Freiburger and I were drifting the Raunchero on a snow-covered road somewhere in Alaska during filming of “Lucky,” ROADKILL episode 13, when I got the call from my wife. My dad had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
I listened to the details for nearly an hour while the film crew waited in the snow. Then I drove the Raunchero toward our next checkpoint without talking for who knows how long before I finally told Freiburger what was happening. Eventually I sucked it up, put on a happy face, and got back to work, because that’s what Dad would’ve done. I’ll never forget how it felt to learn that the most important man in my world was battling something even Marty McFly has yet to overcome. Dad and I had spent more than a decade living in different states while I attended college, tinkered with cars, and began my career. The day I got the phone call, I vowed to be close to him so that we could live the kind of life that bonds sons and fathers forever.
Gary Finnegan is the toughest S.O.B. I know. I’ve yet to witness him complain about his luck, and he’s grabbed life firmly by the horns ever since the diagnosis. Lots of kids look up to athletes, entertainers, or celebrities. Dad has always been my Indiana Jones—an ultra-competitive, whip-smart leader who gives you nothing unless you earn it. Even when I was a kid sitting on Park Place while he was holding down Boardwalk, I wasn’t getting that Monopoly without a fight. The man is tough but fair, and I can only hope to do half as good a job raising my sons as he did. I’m not telling you this story because my dad needs your pity. I’m telling because it explains why, although I have a brand-new and nearly finished drag boat sitting in my garage at home, I ended up buying back a drag boat that I sold to my best friend, Jeff Conrad, five years ago.
A short while after getting the call, my wife and I bought a house in Georgia and moved our family there to spend more time with my family. Dad wanted to get out of the house and see America. I wanted to give him something beside his health to root for. I decided to take him on a road trip that involved drag boat racing, a sport I’m addicted to, but which Dad had only seen me do twice since my rookie season in 2002. Because time is not on his side, I was looking for a way to get back on the water, pronto when Jeff mentioned he was going to put his boat up for sale. My new boat needed more work and months of testing before it would be race ready. Jeff’s boat, dubbed Wrong Way, could be race ready in less than a week. Questionable financial decision aside, it seemed like a great idea to buy the boat back from Jeff and go racing with Dad. There was one small problem: I live in Georgia, the boat was in California, and my crew was spread out in four cities. Dad and I would have to drive 2,200 miles to meet the crew at the racetrack, then test the boat as soon as we arrived, and make licensing runs before qualifying began, or we wouldn’t even be allowed to compete.
The Boat Wrong Way is a Cheyenne tunnel hull jet boat. I bought the bare, 520-pound fiberglass hull in 2005 from a boat builder in San Diego, California, and then rigged it with guidance from my late friend, Tom Papp. It’s powered by an all-aluminum 582ci Chevrolet race engine I built around 2009. It runs on 118 octane Rockett Brand racing fuel and produces 1,164 hp at 7,600 rpm without the nitrous. With the nitrous it makes about 1,600 hp. The engine is connected to a Dominator jet drive by a 20-inch-long driveshaft. It’s a direct-drive boat; there’s no transmission between the engine and the jet pump. The entire boat weighs 1,600 pounds, and the power-to-weight ratio is ridiculous, which is why it’s such a fun boat to drive. The acceleration is turn-your-eyelids-inside-out phenomenal. I spent six years racing and refining Wrong Way until it ran a best pass of 7.29 seconds at 140-plus mph in the quarter mile. In 2008 I won a National Jet Boat Association championship with it. My wife and I spent many summers floating and racing down the Colorado River, but in 2011 I sold the boat to Jeff to fund the next build. As with most things I’ve sold, on some level I did regret giving it up. Jeff was the right person to race the boat, though, and there’s no one else on the planet I would’ve considered seeing behind the wheel. Buying it back from him never entered my mind until I came up with the idea of taking my dad racing.
Dad and I watched the Falcons lose Super Bowl LI in a ROADKILL-worthy meltdown the night before we began our road trip. We left the frigid scenery of Georgia and headed toward the golden oasis of Parker, Arizona, with dreams of sunshine, cold beer, and bad jokes with good friends. It was a tight squeeze in the truck. Some might say I overpacked. We were packed in with nitrous bottles, spare Jesel shaft rocker arms, extra Odyssey batteries, a 30-pack of Yuengling lager, and enough tools to rebuild the Titanic. We made our way on Interstate 40 through five states before reaching Arizona. We did have some pretty epic conversations about life, pranks, family, and the dangers of drag boat racing as the odometer spun. I think we watched The Blues Brothers on DVD twice during the trip. Well, Dad watched. I drove. While we made the journey from Georgia, Jeff was busy getting the boat ready to race. B1 Racing in Santa Ana, California, re-installed the Nitrous Supply direct-port atmosphere enhancer systsem that I had previously yanked off the engine when I sold the boat. Testing would have to wait until we were all in one place.
We arrived at the BlueWater Hotel and Casino ahead of schedule, which left plenty of time to get our wallets slaughtered at the blackjack table. It doesn’t get any better than Parker for a drag boat race. You can see the starting line from your hotel room balcony if you’re on the right side of the hotel. Jeff towed the boat into the pits on Thursday morning, which gave us almost a full day to prep the boat before Friday’s critical test ’n’ tune session.
By midday Thursday the rest of my friends arrived, and we plugged along on the boat, checking off a sizable list of items needing attention before it was ready to hit the water. You might recall Matt F****n’ Ringer, one half of the duo who sold me and Freiburger the fabled Rotsun and Draguar. Matt is a master mechanic and fabricator, and he teamed up with Blaze O’Brien to keep the nitrous bottles filled between rounds. Blaze (yes, that is his legal name) rode his Harley all the way from Huntington Beach, California. Ben Wurster came from Sacramento, California, and when he wasn’t setting the fuel pressure for the nitrous system between rounds, he was towing the boat back and forth from our pit area to the water. Did I mention that he’s also a champion jet boat racer? Jeff was our crew chief and took a ton of work and stress off of my plate. All I had to do was focus on keeping the engine in one piece, remembering how to drive, and putting my safety gear on properly. Jeff’s wife, Steph, chauffeured my dad around in a golf cart and made sure he had a cold drink at all times. She also talked him off the proverbial ledge every time something scary happened to the boat and possibly to me. This service would prove invaluable multiple times throughout the weekend.
The First Test
To say I was excited to drive the boat again is a gross understatement. Wrong Way is the fastest boat I have ever driven, and when the nitrous hits, it tries to rip my arms out of their sockets. The track was set up but technically wasn’t open for business, so we towed the boat up the road and away from the casino and the busy pit area to Barry Obler’s house. Barry owns Obnoxious Racing Engines and has his own personal launch ramp on the Colorado River. He treated us like family when we hurriedly backed the boat into his driveway. The desert sunset reflected pink and red off the clear green water of the river as I donned my safety gear. The guys stabbed a fresh nitrous bottle into the boat, and I backed it off the trailer. It was go time.
The 15:1 compression big-block Chevy cranked over, hesitated for a split second, and then barked to life. My hands began to shake as I activated the air shifter and eased the boat away from shore. The blue, orange, and green tribal graphics were always the most outstanding feature of this boat, and their reflection wavered in the water as I idled upriver, away from the sun. I pushed the pedal to the floor and was pinned back in the fiberglass bucket seat. Wrong Way is a legit 130-mph jet boat when the engine is run in naturally aspirated form. That’ll get most drivers’ attention. Push the nitrous button, and suddenly the air rushing by at 145 mph tries to rip the helmet off your head and the world becomes fuzzy. Right before the boat went into beast mode, I thought about how for the last five years this engine hadn’t seen a whiff of N2O and how many full-pull nitrous passes I had made prior to that. Did the engine need a refresh? Did we remember to rephrase the distributor for the new ignition timing curve? The answers were “no” and “yes.” The boat flat-out ripped! I made three short bottle passes and then put the boat back on the trailer. It was time for high fives and beer. Dad was impressed at how fast the boat flew by him as he watched from the dock. He questioned the fire emanating from the stainless steel merge collectors at the end of the headers. We convinced him that fire was perfectly normal and that everything was fine. Barry was intrigued enough by the unofficial test session to join our motley crew for the rest of the weekend. We were ready to make license runs in the morning. Life was good.
In order to gain a license for the American Drag Boat Association’s Quick Eliminator class, I would have to make at least two passes during the ADBA’s test and tune session. Pass one was to demonstrate control of the boat to half track and then lift off the throttle, slow down safely, then exit top end of the race track. No problem. The track length is 1,000 feet long from starting line to finish line, so I sprayed nitrous for the first 3 seconds of the pass and then slowed down after half track. The boat ran the 1,000-foot course in a little over 8 seconds at 108 mph. Easy peasy. We returned to our pit to give the boat a once-over then we headed back for another pass. The boat checked out fine, and I felt good. We tossed a fresh set of NGK spark plugs into all eight holes, topped off the 10-pound NOS bottle, checked the fuel pressure, and left the rest of the boat alone. I like NGK plugs in nitrous applications because they have an easy-to-read coating that changes color on the ground strap after a full-throttle pass. I can look at the ground strap and know whether I have the correct amount of ignition timing advance. I was planning to make a full pull on the nitrous button for the full length of the course during the next pass.
We headed back to the launch ramp. The crew launched the boat, and my friend Bob Fry towed it to the starting line. Drag boat racing is a very small sport. The crowds are small, the purse is small, and pretty much we are all racing for our egos and fun. Bob was a fellow racer, but sometimes drivers help each other out to keep the races moving along, even if it means towing a competitor to the line. When it was my turn to run, the engine didn’t want to fire right away. I mashed the start button forever, and the engine cranked reluctantly. Eventually, it coughed and settled into a low idle. I focused on the tree, saw my number, engaged the air shifter, hit the gas pedal, and immediately got on the nitrous button. The boat came up on plane, and as soon as the nitrous turned on, boom went the dynamite! The engine coughed hard, I was pushed forward in the seat, and then silence. I’d been in this situation before and knew exactly what happened: I just had a massive nitrous backfire, and the engine was on fire. I shut off the valve on the nitrous bottle, killed the ignition, and cranked the starter motor to extinguish any flames. Then I unhooked my parachute lanyard, stood up, and turned around to inspect the carnage. I got lucky. This sort of thing usually results in tacoed throttle blades and/or a broken intake manifold. Inside the air scoop I could see that the fire had gone out and that the tunnel ram was intact, but I couldn’t tell if the throttle blades on the carburetors were bent. I sat back down and raised my hand to let the safety crew know that I needed a tow. I tried to tell myself that the throttle was wide open when the backfire occurred and therefore the engine was going to be fine. It was a long tow off the water with plenty of time to try to convince myself.
Back in our pit spot, the guys pulled the air scoop off of the carbs and the valve covers from the cylinder heads. There was no visible damage to the engine. Thankfully with the butterflies wide open during the backfire, the rapidly expanding gasses had a place to go—directly at my helmet. The air scoop and my helmet were toasty but not destroyed. We got lucky this time.
The engine fired right up and settled into a normal idle, indicating zero vacuum leaks or blown gaskets. The crew was relieved but worried because we didn’t have a cause for the backfire. We checked everything. Nitrous bottle pressure, fuel pressure, the ignition curve in our MSD Digital 7 ignition box, battery voltage, nitrous system solenoid operation. Heck, we even made sure the valve springs had good seat pressure and that the valve lash was correct. We changed the distributor cap and rotor, checked the rotor phasing again, and made sure the plug wires were fully snapped in place before heading back to the water.
On the second run, the engine again cranked over slowly, fired, and barfed flames at my helmet when the nitrous came on. This was getting ridiculous. Another tow of shame back to the pit. Thank God it was only Friday afternoon and there wasn’t a big crowd of people on the shore. A new nickname began spreading through the pits; “Fireball Finnegan” had done it again. The day was almost over. I had no license, and qualifying was set to begin the next morning. It was time to take drastic measures, so we changed everything. Spark plugs. Wiring. We even replaced the ignition coil with a borrowed unit. It was getting dark, and the track was closed. We launched the boat just past the official course, and in near darkness I made a nitrous pass. It wasn’t the smartest move I’ve ever made, but hey, I was desperate. The boat was behaving once again, and the fire came out of the correct end of the engine. Either we killed the gremlins, or Wrong Way only wanted to sniff nitrous oxide at night. It was hugs from Dad, high fives all around, and beer for dinner.
I wasn’t the only person who failed to get their license during the test session. The next day, prior to the start of the qualifying session, the ADBA allowed me and another racer in a different class to make passes that wouldn’t count as our qualifying runs. I don’t know if the other driver passed the test, but I sure didn’t. On the starting line the boat fired right up and sounded good. Then I noticed that pressure gauge on the nitrous was pegged, way past the 1,500-psi mark. The purge solenoid wouldn’t function, so I couldn’t reduce the pressure. Depending on whom you ask, the optimum pressure inside of a nitrous bottle is between 900 and 1,050 psi. Run your engine outside of that window, and you are asking for trouble. I aborted the run, and the ADBA commenced its qualifying session without me.
Back in the pit, I was trippin’. I knew the problem was likely too much heat in the bottle, yet I wanted to take no chances on screwing up another license pass. It cost an hour, but I grabbed the last spare part I had in my toolbox and installed it—a new MSD Digital 7 ignition box. I was using the timed output of the box to activate the nitrous system during the run. There was nothing left to replace in the boat that affected the nitrous system. Qualifying had already commenced, and I had missed round one, which meant that my next pass would have to be quick enough to both obtain a license and qualify for the field. The index for Quick Eliminator is 6.50 seconds. It’s a bracket race, and winning or losing depends on your ability to have a great reaction time and your boat’s ability to cover the length of the 1,000-foot race course in an exact amount of time. The goal in Quick Eliminator is to get from Point A to Point B in exactly 6.500 seconds. I staged the boat, took a deep breath, and ran a 6.630 ET on our one and only qualifying attempt. Not bad. The ADBA awarded me a driver’s license, and we qualified third in the field. Dad was on cloud nine. His boy was going to race. We hadn’t driven clear across the country to be suckers sitting on the beach while the rest of the racers duked it out on the water. The beers went down easy that night, and we won a few bucks at the tables.
In the first round of eliminations, I was paired with Vince Nelson. My record against him was pretty solid, but that was history. He’d been racing a lot since the last time I was in the driver’s seat. Vince drove a flat-bottom drag boat powered by a big-block Chevy engine with nitrous. Unlike my jet boat, his Cole has a V-drive connecting the engine to the propeller beneath the boat. His boat was fast. I knew there was more performance left in Wrong Way, so I decided to turn the nitrous system on earlier in the run, which would lower my elapsed time and get me closer to the magic number—the 6.500 index.
Because I suffered so many aborted runs during the past two days, I was unsure of when I should leave the starting line for a good reaction time. I had gone red (left too early) once by more than a tenth of second, and I had been dead late twice. I chose to lay off the tree and leave the starting line late so that I didn’t risk turning on the red light. Turning on the red light means the race is over and you lose no matter how good the run. So my reaction time in round one sucked. I cut a 0.360 green light. But Vince had a worse start, a deep red light. I had run a perfect pass—a 6.500-second run on a 6.500 index! Of course, sitting behind the wheel of the boat, I had no idea who had even won. Those minutes between the end of a pass and when your pit crew picks your boat up out of the water, loads it onto the trailer, and finally reveals whether you won or lost are excruciating.
With only eight boats in the field, the second round was the semifinal round. My second-round opponent was Jeff Luehring. I’d love to tell you that I hated Jeff and it was a battle royale between heated rivals, but honestly, I like Jeff, and his boat hauls the meatloaf. In the staging lanes I watched an American flag whipping in the wind high above an RV parked in the pits. Down at the shore, the water looked ugly. Equally as perilous was a significant crosswind cutting straight across both lanes of the track. I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of racing in these conditions.
The rub with drag boat racing, especially in a jet boat is that goal number one is to get as much of the boat out of the water as possible. By reducing the amount of wetted surface contacting the water, you reduce the amount of friction or drag on the hull, which in turn increases the airflow beneath the hull. A byproduct of that is more speed. But if too little of the hull is in contact with the water, the chances of too much airflow beneath the boat causing the boat to blow over backward becomes highly likely. So we do a dance when setting up the boat, tiptoeing right to the edge of disaster.
Neither Jeff nor I wanted to concede the race just because the water looked like a scene out of Deadliest Catch, so we shook hands and launched the boats into the soup. The tree lit up, and I drilled it, leaving the line 0.110 after the tree went green. Then Wrong Way lived up to its name. The nose of boat came up, hesitated for a second, then came down slightly askew. I was in the left lane, ahead of Sucker Punch, Jeff’s boat, but Wrong Way was pointed toward the right lane. I cranked the steering wheel hard to the left just as the nitrous turned on and was able to correct the boat’s heading slightly. But it was still drifting to the right. A second later a stiff crosswind pushed the boat ever farther toward the centerline of the liquid dragstrip. There was no stopping it. I was going to run over the half track timing sensor, so I lifted off the throttle and Jeff went by me right before I crossed the line and ended up in his lane. I was immediately disqualified for veering into Jeff’s lane. It sucks to lose, but it’s better than crashing.
The weather and water conditions continued to deteriorate as the afternoon dragged on and more rounds of racing were run. Jeff ended up taking second place in Quick Eliminator. We loaded Wrong Way, and we all went our separate ways. Dad and I drove to Los Angeles rather than back to Georgia. I had an episode of ROADKILL to film, so the old man flew home while I wrenched on the Rotsun. Ten days later I made the long trek back to Georgia by myself. I pulled into the driveway at home, stuffed the old boat into the garage, and went inside to hug my family. Racing and road trips are a blast, but it’s home where I’m happiest.
Happy Father’s Day, everybody!