Nearly every genre of the sport has seen its dominant competitors throughout the eras, from John Force in Funny Car, to Scotty Cannon in Pro Modified and Lee Shepard, Bob Glidden, and Warren Johnson in Pro Stock. Some of these dominating forces won them all, some lost a few, but they always took more than they gave, and in the no prep racing world — in its relative infancy — no one has come out on the winning side of the odds more than one James “Birdman” Finney. And for the reserved but calculated racer from Houston, Texas, that fact — along with a pair of notable appearances on Street Outlaws — has thrust him into nationwide fame that even he is still taken aback by.
Finney and his longtime friend and racing partner, Gary Weatherly, have, just like the olden days, barnstormed their way around the country, gobbling up checks left and right on their path to becoming the most feared no prep team in the game. Even when they’re seemingly outgunned by lighter, longer, and more powerful machines, they’re still the favorites, and they’ve certainly taken more than they’ve given.
Finney, like so many of his peers in the no prep racing world, has followed the common trajectory from illegal to legitimate, getting his start in his early years racing for cash and bragging rights on the racing-rich streets of Texas before later advancing into the high stakes arena of grudge racing — a place where, despite his success, he was still a relative unknown outside of the Southwest.
“I was just a young kid and my father bought me a ’67 Camaro with a 327 in it for my first car. So, it’s his fault,” Finney points out with a laugh. “I put a nitrous kit on it and blew it up four or five times, before I knew what I was doing. But we street raced for a long time. Back in the day, I had a ’69 Firebird that I street raced a lot, but I really kind of quit doing that for a while when I opened a shop and started working on cars. Then Gary came along and we started working on his car and did a lot of street racing. There was a Top 10 list in Houston of the ten fastest street cars back around 2000, and we were number one on the list for three or four years — undefeated on the street from 1999 to 2003.
“Back then, there wasn’t any social media to spread it around,” Finney continues, “but basically we did the same thing the Street Outlaws are doing now but without the publicity. Anybody in Houston knows who we are, and that’s pretty much why.”
I’ve never turned a clock on before. I don’t clock race. No prep has been the closest thing to class racing that I’ve ever done.
While he’s enjoyed a similar degree of dominance, where Finney differs from the Glidden’s and the Force’s of the drag racing world is his very approach to competition.
“I’ve never turned a clock on before. I don’t clock race. No prep has been the closest thing to class racing that I’ve ever done,” he says. Class racers and grudge racers are just a different breed. With class racing, there’s no battle there, or not enough of a battle, in my opinion. I’m a fan of racing, but I didn’t like class racing, including the NHRA, until one time I saw John Force on television and they had to bleep him out because he was cussing a guy that he wanted to beat really bad. He really gave him hell, and I said ‘that’s what it’s all about right there.’ It’s about racing and competing on every level. You can get out of the car and shake each other’s hand, that’s fine, but it’s the ‘I’m going to eff you up’ that I like.’ If they could get more of that in class racing, it’d be a lot more interesting.”
Finney has largely put street racing in his past, sharing that he only had one street race — an appearance on Street Outlaws opposite of Kye Kelley — with the Camaro he campaigned before purchasing the current Pontiac Firebird. But he wouldn’t shy away from a matchup if someone stepped up to the plate.
“Nobody wants to race us. I call people out all the time, and I can’t get a street race. There will be a Cash Days here and there on an abandoned airstrip that we’ll do sometimes. But, we’ve gotten away from the street and grudge scene, and that’s why no prep has been so good, because once you get a reputation for being fast, nobody wants to get in the other lane. I don’t mean that to sound posh, but it is what it is. At a no prep, somebody is going to get in the other lane and you’re going to have a race, no matter what.”
Nobody wants to race us. I call people out all the time, and I can’t get a street race.
Finney, illustrating how no prep has elevated his racing, says he’s confident that he’s had more side-by-side races this season alone than he had in his entire 25-year grudge racing career combined, simply due to the fact that street and grudge races rarely get beyond the negotiation phase, and when they do, they’re a one-shot deal.
“I’d say every grudge race has maybe a 50 percent chance that it’ll actually happen, but at a no prep, you have a 400 percent chance; you’re going to race at least once, and maybe five or six times.”
For Finney, his one-race nights these days are few and far between. But, as confident a personality as the Birdman is, even he admits that he wasn’t certain how his foray into no prep racing would go. “We didn’t know how it would turn out. We just said ‘let’s go try it and see’. Once we made a couple of passes, we were like ‘okay, we can do this. We can own this … watch.’”
Finney has won more than ten races this season in his twin turbocharged machine, spanning from Texas to Mississippi to Oklahoma. The list includes two victories at Redemption in Kennedale, Texas, Conquer the Concrete in Oklahoma City, Lonestar Resurrection in Houston, and a long list of others. While the winnings have been sizable, he’s steered away from sitting down to total it all up, saying that it would “take all the fun out of it.”
You can get out of the car and shake each other’s hand, that’s fine, but it’s the ‘I’m going to eff you up’ that I like.’
“I sat down with a pen and paper the other night but just decided I wasn’t doing it. This is number-crunching. Let’s just go race and have fun … if we have money left in the bank, good, but if we don’t, so what.”
But if he had to take a stab at it? “Probably around $150,000.”Not even an unfortunate highway traffic accident — one in which he and his team were highly fortunate to escape — that saw his hauler and racecar turned on its side, could slow down Finney’s momentum.
“We were on our way to a match race and I was tired and let one of the other guys drive that didn’t have a lot of experience pulling a trailer. We came up on some traffic and there was an accident over a hill in front of us and everyone was slamming on the brakes. Of course, we couldn’t stop all that weight that fast. It all went in slow motion, but I told him to put it off in the ditch. It was sliding around and we didn’t even know the trailer came off, but it rolled, and luckily it didn’t roll us with it.”
Finney and company received immediate support from the racing community, as good friend Todd Moyer hauled the worse-for-wear Firebird back home, and another racer loaned a trailer to gather up all the contents of the wrecked hauler. Within a matter of days, the damaged bodywork on the racecar was repaired and Finney was right back in competition at a no prep event in Baytown.
“It all worked out. It’s just a little bit of money … a no prep race, that’s what it cost us, pretty much,” Finney says.
One half of Finney’s success through his path in racing, he insists, is owed to Weatherly, his longtime friend and partner who has not only been a 50-percent stakeholder in his racing endeavors over the years, but is the very source of the now-famous “Birdman” moniker.
“A lot of people don’t know it, but I’m not the original Birdman — Gary is. He owned a car back in 1999 called “The One Bad Bird” and people couldn’t remember that, so they just said, ‘hey, that’s that bird guy,’ or ‘the Birdman,’ and it just kind of stuck with Gary. I tuned all of his race cars back then, and when I started actually driving and we got some recognition, people would see me climbing out of the car and automatically I became the Birdman. Rather than confuse people, we just all became Birdman.”
Finney and Weatherly run a true blue collar racing effort, with Finney running his flourishing kitchen exhaust system cleaning business during the day, while the rest of the crew punches a 9-5 clock, before they all converge on the shop in the evening to work on the racecar and prepare for their next no prep beatdown.
“The only reason we can race as much as we do is because we’ve won as much as we have. We’re probably a little bit ahead on money; it pays for itself, and that’s awesome, because anybody knows when you race, you’re going to spend some money. But to race all year without having to pay for anything, that’s been great.
Finney insists there a number of people beyond his crew who have played an integral part in his success. “I don’t win drag races without Dave at Proformance Transmission and Marty at Neal Chance Converters. No, they’re not sponsors, but I believe in giving credit where credit is due. Jeff Naiser built the motor, and Todd Moyer lets me buy parts from him including the entire motor on credit. We wouldn’t be where we are without Todd.”
Finney’s wife, Kim, along with his five children routinely travel with he and the team to their events, and that too, he says, is an advantage in favor of no prep, as his family gets the definitive opportunity to see him race.
Where other, younger drivers may have let such domination go to their heads, Finney has remained as grounded as a veteran grudge racer can be, flashing his million-dollar grin and allowing his racecar to do most of the talking.
“I can run my mouth with the best of them, and I do like to run my mouth a little bit, but I like to race more. All this trash talking in the grudge scene, that’s good stuff, but all of the excitement was for nothing if there isn’t a race,” he says. “That’s what I’m about: talk some shit, drag some ass. But, I’m a pretty laid-back guy. I don’t have the ego that some of these young guys do … I can bite my tongue. I just like to let the car do the talking, and it’s been talking pretty good for us lately.”
All this trash talking in the grudge scene, that’s good stuff, but all of the excitement was for nothing if there isn’t a race. That’s what I’m about: talk some shit, drag some ass.
As a virtue of his winning reputation and the notoriety of his battles with Kye Kelley on Street Outlaws, Finney has gained fans and followers across the country — something that, for a one-time street racer, where fans in the traditional sense don’t exist, has been quite the culture shock. And he admits that, to this day, he’s still humbled by the very thought of having fans at all, and he’s made every effort to stay true who he was before the fame.
“People can say whatever they want, but fame changes a person. You have to be careful to not be changed by it. I really take the time to talk to fans when they come up, even when I really don’t want to, because that’s what I would have done before. But it’s been awesome; you can say it doesn’t matter, but it does. I’ve been racing all my life and I never had fans, but to have thousands of people coming up wanting to talk to you and get a shirt and an autograph, that’s just, wow, it’s amazing.”
As an intriguing fact that illustrates just how much of the real-deal Finney and company are on the racetrack, they have, to date, forgone the use of traction control systems and other devices that aid in navigating the dicey no prep surfaces, as the majority of their opponents have done. Instead, Finney has relied on the know-how of crew chief Chad Rogers, a former crewman for Pro Mod racer Todd Moyer, to tune the car old school-style. Rogers, Finney says, has been a “priceless” addition to the team.
“A lot of guys are depending on traction control more than they are on making their car work. If I had my choice between buying shocks and buying traction control, I’d buy shocks,” Finney insists. “You can’t make a slow racecar fast with traction control.”
I really take the time to talk to fans when they come up, even when I really don’t want to, because that’s what I would have done before.
With that said, however, he’s seen the rest of the Big Tire field slowly creep up on him, and that may necessitate some changes to the program to allow them to push the car a little closer to the edge. “We don’t ever blow the tires off in the first 300 feet, because we’re conservative, but these guys are getting close. They’re only a car, car and a half behind me, and that’s too close,” he says.
In the end, Finney insists he’s content where he’s at, with the group of guys that he has, on the stage that he’s on. After all, he’s the man to beat in his arena, and that doesn’t look to be a guard that’s going to change hands anytime soon.
“These are some guys that I just get together with and go racing. I’m not looking to advance my career as a racer and go to the NHRA or anything … I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. Hanging out with my friends every weekend, racing, and having a good time.”
Ask any true racer and they’ll tell you that’s what it’s all about. For Finney, well, the money and the fans, that’s all the icing on the cake.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew has been involved in motorsports from a very young age. Over the years, he has photographed several major auto racing events, sports, news journalism, portraiture, and everything in between. After working with the Power Automedia staff for some time on a freelance basis, Andrew joined the team in 2010.