Bruce Flanders, voice of the Long Beach Grand Prix, dies at 74
Bruce Flanders, the legendary public-address announcer who became the longtime “Voice of the Long Beach Grand Prix” and entertained racing fans for more than 40 years, died Friday. He was 74.
Flanders, who suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for years, died peacefully at his home in San Bernardino on Friday, Aug. 14, said a close family friend, according to Jim Michaelian, president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach.
Calling Flanders “one of a kind,” Michaelian said Flanders was renowned for his unique and personable style of announcing during race weekend, including instructive information as well as humorous banter.
“He was as responsible as anyone for the immense popularity of the Grand Prix as he interfaced with virtually everyone who attended the race,” Michaelian said. “His melodious voice is now stilled, but we will all remember his immense contribution forever. We, along with the entire racing community, will sorely miss him.”
Flanders, who grew up in Pasadena and attended St. Francis High School in La Canada Flintridge, was one of the most familiar voices in the Southern California racing world.
In addition to entertaining Grand Prix fans, Flanders used his deep baritone voice to liven up almost every racing venue in the Southland since he started announcing in 1969. His announcing gigs included the Irwindale Speedway, Costa Mesa Speedway, Laguna Seca Raceway, Industry Speedway and Orange County Fairgrounds.
When he was inducted into the Long Beach Motor Sports Walk of Fame in 2016, Flanders said he did “announcer math” and figured that he has talked to five million people in his stints at the Grand Prix. He was inducted into the Walk of Fame with another racing legend, Roger Penske, owner of the Team Penske group.
Flanders didn’t mince words when he was asked about the deadly COPD he was diagnosed with 12 years ago.
“They call my disease progressive, but that’s just another word for terminal,” he said in an interview before the Grand Prix in 2019. “I know how this will end eventually. I just take deep breaths and keep on going as long as I can.”
When he was first diagnosed with the disease in 2008, he said one doctor told him he had only 18 months to live. With his ever-present sense of humor, Flanders added, “I’ve been trying to make a liar out of him ever since.”
Last year, he made the climb up the stairs to the booth to announce the race for the 42nd year.
How would you recognize him? He said he would be the guy “with the handlebar mustache and a hose up my nose.”
The hose was attached to a four-pound, portable oxygen concentrator, which became the permanent companion on his shoulder. When you heard his booming voice over the public address system, you would have no idea he had such a serious respiratory disease.
Michaelian said Flanders was ready to announce this year’s race but said he might need an elevator or some other assist to get to the announcing booth. The coronavirus pandemic, however, canceled this year’s race.
When he was a boy growing up in Pasadena, Flanders dreamed of becoming a race driver.
His father, Earl Flanders, was a world-class motorcyclist who opened a shop in Pasadena where little Bruce helped his dad produce customized motorcycle handlebars.
When he was 28, Bruce even set a record on the Bonneville Salt Flats for the fastest production motorcycle at 141.703 mph. The record stood for seven years.
But racing cars was not to be in Flanders’ future. He really hadn’t done much with his voice, except sing in the choir at St. Francis High School in La Canada Flintridge. But he did have a natural, strong baritone voice which he started using at race tracks.
Flanders carved out an impressive career announcing events through Southern California, becoming known as the “Chick Hearn of racing” because of the way he seamlessly mixed humor with informative analysis, reminiscent of the late Los Angeles Lakers announcer.
For example, Flanders describes cars having engine problems as “the sound of chicken bones in a garbage disposal.”
Flanders’ first time as play-by-play announcer at the Long Beach race wasn’t planned. He had been announcing at other tracks when Michaelian and Chris Pook, founder of the race, asked him to do only pre-game and post-game announcing in 1978.
“I had taken a break when the race started because radio guys were doing the race,” Flanders said during an interview. “Pook came over to me and was livid. He said the radio guys were running commercials over the track PA system from Datsun, a competitor of Toyota, the race’s then-sponsor. He told me to get back and start announcing.”
That started his record string of Grand Prix racing assignments “painting a picture of the race for fans.”
Michaelian said Flanders was an original in finding ways to relate to his audience.
“It was his idea to come up with the “Ugliest Hawaiian Shirt” contest on race day morning in the grandstand opposite the announcing stand on Shoreline Drive,” Michaelian said. “What began with a few participants soon morphed into almost a full grandstand of people wanting to receive recognition from Bruce for their wacky apparel.”
Flanders has called Michaelian and Pook visionaries for building the Long Beach Grand Prix into the greatest auto street race in the United States.
“It has become the most copied street race in the U.S.,” he said last year. “It’s not just a race; it’s a community event with hundreds of volunteers and city fathers and mothers involved. I hope it continues forever.”
When he was diagnosed with COPD in 2008, he thought his announcing streak was going to come to an end. “I thought I was going to die,” he said.
But he quit smoking, started exercising and, with the help of his portable oxygen generator, he fought back and continued his announcing career. He believed exposure to Agent Orange when he was served in combat during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and welding in his father’s shop didn’t help his lungs.
Flanders was devastated when Vicki, his wife of 37 years, died in her sleep in 2018. They were married on Valentine’s Day, 1981.
“I didn’t know I could cry so much,” he said when she died.
More recently, announcing at the Grand Prix was a Flanders family affair. Last year he was helped by his son, Michael, who also is a race announcer, and his daughter, Megan, who helped as a field reporter.
Ever optimistic, Flanders said at last year’s race that he aimed to start working on the 2020 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. “It’s been a roller coaster ride, but I am still breathing,” he said.
But it was not to be. Flanders completed his final lap on Friday. But, based on his impressive career and the admiration he earned in the racing world, you could say he’d earned the checkered flag.