VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — Sitting down to the keyboard should be easy for me since I’ve been doing it for more than 50 years, but my heart has never been heavier.
The loss of Chris Economaki hurts both personally and professionally. I don’t think I have to say too much regarding the influence National Speed Sport News had on auto racing.
For many years our sport was ignored by daily newspapers. It had no voice. Chris came along and NSSN was a big factor to elevating our sport to a more significant status. He was a tireless worker. From the days as a teenager when he was selling National Auto Racing News, the precursor to NSSN, to becoming the editor and publisher.
He did all this not by just sitting in his office. He traveled all over. First as a PA announcer when he would work a morning fairgrounds show in Ohio and drive to Flemington, N.J., for a night show. We imagine those “drives” were as impressive as the races he called.
Eventually, he made it to television on ABC and CBS. NSSN was the most important of those tasks. The paper was his “baby” for sure.
When his recognition became worldwide, he started writing his renowned Editor’s Notebook column. You could get facts from the Grand Prix at Monte Carlo or a modified race at Islip (N.Y.) Speedway in the same paragraph. I often marveled at how he got time to do TV then fly in and put the paper together on Monday.
He did most of the work himself, but eventually hired first-rate people like Dusty Frazer, Tom McGeehen, Gary Guehler and Mike Kerchner to put each issue “to bed.”
Mondays used to be hectic, as before computers the U.S. Mail was the delivery method for of most copy. Sometimes it was dictated by phone. Chris somehow managed to compile and write that huge column. I just read some of his work from the 1970s and it often filled several pages.
Chris’ column became so important it was often a topic of corporate boardroom talk, as in the 1980s many companies began to pour big money into racing. Chris’ goal was always to publish an actual newspaper, not a fan’s sheet. He was criticized sometimes when a racing fatality was NSSN’s headline.
His proper answer was that sometimes that was the biggest story of the week. You certainly wouldn’t put the deaths of Jim Clark, Ayrton Senna or Dale Earnhardt on page five.
I started writing for Chris in 1963. I was amazed about what he knew about regional racing. Sometimes he would call with a “scoop” that I hadn’t known.
It was such a pleasure writing for him and was extra special for me when my column was placed next to his. Once or twice a year I trekked to New Jersey. We’d have a nice lunch and I’d get to hear many great stories.
He had a ton of them. His great sense of humor made them even more entertaining. In fact, I was in the process of writing a unique story about him when I got the sad news of his death.
Over the years, I often got phone calls or post cards from Chris saying he liked a certain piece I had written. He stood by his writers and despite the fact I like to write what I think, I was only blue penciled by him a handful of times.
One great memory I will always have came from a letter I got from him. It might have been the only time he composed a note that long. He sent me a complimentary missive about the tribute column I had written about Dale Earnhardt after his fatal crash in 2001. The things he said brought tears to my eyes. Those tears returned today.
I have lost a longtime friend and associate. Even if I hadn’t known him, NSSN was important to me as a reader. After you read the latest issue, you knew everything that went on in racing that week.
I took him to a USAC show at Grandview Speedway three years ago. I began to realize that age was getting the best of him. He had such a powerful personality that I never thought he’d get older. The last couple of years weren’t easy for him.
Chris leaves us with so much accomplished, virtually thousands of friends, and I must say, a job very well done.
I was hoping that next year, on my 50th anniversary with NSSN, he and I could spend a nice day together. Sadly we can’t, but I know I will never forget him.
RIP, Boss. You earned it.
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.