Commentary

Chris Economaki still larger than life

Updated: October 15, 2010, 7:13 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

"Mr. Economaki, who's the best race car driver you've ever seen?"

One of Chris Economaki's bushy gray eyebrows raised itself over the top edge of his wine glass, looking at me as if to say, "A little overeager, aren't we, kid?" But he never hesitated.

"Easy question. A.J. Foyt."

[+] EnlargeChristopher 'Chris' Economaki
AP Photo/Mel EvansChris Economaki on covering his first Indianapolis 500 in 1938: "I was 17 years old and I hitchhiked my way there from my home in Ridgewood, N.J."

From the moment Economaki had arrived on this summer evening he had commanded the attention of everyone in the dining room. To my surprise and honor I was asked to join him, along with David Hart, Richard Childress Racing's director of communications, for dinner on the night before the Aug. 1 Pennsylvania 500. The place was the Blakeslee Inn & Restaurant, Economaki's customary spot of both residence and refreshment whenever he attends a race at Pocono Raceway.

And he has attended all of them.

But this trip to the Poconos was different. There were whispers that it might be the track's final visit from the founding father of the American motorsports media. Friday marks his 90th birthday, and as time trudges forward, those whispers have not been quieted.

However, here in his element, enjoying good food, cold beverages and talking racing, there was no talk of aging or goodbyes. It was all about the stories.

From the printed page to radio to television, this was the man who fought and won auto racing's right to live alongside sports of the stick-and-ball variety. In other words, I owe my entire career to the man. So, naturally, I hung on his every word.

"I covered my first Indianapolis 500 in 1938 and I haven't missed one since," he said matter-of-factly. "I was 17 years old and I hitchhiked my way there from my home in Ridgewood, N.J. I hitchhiked everywhere I went. If you did that now you wouldn't be doing any writing about it. Someone else would be writing about you. Your obituary."

Birth of modern motorsports journalism

Over salad and steak, Economaki talked about the moment he first fell in love with racing. His father had been a successful Manhattan businessman, but lost "everything and apparently a little more" in the stock market crash of '29, forcing the family to live with Economaki's grandparents in New Jersey.

"There was much depression about it all and thusly much drinking about it all," he said. "So I frequently wandered the streets of Ridgewood just to stay out of the house. I could hear the engines from nearby Ho-Ho-Kus Speedway, so I gravitated there, climbed under the fence, and saw my first field of race cars. I couldn't believe the sights, the sounds, and the smells."

The local racing hero was sprint car ace Bob Sall. Sall's father happened to be Chris' barber and had expressed the desire for company on the road as he traveled to see his son race. The 12-year-old jumped at the chance and ended up seeing nearly every racetrack in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and every roadside diner in between.

I know people like to tell horror stories about how being on television ruined their lives and took away all their privacy. I am not one of those people. It opened doors I could have never opened on my own.

-- Chris Economaki

"The world was so much bigger then," he said. "A trip down to Philadelphia might as well have been a trip to the moon. People forget that. Our travels were like a tour of the world in those days. I was hooked on racing and on travel."

During one of his out-of-the-house street wanderings, teenage Economaki noticed that the local newspaper was renting out its printing press to produce an auto racing newsletter. He offered to sell the publication at local racetracks and eventually began writing a racing notes column titled "Gas-O-Lines."

In 1950, not yet 20 years old, he bought that little newsletter and started publishing it himself. We now know it as the National Speed Sport News and his little column in the little newsletter grew into a must-have motorsports read that carried him to Indianapolis, Daytona, LeMans, Monza and every other significant racing locale on the globe.

Fifty years later, he still files his notes column every week, and the man who refers to himself as Ye Editor has lost none of his bite. During September alone his columns called out the New York media for ignoring NASCAR's pre-Chase NYC blitz and wondered aloud why fans would pay to watch Charlotte Motor Speedway races on its forthcoming giant HD screen when they could stay home and watch it on TV for free.

"People may not like my take on this Jack Roush situation," he said with a wink, referring to the NASCAR owner's Oshkosh, Wis., plane crash, which had happened just four days before our dinner. The following week he wrote: "The most dangerous place in NASCAR racing may not be Talladega [Ala.] Superspeedway or Bristol [Tenn.] Motor Speedway. It may be in the seat of one of Jack Roush's airplanes."

The wide world of (motor)sports

Every dinnertime punch line was punctuated with amplification and laughter. He playfully barked demands to the waitress in French. She simply smiled and rolled her eyes, clearly knowing that it was coming. Race fans in the room instantly recognized his voice as it boomed throughout the restaurant. Others, merely summer vacationers who didn't know who the elderly gentleman was, quickly figured out that he was someone important, tipped off by the way the manager and his staff scrambled to fulfill the guest's every need.

[+] EnlargeChris Economaki
ISC Archives/Getty ImagesLegendary journalist Chris Economaki, in his trademark glasses, was a trailblazer in auto racing's early years.

They had no idea that it was Economaki who may have single-handedly saved motorsports television. His experience as a track public address announcer in New Jersey ("I had no desire to be a commentator, I was trying to sell newspapers") led to the same job at Bill France Sr.'s first Daytona Beach and Road Course races in 1950, NASCAR's second Strictly Stock (now Sprint Cup) season.

A decade later France convinced CBS to televise portions of Daytona Speedweeks from his 1-year-old 2.5-mile speedway. The telecasts were a mess, even with Walter Cronkite in the booth. One year later, ABC inquired about doing the same as part of its brand-new series, "Wide World of Sports." France agreed, but on the condition that ABC would do what CBS had not, include a true auto racing expert on its broadcast team.

France insisted that it be Chris Economaki.

"Television is a strange and wonderful thing," Economaki admitted in July. "My life literally changed overnight. I know people like to tell horror stories about how being on television ruined their lives and took away all their privacy. I am not one of those people. It opened doors I could have never opened on my own."

His uniquely nasal and Greek-influenced northeastern accent became a staple of American television weekends, as did his trademark thick-rimmed black glasses. His voice was the most recognizable part on the world's largest auto races, from the Daytona 500 and Indy 500 to the Baja 1000 and Monaco Grand Prix.

As just-named NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison put it: "If you heard Economaki's voice from your TV, then you knew that race must be a pretty big deal. You also knew you were going to learn something about racing that you didn't know. And I know a lot."

Prior to World War II, Economaki had invented the modern motorsports column. During the 1960s, he invented the realm of the pit reporter. He stayed in that role until the 1990s, with both ABC and CBS. Along the way, he watched Indianapolis evolve from riches to ruin to somewhere in between. And he covered three generations of Earnhardts and four generations of Unsers and Pettys.

If there were to ever be a motorsports broadcasting Mount Rushmore, one of the faces would come with horn-rim glasses.

"Chris always had his own style," another new Hall of Famer, Ned Jarrett, said earlier this week, laughing. Economaki covered Jarrett as a racer and then worked alongside him as a broadcaster for nearly a quarter of a century, from MRN Radio to CBS Sports. "He still does have his own style. Along the way that style may have rubbed some people in racing the wrong way. But that was usually because he was being honest. That's why the fans have always loved him so. He tells it like it is."

All hail Ye Ed

"Je suis fini!"

After polishing off his meal and firing one more French-infused flirt toward the waitress, Economaki began to ask questions about the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

"I haven't seen it yet," he said. "I lived in Charlotte for a while, but I never really fit in there. I needed to get back to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, places where I was no longer considered the only person who was talking funny."

We chatted about some of the Hall's exhibits and artifacts. I told him that there was even an area dedicated to motorsports media. I explained that there wasn't a formal broadcasters and writers wing as they have in Canton and Cooperstown, though I didn't see any reason that media members wouldn't one day come up for nomination. I also told him about the Hall's chapel-like "Honoring Our Legacy" room, which pays tribute to NASCAR pioneers who have passed away.

"One would think I might end up in both of those rooms at some point," he said as he motioned for a dessert menu. "But I believe I will see the latter before I see the former."

After a moment of silence, I reached deep for another of the million questions that were swimming through my mind. It was very similar to my first.

"Mr. Economaki, who's the biggest a--hole you've ever dealt with?"

He smiled. Then quickly took a swipe at those whispers claiming that he's lost a mental step.

"Easy question. A.J. Foyt."

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

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