HEDGER: How Did You Become A SPEED SPORT Writer?

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Chris Economaki (left) interviews A.J. Foyt. (NSSN Archives Photo)
Ron Hedger

BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — The question we’ve fielded most often over our years with SPEED SPORT is “How did you get to be a writer with them?”

And knowing the people who asked, many probably thought they should have had the slot instead of me, including one who was going to “put me out of SPEED SPORT, Stock Car Magazine and Open Wheel Magazine,” but soon disappeared from the scene.

Actually, getting started was relatively easy, though the motivation was extremely sad. In one summer, NASCAR modified kingpin Freddy DeSarro perished when he hit a sandbank at Thompson (Conn.) Speedway, Mike Grbac lost his life in a crash at Reading (Pa.) Fairgrounds and my brother (Randy) broke his back at Oswego (N.Y.) Speedway when a car spun and they hit nose to nose, sending Randy far enough skyward that he hit the crossbar on an infield light pole.

As a result, I sent NSSN a column on safety, which Chris Economaki liked and published, beginning an association that has lasted 41 years.

Economaki even chose the name for my column, saying the safety piece took a “long look” at the problems prevalent at most short tracks regardless of the classes competing. And until his last day in the editor’s chair, nothing was more valued than one of Chris’ typed postcards complimenting you on something you’d written, often with a suggestion of another topic to pursue.

Technology was different then and you had to mail your typed column so it arrived in Ridgewood, N.J., by Thursday in order to make the following week’s newspaper.

Results were phoned in Monday morning, with an amazing typist taking down the stories as you dictated unless you got to a name like Eddie Pieniezak, which always produced a quick, “Hold on, how do you spell that?”

For years, my first period auto shop class knew that on Monday in the spring and fall, they had to behave and help each other out with problems while I was on my office phone dictating stories.

Our first NSSN-supplied Tandy computer, though primitive, was a godsend and things have gotten progressively easier ever since.

Today, a race results story is often posted on SPEEDSPORT.com within minutes of being written and emailed. And the internet now makes getting photographs to go with the story a relative walk in the park. Gone are the days when after Super DIRT Week at Syracuse, we had to gather film from the photographers and hand it off to photographer Steve Peters, who would drop it off at the Ridgewood, N.J., office on his way home to Lansdale, Pa.

Looking back, it’s difficult to believe what a giant Chris Economaki was in the racing world. He knew absolutely everyone worth knowing and, in turn, could make almost anything happen. One time we were attending the NASCAR Cup Series race at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) Int’l as a family when we bumped into Chris, who wondered why we weren’t in the garage area gathering information.

When told we hadn’t applied for credentials, he simply said: “Follow me!”  We ended up at the garage entrance, where he told the lady at the window that I was one of his people and absolutely needed garage credentials right now. And within seconds, I had them. Who else could have made that happen?

Watkins Glen was also the site of another great experience while researching a Stock Car magazine piece on editor Chris. It was another era, when drivers and owners hung around the garage instead of hiding in their motor coaches and a rainy Saturday afternoon gave us the opportunity to ask a large number of insiders for their best Chris Economaki story.

The only one who refused comment was Benny Parsons, who may well have been the subject of a negative Economaki comment in his column, read weekly by everyone in the industry.

But on the other side of the coin, Richard Petty spewed out a seemingly endless stream of anecdotes involving the two of them. The most memorable, by far, was his description of riding around New York City with Economaki, notorious for his high-speed, somewhat erratic driving, to make radio and TV appearances on behalf of an upcoming NASCAR event.

Petty told of going the wrong way down one-way streets, driving on the sidewalk when they were late for the next appearance and parking on the sidewalk or in front of fire hydrants when no slots were available.

“The most scared I’ve ever been in an automobile was riding with Chris Economaki,” Petty declared.

Economaki and a loyal troop of associate editors built and carried on one of auto racing’s great traditions. How they got the paper out to the printer every Monday night after spending the weekend at far away races remains a mystery. But we do know that people are still lamenting the loss of the weekly print edition.

Today, instead of a postcard from Chris, you get an email from Mike Kerchner saying “take a bow” when you write something for the magazine that really impresses him. That was another of Economaki’s ways of telling someone they’d done well.

It also reminds everyone that Economaki’s spirit and unalterable dedication to getting the story right remains with us. The technology has changed over 85 years, but not the mission.