Rich Archbold: Bruce Flanders’ golden voice will still entertain Long Beach Grand Prix Race fans, despite lung disease
Bruce Flanders, 73, the legendary public address announcer for the Long Beach Grand Prix for 41 years, doesn’t mince words when you ask him about the deadly chronic obstructive pulmonary disease he was diagnosed with 11 years ago.
“They call my disease progressive, but that’s just another word for terminal,” he told me last week from his home in San Bernardino. “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 that he had only 18 months to live. With his ever-present sense of humor, Flanders quickly added, “I’ve been trying to make a liar out of him ever since.”
He said some days are rougher than others. He has cut back on some of his race announcing jobs, but not on his favorite, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
He will climb the stairs to get to his booth on April 14 for the 42nd year to entertain and inform racing fans about the premier street race in the United States.
How will you recognize him? As he told me in his usual good-natured manner: “I’ll be the one with the handlebar mustache and a hose up my nose.”
The hose will be attached to a four-pound, portable oxygen concentrator, which has become the permanent companion on his shoulder. When you hear his booming voice over the public-address system, you would have no idea he had such a serious breathing disease.
“Bruce is truly a unique talent and has been the ‘Voice of the Grand Prix’ for decades,” said Jim Michaelian, president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach. “He blends a sharp racing knowledge with a dose of humor and insight that distinguishes him from virtually anyone else in his field. Our fans have been better informed from having the privilege of listening to his commentary over the years.”
When he was a boy growing up in Pasadena, Flanders dreamed of becoming a race car driver. When he was 28, he even set a record on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah for the fastest production motorcycle, at 141.703 mph. The record stood for seven years.
But driving race cars was not to be in Flanders’ future.
Instead, he carved out a legendary career announcing racing events throughout Southern California. 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 strong baritone voice, which he started using at race tracks.
Since then, he has become known as the Chick Hearn of racing — with humor mixed in with informative analysis, reminiscent of the late Los Angeles Lakers announcer. Flanders, for example, 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 Grand Prix race, asked him to only do pre-game and post-game announcing in 1978.
“I had taken a break when the race started because some radio guys were doing the race,” he said. “Pook came over to me and was livid. He said the radio guys were running commercials over the track’s PA system from Datsun, a competitor of Toyota, the race sponsor then. He told me to get back there and start announcing the race.”
That started Flanders’ string of “painting a picture of the race for fans.”
He was honored by the city when he was awarded a medallion for the Motorsports Walk of Fame on the waterfront downtown from Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia in 2016.
Flanders said he loves the Long Beach race.
“It has become the most copied street race in the United States,” he said. “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.”
He called Michaelian and Pook “visionaries” in conducting a street race.
Asked who his favorite driver has been over the years, he quickly said it was Al Unser, Jr., who ran 15 Indy car races on the streets of Long Beach, winning a record six times. Unser will be the Honorary Starter for this year’s race.
“I loved his dry sense of humor,” Flanders said. “He loved telling the story of how, when he was a little boy, he told his father he wanted to be a race car driver. His father handed him a broom. ‘What’s this for?’ the boy asked. ‘That’s how you get started in the race business. Start cleaning the shop.’”
When he was diagnosed with pulmonary disease in 2008, Flanders thought his streak of announcing at the Grand Prix had ended.
“My wife was told I’d be happier at home,” he said. “I thought I was going to die.”
But he quit smoking, started exercising and with the help of his portable oxygen generator, he fought back and continued his announcing career. He feels exposure to Agent Orange when he was in combat in Vietnam in the 1960s and welding in his father’s shop didn’t help his lungs.
He also had the strong support of his wife, Vicki, who he married on Valentine’s Day, 1981. Flanders was devastated Oct. 17, when his wife of 37 years died in her sleep.
“I didn’t know I could cry so much,” he said.
This year’s race will be a family affair. Helping Flanders with announcing duties will be his son, Michael, who is the announcer at the 95 Speedway in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Also helping as a field reporter will be his daughter, Megan.
Terry Clanton, announcer at the Costa Mesa Speedway at the OC Fair, also will be on hand to help with speaking duties.
Flanders remains ever optimistic about continuing his race announcing in Long Beach.
“I’ll see you April 14 and then start working on seeing you next year,” he said. “It’s been a roller coaster ride, but I’m still breathing.”