Mike Finnegan is a self-taught engine builder, skilled fabricator, lifelong tinkerer, semi-pro drag boat racer and the host of the shows “Roadkill” and “Finnegan’s Garage.” This renaissance man learns by doing. And in his world, that sometimes involves busted vehicles or broken bones. From his home base in Atlanta, Mike sits down with Bryan and Alex to talk about his career as a journalist, learning from failure, the decline of apprenticeships, and how self-driving technology could make drag racing safer.

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Episode Transcript

Alex Roy

Hi everyone, this is No Parking, the podcast that cuts through the hype around self-driving technology and artificial intelligence. I’m Alex Roy.

Today on No Parking, my co-host Bryan Salesky and I want to get back to our roots.

I was always skeptical about self-driving — not of the technology, but of the hype. I totally buy the idea that tech can make our roads safer. I hate driving in traffic, and I love the idea that if unsafe drivers don’t have to, the roads will be safer for everyone else. But about five years ago, this whole narrative emerged about the imminent arrival of self-driving cars, the end of private car ownership and that human driving would just go away. Obviously that doesn’t sit well with me. 

Bryan runs a self-driving company, and he never said any of those things, and that’s why we’ve always gotten along.

We’re both car enthusiasts who believe safety and freedom can actually coexist, and it’s really important that we go out and talk to other like-minded people. So today’s guest is one of the most popular and beloved people in the car community.

If you love cars as much as I do, Mike Finnegan needs no introduction. But for everybody else, Mike hosts a show called “Roadkill,” it’s on MotorTrend On Demand, it’s totally awesome, and it’s mostly shot in his garage outside Atlanta, Georgia. That’s where Bryan and I went down to see him recently. We were talking about Finnegan’s background—how he got started in driving and the car world—and Bryan, who’s not just the CEO of Argo AI, but also a roboticist, says to him, ‘No no no. You don’t actually need a tech background to work in self-driving.’

Bryan Salesky

One of the things that I think is a big misnomer, Mike, is that I think people think to get into the world of high-tech stuff like self-driving cars, driver assistance, sensors, computers, all that stuff — that you have to have a PhD in computer science in order to make sense of any of it. And it really isn’t true. And in fact, I think that some of the best people, especially those who become mechanical engineers, they have real hands-on knowledge from their youth or their teenage years. And there’s a sort of intuition that they have so that when they learn the equations and the physics and whatever later on, they know what the numbers actually mean. There’s an intuition behind it. And I just think that hands-on part of it is really important. That’s part of why we were excited to talk to you today is… Look, do you have an engineering degree?

Mike Finnegan

No.

Bryan Salesky

I don’t think you do. Right?

Mike Finnegan

I wish I did.

Bryan Salesky

But on the other hand, you’re a ridiculously skilled fabricator and driver. You obviously have a lot of intuition behind what you do, right? Like you have an idea.

Mike Finnegan

I broke a lot of stuff.

Bryan Salesky

Exactly. And you learn a lot through failure. So maybe let’s talk a little bit about… Let’s bust that misnomer on the podcast today.

Mike Finnegan

Yeah, I think you’re right, a hundred percent. And I liken it to… EFI is really big in the hot rod world right now, especially the last five years. And I think if you have a basic understanding of how a four stroke engine operates and you can make a carburetor operate, you’re way far ahead when you go to make your first EFI install and tune it because it’s just a different methodology for achieving the same thing.

Mike Finnegan

And so I don’t have an engineering degree but I grew up in a home with computers. I remember my mom showing me the first computer we ever had. It was a Commodore 64. It was like 1983 or four or something like that. I remember my mom showing me the internet and it had a phone book. It was actually yellow pages and it was like 20 pages long. It had addresses and she typed in an address and I stood there and watched a page load for four minutes and went, ‘It’s so painful. Don’t care, mom, I’m outside. I’m going skateboarding.’ You know? So I grew up with non-car people, but they were kind of into technology, especially my mom. And then the biggest influence for me was television. I’d watch car shows or I’d watch TV shows where cars were big characters, you know.

Alex Roy

Which shows?

Mike Finnegan

A team, Nightrider, the Dukes of Hazard. You know? And so I grew up thinking cars were the coolest thing ever, but I had no background at all in working on them and I couldn’t afford to pay someone to work on them, so I just bought tools. I just kept buying tools and then learning to do stuff the hard way. And so in hindsight, I kind of wish I had gone to engineering school because I would be better, or even just a trade school, I’d be better at what I’m doing now. But I think the hands-on thing before you go to engineering school is way more important.

Bryan Salesky

I totally agree. The people I’ve witnessed who are the best in the field, they’ve got stuff that’s broken in their garage and they tinker and they have an idea of, again, it’s that intuition behind what they’re actually doing. And I think one of the things that’s totally busted is that vocational education is completely just disappearing across the U.S. for whatever reason. I’m not sure why. And I think that’s the worst thing we can do. In fact, I think it’s the worst thing you do is to tell every kid, you must go to college. Obviously, if that’s an opportunity for you and that’s something that you’re interested in, then you should do it. But you know what? My view, there’s a whole other path that still lands you at a tech company like Argo.

We have people who didn’t go to college who are writing software and are excellent at it, super fast, like just really skilled at it. We have people who also work at our test track. We don’t talk a lot about it. We probably should, Alex, cause they do some of the most important work. But what’s really interesting about the test track is that these folks are building test instruments that simulate a pedestrian flying out in front of the vehicle last minute, for example. You can’t do that with a real human. So you create these cardboard targets that are on basically souped up RC cars that they can remotely control on the track. So you can imagine there’s a fair amount… There’s electronics, there’s a little bit of programming, there’s all sorts of things, right, that you can get into nowadays that doesn’t require you to have a super technical degree, but is super valuable and has real world application to it.

Mike Finnegan

Here’s what school does do for you though. And I learned this by interviewing a gentleman named Warren Johnson, who has, I don’t know if he’s got a PhD or not, but he was an engineer, went to engineering school, graduated. He’s a huge force in the world of NHRA Pro Stock drag racing, which is a class where some of the limits are you get a pushrod V8, 500 cubic inches, naturally aspirated, not a ton of limits, go as fast as you can. And these guys are squeezing three horsepower per cubic inch out of that American V8.

Bryan Salesky

Wow.

Mike Finnegan

Right? No turbos, no nitrous, no superstars, none of that.

Bryan Salesky

None of it.

Mike Finnegan

And so I’m interviewing him and when the interview is all over, I said, ‘Hey, I’m having this issue with my engine.’ I’m trying to remember what we were talking about. Oh, I said, ‘Okay, I have this nitrous motor with a 36 jet. The thing makes a ton of power. It hauls ass. It’s great. With a 40 jet, I think I’m losing ring seal in the engine. My crankcase vacuum, which I was data logging, it nose dives.’ And I said, ‘I think the block is moving around, this engine block.’ I said, ‘I don’t think that the cylinders are staying round.’ And without hesitation, he goes, ‘Well, what kind of ring do you have?’ And I have this really stiff ring. And he goes, ‘Well, why don’t you go to a ring that’s not so stiff.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know. It’s a lot of cylinder pressure. I thought I’d break it.’ And he’s like, ‘How do you know?’ And we kept talking and what I realized about this guy, it wasn’t that he was the smartest guy in the room, it’s that he learned how to problem solve.

Bryan Salesky

Its about problem solving.

Mike Finnegan

Yeah. He went to college and it taught him how to think around a problem. I didn’t. And so the way he attacks a problem, the way I attack a problem, are radically different. And so here in my home garage, I spend a lot of time building things, just simple brackets for mounting things, and I’ll build three iterations of it, learning, and then go, ‘Okay, here’s the final one.’ He won’t do that. He’ll look at it, think it through, then build the final bracket.

Bryan Salesky

He’ll try to approach it from, first principles, and maybe do a little math and try to figure out, ‘Hey, this is the amount of structure that I need for whatever.’

Mike Finnegan

Right. And I’m sitting here going, ‘Oh, I wish I had gone to college just so I can learn to think.’ And I don’t have time to do it anymore, or I can’t make the time, whatever it is. And so while I love intuition and I love learning to do it yourself, I do think if you could just take one class without even going to college, it would just be a class of how to think.

Bryan Salesky

Yeah. I mean, that’s definitely, definitely true. Although I would say that the other thing you learn, I think in really anything where you have to work as a team, is that there’s no one person that has the answer. Everybody thinks a little bit differently and it’s actually that group think that’s the best problem solving in the world, in my mind. I don’t know that you can actually teach problem solving, but I think you can teach how to work as part of a team.

Mike Finnegan

Yeah.

Bryan Salesky

Right. And the fact that, you know, everybody’s got a different approach and there’s no one person that’s ever right. And sometimes it’s a combination of ideas. Right? But I think the vocational piece of it is something that I hope does not die because it’s giving, in my view, it’s giving kids another pathway that still will lead them to a tech career. I was talking to a home builder a few years back and he said, ‘You know, Bryan, we’re not going to see very many brick houses in the future in this area.’ I said, ‘Well, why not?’ What a crazy statement. I said, ‘Is it hard to get brick?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s hard to get masons.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Being a Mason is a dying breed. No one wants to do it in the area. And worse than that, there’s no… Like the whole idea of apprenticeship is totally gone. And so people who even do want to get into it, the folks that can teach them are retiring out. And at some point the knowledge will actually get lost.’ Now its stuff like that, that scares me. Right. Because if… Have you ever seen a mason work?

Mike Finnegan

I don’t think I have.

Bryan Salesky

It’s a bit of art. Like it is…

Mike Finnegan

I’ve seen videos of guys throwing bricks up.

Bryan Salesky

Right. It’s like perfectly aligned. And when they’re done all the gaps are exactly the same size. And you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Wait a second. He didn’t have any jigs. There was no automation. That was like through this dude’s hands that made that happen.’.

Alex Roy

There’s some things you want people to do because people are really good at it.

Bryan Salesky

So where I’m going next is the idea of apprenticeship though.

Mike Finnegan

Yeah.

Bryan Salesky

Apprenticeship is also something that’s dying. It’s like, ‘Well, no, no. You’ve got to sit in a class and take a test.’ What happened to the actual, like study next to the masters? Have you had an experience like that or have you had a chance to just have an out of body experience next to a master?

Mike Finnegan

No.

Bryan Salesky

Not really.

Mike Finnegan

No. I didn’t have a formal apprenticeship, but I was fortunate enough out of college that I got a job working for a magazine. And my job was to go write technical stories about how to install parts. So I got to go to all these different shops and sit there and watch masters and ask them questions. And instead of buying better camera gear every year, like my contemporaries, I bought tools. And so I learned to build engines and fabricate and do things in my home garage at night when I probably should have been increasing my skills as a journalist and photographer. But yeah, it was kind of like that. I didn’t have a proper apprenticeship, but I got the similar experience of having one. And it was invaluable. I learned a lot about a bunch of different things, you know.

Bryan Salesky

Learn by doing. So I don’t know who the heck listens to this podcast, but if anybody is listening, stop taking wood shops and metal shop out of classrooms. Stop destroying vocational education. And actually let’s use the apprentice word because in my view, like real stuff gets done with… Let me say that again. In my view…

Alex Roy

Just tell the truth.

Bryan Salesky

To build real things, you actually need people to know who work with their hands, not just keyboards.

Mike Finnegan

And we need to fix things. I think we need to stop… And it’s a cultural thing, I think more than anything, is we want smaller, faster, lighter, cheaper things. And things get so cheap, you don’t repair them. You just throw them away and get another one. And if we just start repairing the things, suddenly you have a base of people.

Alex Roy

I like to buy things I can keep. That are mine. What is it somebody said? Things are as valuable as they are to us. You could buy a new watch. But the watch you wore on your wrist your whole life, you give to your kid, or to somebody, that has value. It could be $5. It could be nothing, but it’s priceless.

Mike Finnegan

Yeah.

Alex Roy

And that’s true of everything.

Bryan Salesky

So the other piece that I want to talk today about was self-driving and just automated driver technology to begin with. And I know this is probably… Let’s face it, Mike, have you been in a self-driving car?

Mike Finnegan

I have not.

Bryan Salesky

No? OK. In fact, I remember watching the show where you guys did terrible things to a Prius, which I secretly really enjoyed, by the way.

Alex Roy

It’s a great car.

Bryan Salesky

Well, no comment. We probably have a lot of people who drive Prius’s who listen to this. I don’t really know. But I would say that even when you got behind the wheel of the Prius, that was a foreign animal to you. It appeared on the show.

Mike Finnegan

I couldn’t start it. I think?

Bryan Salesky

I think you couldn’t get it in gear.

Mike Finnegan

Oh, that’s what it was. Yeah. We couldn’t get it in gear.

Bryan Salesky

So your man… Even EFI, right? I mean, your cars have EFI now. Some of them do right?

Mike Finnegan

Yeah.

Bryan Salesky

Does Blasphemi have EFI?

Mike Finnegan

It does.

Bryan Salesky

It does, right? Yeah.

Mike Finnegan

The turbo boat has it. I love technology. I absolutely love it.

Bryan Salesky

That’s where I was going with it. You like technology, but you also like being close to the metal, let’s face it. And you like driving. I like driving too. And I think another one of the myths is that self-driving cars is going to somehow like ruin or eliminate driving altogether. And it just isn’t the case at all actually.

Alex Roy

My beef with some folks is that they’re opposed to safety in the name of freedom. And my question is why can’t we have both.

Bryan Salesky

Let’s have both.

Alex Roy

Show me that I have the option of having a car drive safer than me, and there are times I’m going to use it. I also don’t want to be told I can’t.

Bryan Salesky

So here’s the big question, Mike. So would you use a self-driving car?

Mike Finnegan

Yeah.

Bryan Salesky

All right. In what cases? Where? When?

Mike Finnegan

Long road trips.

Bryan Salesky

There you go.

Mike Finnegan

Yeah. If I’m going cross country, you know, there’s moments where I’m like, ‘Oh, we could just keep going and I could not pay a hundred percent attention to it? ‘

Bryan Salesky

So we have you on record here saying that the guy who loves to race and drive cars would actually get into a self-driving car.

Mike Finnegan

Yeah, yeah. Probably not today. You know. I’d love to see the technology go a little further than what I’m aware of today. And I’m not aware of much. I haven’t even been in a Tesla.

Bryan Salesky

You haven’t been in one of our cars yet. And so we need to get you into one of our self-driving cars.

Alex Roy

Well Tesla’s not self-driving.

Mike Finnegan

No, I mean like an electric car. I’ve never even… I think I’ve been… No, that’s not true. I think I’ve been in one electric car, which I think was a Tesla. So, yeah, I haven’t been in an autonomous driving car. I don’t have a lot of experience with it at all. And so my information pool is very small. There’s definitely… I can see self-driving cars happening and being important. And I would even use one.

Bryan Salesky

So they are an instrument of safety and I showed you some videos earlier, just how much they detect in and around pedestrians, vehicles, everywhere. Pedestrians on sidewalks, around corners, all of that, right?

Mike Finnegan

Yeah. That blew my mind.

Bryan Salesky

The cool part is that it doesn’t get distracted. It’s always learning. It’s always improving its skills. At the end of the day, though, there’s a lot of applications for this stuff too. I know when you’re drag racing, you guys frequently will say, right before you get behind the wheel, ‘I just don’t want to put it into the wall.’ So I was thinking, Alex, I think we should take a watered down version of what we’re doing…

Alex Roy

You want to build tech for a drag racer not to go into a wall?

Bryan Salesky

I think we should actually build a safeguarding system that will make it so you cannot go into the wall.

Alex Roy

Would you use that?

Mike Finnegan

Yeah. Totally. It’s an interesting discussion for me because there are classes where it wouldn’t be legal and then there’s classes where it would be legal.

Bryan Salesky

The safety gear would not be legal?

Mike Finnegan

Yeah.

Bryan Salesky

Tell me more.

Mike Finnegan

So we have fairly crude versions of traction control in drag racing in place now.

Bryan Salesky

Yeah.

Mike Finnegan

At certain classes you can’t use it because part of the challenge of drag racing is looking at the racetrack, looking at the weather and going, ‘How much power can I put in those back tires right now and make it go from point A to point B without spinning the tires, without ultimately hitting the wall, while out-accelerating the other guy.’ And the moment you turn on traction control, which you know, most of these are based off of tire rotation, driveshaft speed, acceleration. We’ve got three and four Axis-G meters in these cars now. And when you use it, you have an advantage over everybody else. However, not hitting the wall would be amazing. So yeah, I would totally be…

Bryan Salesky

I think it’d be neat to have… See those systems that you’re referring to make the driver better. They’re active, they’re resting between you and the control surfaces of the vehicle. What I would be looking at is something that is…

Alex Roy

Lane keeping?

Bryan Salesky

It’s under your control until it becomes clear that you just made an input that is going to send you into the wall, then it sort of prevents it.

Mike Finnegan

Right. Which as a driver, that is… When you see a lot of crashes in drag racing, and this is just my opinion, especially in drag boat racing, whenever I see a crash in drag boat, I believe a lot of it’s preventable. Most of it, if not, all of it is preventable and it’s usually driver error.

Alex Roy

That’s true of the road too.

Mike Finnegan

Yeah. Even if parts failure begins the crash, everything that happens after that… You know, you don’t practice for this and when it happens, most people overreact. And they make it worse. And so I just brought up drag boats and it made me think I’ve been looking at using the EFI system in my drag boat to mitigate some of that stuff. Using a gyroscope so that… With a drag boat you want as much boat out of the water as you can possibly get, minimize the wetted surface, the drag, the boat accelerates harder and goes faster. But there’s a point where you get so much boat out of the water that you don’t have any surface tension holding it to the water and then the boat does a back flip and you go flying out and it’s bad. So why not a gyroscope, you know, or something that senses the angle of attack and then removes power when it goes to great.

Bryan Salesky

Yeah. And then tune it to be right at the edge. It’d be fun to have a self-driving jet boat just to find that edge.

Mike Finnegan

A man-size RC boat? Dude, come on. Let’s do it.

Bryan Salesky

Let’s do that.

Mike Finnegan

I literally, I would stop driving that to find out how fast it really is.

Bryan Salesky

Okay. Let’s do it. We can do that. We have the technology

Mike Finnegan

Here’s the thing. Let me tell you about this boat. So for those of you at home that have no idea what we’re talking about, I have a boat called Game Over.

Bryan Salesky

It’s so appropriate.

Mike Finnegan

And it is a 19 foot long fiberglass boat hull. The hull weighs 420 pounds. The engine is 711 cubic inches, all aluminum, with twin turbos. It is currently only set up for eight pounds of boost. It’s capable of probably 30 or 40 pounds of boost. The fuel flow numbers say it’s probably making 1600 or 1700 horsepower. That’s where I’ve been driving it. Its a lot of fun. We could turn it up, but I don’t want to die. So I am interested in finding out how fast that damn boat really is. I just don’t want to be in the driver’s seat to find it out.

Bryan Salesky

I’ve seen this a couple of times when I see… Your channel is Finnegan’s garage on YouTube, right? And I think you have some good… In fact, there was one recently with Cletus in the seat. In fact, you made the comment that he was one of the only people on the planet you would allow to actually drive it.

Mike Finnegan

Yeah. I didn’t think he’d sue me if something went wrong.

Bryan Salesky

Exactly. That’s what I figured.

Alex Roy

That’s like my rule for all passengers.

Bryan Salesky

This is what I was thinking as well.

Mike Finnegan

I have a lot of friends who are like, ‘Dude, I want to ride in the boat.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t have a lawyer and the waiver would be like a hundred pages now.’.

Bryan Salesky

But I think we can build this, Mike. And I think we just identified a project.

Alex Roy

But what about like the self-driving hauler or trailer?

Mike Finnegan

Oh, I’m down for that too.

Bryan Salesky

We could take Square Force 1 and automate it for sure.

Mike Finnegan

I just sold it.

Bryan Salesky

Did you sell it?

Mike Finnegan

Yeah.

Bryan Salesky

Congratulations. For those who don’t know, Square Force 1 is…

Mike Finnegan

It’s a 38 foot long, 1989 GMC pickup that somebody extended the chassis on and made an enclosed car hauler out of. And it’s a beautiful truck, only has 46,000 original miles on it. It’s a time capsule from the late eighties. And I use it to drive all over the country and haul my race car. And there were a lot of times I was like, ‘God, if this thing drove itself.’

Alex Roy

Well, you know, when you said it was for sale, I was saying to Bryan, I don’t know if anyone’s ever set a… If there’s a Cannonball record in such a vehicle or even an RV or anything like that. What if you had like eight people on board and you’re cooking and you just drove straight through?

Mike Finnegan

Dude. Carry a lot of fuel in that thing.

Bryan Salesky

You can carry a lot of fuel.

Alex Roy

That’s a thing.

Mike Finnegan

Yeah. Yeah.

Bryan Salesky

It’s a pretty cool truck. In fact, it was pretty neat seeing the journey you guys made from, I think Ohio. There’s a pretty good story. I won’t spoil it, but you got to watch the episode.

Alex Roy

So Bryan, how hard do you think it would to turn Square Force 1 into a vehicle that could drive itself, I don’t know, somewhere, across town, around Atlanta?

Bryan Salesky

Well, from scratch, that’d be hard. But with the technology we’re building, you could definitely take Argo sensors and software, put it on that truck pretty easy.

Alex Roy

So I can get out of the driver’s seat for some length of time.

Bryan Salesky

Yeah. For sure. But you know, I’m still, I’m stuck on the jet boat thing. I can’t get off of it.

Mike Finnegan

The boat’s way sexier than the truck.

Bryan Salesky

It is.

Mike Finnegan

Cause now you’re talking speed.

Bryan Salesky

Yeah. Real speed and danger speed. Like ridiculous.

Mike Finnegan

Yeah. Well and RC cars are cool. RC boat would be awesome.

Alex Roy

My daughter is just turning two. I just bought her her first little RC car, like Paw Patrol, like Marshall and Skye. They have characters. They have a firetruck and police with the remote control and she’s going absolutely crazy. I want her to learn how to build those things.

Bryan Salesky

I mean, look, even this little… I bought a Traxxas RC boat. A Spartan, I think is the model. It’s like 3 feet long. I mean, it’s a blast.

Mike Finnegan

Two engine lithium battery.

Bryan Salesky

Yeah. It only lasts for about 15 minutes.

Mike Finnegan

Yeah. Which is lightyears in the RC world. The version I grew up with was three minutes.

Bryan Salesky

Yes, exactly. Now that’s if you don’t really destroy it on the water, which we almost did a few times. But that is like the best 15 minutes of Zen that you could offer anyone in my view. And you just giggle the whole way through it.

Mike Finnegan

Yeah. You’re God.

Bryan Salesky

You really are.

Mike Finnegan

No consequences other than, OK, maybe you’ve got to go swimming to get it when you screw up.

Alex Roy

I will tell you, when I was a kid my dad used to take me, in Southern California to a small airfield where people would fly RC planes. And most of them were these little things. And one guy, this is like 1983, and a guy shows up with, it was probably a 6-foot-long RC F-16.

Mike Finnegan

Ah, that’s cool.

Alex Roy

And I think it was like jet powered, RC, and in 83. So I thought this was the most amazing thing ever. And my father said, you really should, we should go closer and check it out. And I’m in awe of the guy, the thing takes off and he crashes it. And he walked back with the thing in two pieces. And my whole life, I said, ‘Someday, I’m gonna build an RC F-16.’ I haven’t done it yet.

Mike Finnegan

The first things I ever wrenched on were RC cars. And so I grew up learning those and how suspensions worked and clutches and tires and things. And I think that’s probably where me getting into cars, that was even before the TV shows.

Alex Roy

That was so much fun. I can’t believe we ended the episode right before Bryan asked Finnegan for advice on the best car for the Musketball, which for the record is the Cannonball Run for cars under 100 horsepower. I’m not suggesting Bryan and I would ever go do such a thing, but I’m also suggesting we might NOT not do such… you know, if you want to know more, just hit us up on Twitter @NoParkingPod and I might share that story.

Of course I’m everywhere on social @AlexRoy144. Please share No Parking with a friend. Like us! Subscribe! Give us a good review wherever you find your favorite podcasts. The show is managed by Civic Entertainment Group. Megan Harris is our producer. Bryan Salesky is the CEO and founder of Argo AI.

Our whole team wants to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving. There’s a lot more goodness and kindness in people than it might appear. Be kind. Be human. We have a lot more in common than not. And please be safe.

Until next time, I’m Alex Roy. This is the No Parking podcast.