CHARLOTTE, N.C. — He was the best investigative reporter there was, regardless of the “beat”covered.
Chris Economaki was one of a kind; a man who as editor of National Speed Sport News and as a television reporter for ABC and CBS, changed motorsports profoundly.
And, while we argued during the decades I worked for him, I was proud to call him a friend. The thing is that, no matter the circumstances, I was continually amazed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge. We were having lunch one day when the subject turned to Billy Vukovich, the three-time Indy 500 winner who so tragically died in 1955 trying to win his third straight Memorial Day classic. In that unique voice of his Chris looked at me and said, “Do you know why he was killed?”
After I replied that Vukovich had run over the back of Roger Ward’s car, flipped into the air and over the fence to land upside down and on fire, Chris said: “No that’s not it.”
Economaki then explained that coming off of turn two and onto the backstretch, Vukovich was looking down at a rag in his hand, not on what was ahead. In short, he wasn’t paying attention.
I then asked how he remembered that a half a century later.
“Because, “ he said, “There’s a picture of it on the lower left of the front page of the 1955 Indy race issue.”
Sure enough, looking through the archives later, I found the photograph just as Economaki had described it.” But memory wasn’t the only attribute in Chris’ formidable arsenal.
Unlike so many others, he talked, and more importantly listened to anyone, whether they were the person in charge, or and underling. As he put it, “The man who sweeps the floor of the garage is just as important as the man in charge of the team when it comes to getting a story.”
And, Chris did get the story, often to the displeasure of those who wanted to keep it secret.
One such occasion came in the early 1970s when a truck driver, who was an NSSN subscriber, called Economaki in the office to tell him that he was transporting a Matador to the Penske racing shops in Reading, Pa.
That tip uncovered Penske’s previously unknown deal with American Motors to go NASCAR racing.
It was this ability to find out what was happening in the sport that for decades made Chris’ column, “The Editor’s Notebook,” was a “must read” not only for the thousands of racing fans, but also for those at the top of the industry who made the decisions that affected its future.
In many ways, NSSN had two audiences — those who paid to seat in seats, and who’s who inhabited the boardrooms of the manufacturers and sponsors whose investments were the lifeblood of the sport.
Even though I covered many major stories in motorsport, when I came to the office on Monday mornings the majority of my time wasn’t spent writing headlining pieces, but rather in the shared task of taking dictation and editing the huge number of weekly short-track stories that filled the majority of the paper’s pages.
No matter who might have appealed to your ego on the weekend, on Monday morning everyone, including Chris, buckled down for the common cause of getting the news to the subscribers who had paid their hard earned money to learn who was doing what, where and when, whether it be at Indianapolis or Wisconsin Dells Speedway.
That hallmark of equality and commitment was at the core of Chris Economaki’s world. It was the reason for his success, and it is why I was proud to have known and worked for him.
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.