INDIANAPOLIS — He was the best storyteller who ever walked through a dusty pit area, or sat down in an air-conditioned media center.
When Chris Economaki had the floor, you gave him room and you gave him time, because the story was going to be pure gold and he was not about to skip many details.
For example, I was curious about just how he and racing had fallen in love, so I asked him about that. Off he went: “I was born Oct. 15, 1920, in the front room at 133 Gates Ave. in Brooklyn, N.Y. …”
He talked of growing up in a well-to-do household until his entrepreneurial dad, who peddled everything from wholesale clothing to retail candy, went bust in the 1929 stock market crash. The family moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey, settling in with Chris’ maternal grandparents. Which brought us back to my question.
“I was taken to a race at the Atlantic City board speedway as a toddler, but the first race I recall was in 1932 at the Ho-Ho-Kus Driving Park in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J. Ho-Ho-Kus was next door to Ridgewood, which was my town. I could hear the roar of the engines. For a kid, 11 years old, it was a magnet.
“Ho-Ho-Kus ran what they called ‘racing cars,’ single-seaters. They later became known as ‘big cars’ when the midgets came along. It was a dirt track; not clay, just the native dirt. They oiled it, so the straightaways were hard, but the oil wouldn’t hold the dirt in the turns, which were rutty and dusty.”
See? In that one story, you got a feel for the Roaring Twenties, for racing’s crude roots in the busted ’30s, for the way the noise got under his young skin and for the beginnings of a remarkable life. His voice, as subtle as a foghorn, added authority to every word.
Economaki considered himself a reporter first. “I’ve always had a nose for news,” he told me. “A lot of people think I’m a nosey bastard, and I guess I am.”
His motto was “get it first, but get it right,” and he did both. His weekly column became the sport’s most reliable grapevine and his 35-year television career had the same gravity; when he showed up onscreen, there was no fake smile, no slick patter. Chris simply told you what you needed to know about David Pearson’s engine or A.J. Foyt’s mood.
So, yes, his reporting skills were unmatched. But it was his stories that survived his passing in 2012 and his stories that will outlive us all. Hearing one firsthand was like sitting at the feet of a motorsports Dalai Lama.
“The most significant happening in American auto racing was the advent of the midget,” he declared one day. “Do you know why?”
There was no pause for a reply.
“It was because, up until 1934, to go to an auto race you had to go to a track way outside of town. All the tracks were half miles and larger, at fairgrounds and so forth, away from the population. So going to the races involved a guy getting permission from his family and it had to be planned; it was a major undertaking. Then the midget came along and, overnight, every baseball park and athletic field had the potential to be an auto racing track and many hundreds did.
“Now the guy who wanted to go to a race didn’t have to rally his family, and get permission from his wife, and make all these extensive plans. He could come home from work on Friday, have dinner, go downtown to the races and be home by 11 o’clock. That was the beginning of this country’s love affair with auto racing.”
Once I asked him a question that required only a two-word answer. Instead, Economaki gave me more gold.
Who, I wondered, was the best all-around driver America ever produced?
“It’s a toss-up for me,” said Chris. “It’s either Bob Swanson or Bob Sweikert. In 1936, Tazio Nuvolari won the Vanderbilt Cup at Roosevelt Raceway and after the race he sought out Swanson to tell him he was the finest driver he’d ever come against. That was one of the great compliments.
“Now, I was close to Sweikert. We were having dinner in Syracuse, the night before a national championship race at the fairgrounds and Eddie Sachs walked by. In those days, drivers would needle one another. Sachs said, ‘I’m going to blow your ass off the track, Bob.’
“Sweikert looked up from his meal and said, ‘Eddie, tomorrow on the 37th lap’ — or whatever lap he said, I don’t remember — ‘I’m going to lap you on my way to victory lane.’ And that’s exactly what happened: Sweikert lapped Sachs on the lap he said he would and then won the race.”
Economaki laughed, and here came that foghorn: “It was phenomenal!”
Years ago, after lamenting that quiet word processors had stripped media centers of their old post-race clatter, he added a sly dig at the writers around him.
“A typewriter,” he grinned, “is the only good noise you will ever hear in a press room.”
Chris was right about a lot of things, but this time he was wrong. His long, golden stories were the very best noise.