RIDGEWOOD, N.J. — The Dean of American Motorsports Journalism has died.
Chris Economaki, who began selling single copies of National Speed Sport News at age 14 and eventually became the publication’s editor, a position he held for 60 years, died Sept. 28 at age 91.
His column, the Editor’s Notebook, was the most read feature in National Speed Sport News for six decades, and while Economaki’s contribution has been minimal in recent years, the Notebook, as it is called by readers, continues to be the most meaningful read in the newspaper, which debuted in 1934 when Economaki was 13 years old.
Economaki was also well known for his unique, recognizable voice, which he used first as a track announcer and later through nearly 40 years on television.
He worked with ABC’s Wide World of Sports, he was with CBS and ESPN, and it can be said he was one of the catalysts in bringing racing to television. It is not an oversimplification to say he knew racing and knew how to speak about it.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1920, Economaki’s father was a Greek immigrant and his mother was a great-niece of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Economaki spent his childhood in Ridgewood, N.J., and saw his first race at the Atlantic City board track when he was 9 years old.
He was hooked and by his 14th birthday he was a fixture in the racing world. Economaki sold his first copies of NSSN at Ho-Ho-Kus Speedway when he was 13. Papers sold for a nickel and Economaki got to keep a penny.
“I sold 200 papers,” Economaki recalled. “That was $2. An incredible amount of money in 1934.”
Economaki soon began writing his own column, known then as Gas-O-Lines, while continuing to peddle newspapers.
Much of Economaki’s knowledge about racing cars — and people for that matter — was acquired during 1938 and 1939 when Economaki traveled the Eastern half of the United States as a “stooge” (mechanic) for legendary midget racer Duane Carter.
“He would pay me $15 a week when he could, which was rarely,” Economaki liked to say when recalling his days busting his knuckles and learning “tricks of the trade.”
After serving in the Army during World War II, including a stint in the European Theater of Operation, Economaki returned to New Jersey and rekindled his passion for auto racing, selling newspapers and announcing at race tracks throughout the East.
“I had guys selling them for me. I was selling 700 to 800 copies a week. Business was excellent,” Economaki said. “One weekend, I can’t remember where I was, it was 1947, I sold a lot of papers on a Friday night, and Saturday night 50 miles away at another track, with even more people, I sold fewer than 100, and I couldn’t understand that.
“It dawned on me that the difference was the announcer.”
So began his career as a track announcer.
After more than a decade announcing at tracks and working as editor of NSSN where he took the reins in 1950, Economaki got his big break when NASCAR founder William H. “Big Bill” France recommended Economaki be part of ABC’s first telecast from Daytona Int’l Speedway in 1961.
Economaki worked races around the world for ABC through the 1983 season when he made the jump to CBS where he appeared through the mid 1990s. He also worked worldwide Formula One telecasts for ESPN in 1987 and 1988.
“If he wasn’t aware of you, you simply were not a factor in the sport,” World Driving Champion, Indy 500 and Daytona 500 winner Mario Andretti said in 2004. “If you weren’t on Chris Economaki’s radar screen, you probably weren’t on anybody’s.”
And that feeling was common throughout the motorsports industry.
In recent years, he continued to appear occasionally on Speed and more regularly on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network. All the time he continued to write the Editor’s Notebook and promote what had become known as “his” newspaper.
Through the years Economaki has received countless awards including the NASCAR Award of Excellence, and been elected to numerous Halls of Fame, most notably the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame.
Economaki appeared as himself in the racing movies “Stroker Ace” and “Six Pack.” His voice was also used in “Winning.”
He was preceded in death by his wife Tommye and is survived by his two daughters — Corinne and Tina — and two grandchildren.
A wake will be held in Economaki’s honor Oct. 1 from 4 to 8 p.m. at Nativity Church in Midland Park, N.J. His life will be celebrated with a funeral mass at the Nativity Church at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 2.
The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the International Motor Racing Research Center in Economaki’s name: 610 South Decatur Street, Watkins Glen, N.Y. 14891
MORE ABOUT THE LIFE OF CHRIS ECONOMAKI:
SPEED is going to air the 2006 WindTunnel Special Economaki: Eyewitness to American Racing History tonight at 11 p.m. EST. Please tune in and check it out.