are so many classes. There’s the spec class, the 305 thing … There are so many classes that it’s going to kill the racing totally.
Well, I like the Hunt Series because it’s a non-wing class [in Northern California]. The King of the West, or whatever, is too much follow the leader. There’s no real racing in it anymore. Yeah, you may see four passes a night but whoever takes the green first at a place like Calistoga is probably going to win. That’s not racing to me. The non-wing thing is just better.
What’s kept you going after all of these years? What’s driven you to be a competitive racer for so long?
The people! The people you get to meet; the different people, personalities and all of ’em bring a story and a different way of looking at things to the crew. It’s an exciting thing to see something that you have a part in — go! And, it keeps you thinking.
It all goes back to getting beat by a girl on a horse: if you think you should give ’em a break, don’t!