As a kid growing up in Southern California, Mike Finnegan loved tinkering with things — more like taking stuff apart and putting it back together – but never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined he’d be getting paid to do that for a living.
His love of road trips has taken him from coast-to-coast, while accumulating a small army of cars and water craft. Did we mention that he’s a champion drag boat racer too?
As an editor for Hot Rod magazine and co-host of RoadKill, a popular YouTube show that chronicles his car adventures, Finnegan is a true gearhead.
How/why did you grow to love cars?
I watched a lot of quality television as a kid — every day it was reruns of Dukes of Hazzard, The A-Team, Knight Rider, and Rockford Files. Those shows all had fast cars and were a big influence on me.
Someday I’ll fab a General Lee that will actually survive the kind of thrashing that destroyed Dodge Chargers during the making of that show.
First automotive job? Worst automotive job?
In 1994, I worked at Circuit City in Laguna Hills, California, installing car stereos and the occasional car alarm. Strangely enough, I went into the place to have an alarm put in my mini-truck and walked out of there with a job — proving that place would hire anybody.
I went from bagging groceries to working on cars, and I had no clue what I was doing. I worked with some great guys though, and they taught me a lot. By the time I quit, I could slam a head unit and door speakers in a Toyota truck faster than you can say “electrical fire!”
During college, I went through this phase where I kept applying for jobs just so I could get the shirt. Briefly I was a cable guy and I worked at a quickie lube place — which turned out to be the most soul-crushing job I ever had.
It was unbelievably monotonous and the only action that ever happened was when the bottom end guys would forget to install a new oil filter on a car before it left the shop. I lasted about a week, just long enough to see two red-faced customers earn a free engine bay detailing after their cars spewed 10W30 all over the driveway.
What vehicles are in your garage today?
I recently moved so all of the vehicles now fit inside of the garage, as opposed to the way I’ve spent the last 15 years, which entails one in the garage and a slew of them inside a rented shop.
Currently, there is a Hemi-powered ’55 Chevy Bel Air, an LS3-swapped ’69 Chevy El Camino, my wife’s Kia Sportage — let’s be clear-that is NOT my car! — a 2015 Peterson Placecraft drag boat that I’m currently building, a 1994 Yamaha Superjet stand-up jet ski, and my dad’s 1996 Laveycraft jet boat all under the house.
What’s your dream car or project build?
It’s part desert racer, part muscle car. Take a SCORE off-road Trophy Truck/Trick Truck, lower it a couple of inches, and plop the body of a 1969 Dodge Charger on the chassis and that is my dream car. It’s the ultimate go fast, slow down for nuthin’ machine!
Imagine being the Duke boys with a General Lee that will swallow 3-foot deep holes in the road at 100 mph like they were nothing. That epic canyon jump that smashed so many vintage Chargers would feel like a speed bump.
I would beat on that thing in the dirt and on pavement like it owed me money, and since it’s just a dream, the body would be fiber-glass — cheap and disposable.
Before I die, I want to do ________ in a car.
Drive 200 mph in the standing mile in a 1960 Cadillac.
Favorite car color? We’re guessing “Red” like your beard?
Actually, it’s blue. I’ve had a lot of cars and trucks and a good portion of them have been blue. 1996 Porsche Riviera Blue is probably my favorite color of all-time, PPG L39E is the paint code, in case you were wondering. Is that weird?
Tell us about your best road trip ever?
The next one will be the best one, so how about the worst one? I moved from New York back to my home state of California after graduating college. I packed all my crap into a 1983 Suncrest Motorhome, hitched a heavy equipment trailer behind it with my bagged and body dropped mini-truck on top, and drove 3,000 miles, while getting three mpg.
I could write a book about all the breakdowns, arguments with my ex-girlfriend, running out of money, and epic adventures I had with friends I made during that trip.
If you read Mini Truckin’ Magazine around 2000, then you might have read about those misadventures in a column I used to write back then.
One tool or piece of equipment you couldn’t live without?
My welder. It’s the tool that makes any man a builder and not just a parts replacer. The day I learned to melt metal with it opened so many new doors to creativity. It’s a skill I constantly hone, because it’s so rewarding.
Coolest automotive personality you have ever met?
Rutledge Wood is pretty rad. Only met him once and that guy was incredibly nice to me and he certainly didn’t have to be.
Who in the automotive industry do you look up to?
Anyone that welds better than I do.
Favorite episode of RoadKill?
Episode 26 is pretty awesome. It combines a few of my favorite things like welding, a Datsun 240Z, one junkyard turbocharger, an autocross course, and a lot of tire smoke.
Worst automotive trend ever?
Whistle Tips. Google it. The only good thing to come out of that small, sad trend were all the internet mashups of Bubb Rubb and Lil Sis.
Any cool car crash or carnage stories?
In high school, I totaled my Camaro during a rainstorm. It had rained for about a week straight in Temecula, California, and the buses stopped running at my little brother’s school because the roads were flooded.
My mom couldn’t pick him up in her Corvette, because it sat too low to the ground, and in my warped brain it made perfect sense to air up the shocks on the back of my Second Gen and make a bonsai run to go get him.
I was 16, what can I say? I was coming down a hill way too fast and the road was washed out just as it turned left. I hydroplaned, downshifted, braked, said “Oh shit” four times, then ran head-on into a concrete wall, and then the river pushed the car sideways into a phone pole.
The crash blew out every window in the car, which was u-shaped, because the phone pole hit the driver door and roof. The Camaro was also about a half a foot shorter, but I didn’t get a scratch on me. I was saved by old, American iron.
Boat racers are nuts. Do you have a death wish?
Nah. But I do enjoy engine building and brutally quick acceleration. Drag boat racing allows me to build engine combos that I can’t realistically put into a car and enjoy.
For instance, I’m fabbing a twin-turbo kit for a 711c.i. Sonny Leonard Hemi Chevy that will make about 2,500 horsepower on gas if I lean on it.
What would I really do with that thing in a street car? But, stick that engine in a boat and I can make early morning speed runs on my local lake without going to jail and occasionally hit up a sanctioned drag boat event.
The majority of what I’ve learned about building horsepower I’ve picked up through racing boats, because there were no drag-strips nearby me when I grew up.
Why do you always let Freiburger win the RoadKill driving competitions? He have dirt on you that forces you to throw the competition?
He’s actually a pretty damn good driver. I won’t say I’ve taken a dive, but there have been times when I’ll “drive for the camera” even though that isn’t the quickest way around a racetrack.
A good example is when we took Subaru’s money and fixed up a few Roadkill project cars and raced them against the Legacy sedan in episode 32. When we ran Freiburger’s Charger at the rally school, DirtFish, I purposely didn’t take the fast line, because I wanted to drift every inch of that place.
I figured I’d never get to drive a 1968 Charger on gravel like that again, so I was gonna make the most of it. I lost and didn’t care, because I hung that car sideways the length of the course!