On the morning of Sept. 28, 2012, word was passed that the Dean of American Motorsports Journalism, Chris Economaki, was dead at age 91.
Chris was born at 133 Gates Ave., Brooklyn, New York. His father was of Greek stock, while his mother was a great-niece of Robert E. Lee. Chris spent most of his life in Ridgewood, N.J.
At the age of nine, auto racing captivated him when he visited the Atlantic City board track. Later, he journeyed to Ho-Ho-Kus Speedway and discovered dirt track racing.
When barely in his teens, Chris discovered The Bergen Herald newspaper, which carried two pages of area auto racing information. As it evolved, the little weekly carried more racing news. Eventually, the regular neighborhood news completely gave way to the racing format, and The Herald became the official organ for racing all over America. And young Chris was on hand to see most of this take place. He traveled seven nights a week to various tracks to sell the racing paper, and by the age of 15 was writing a column in the paper called Gas-O-Lines. Much later, his Editor’s Notebook column became a must-read for anyone interested in racing. Eventually, the paper became National Speed Sport News. In 1950, when founder Bill Kay died, Economaki took the reins. At its peak in the 1980s, and figures vary, some claim the paper’s circulation was as high as 2 million per week.
“I’m not an author — couldn’t write a book,” Chris insisted. “I’m more like the Walter Winchell of auto racing.”
Always one to use superlatives, he’d call —if they deserved it — a driver, a car owner, a race car or a speedway either sensational, amazing or phenomenal. However, his highest praise — used sparingly — was fabulous.
Prior to WWII, Chris started announcing races at different venues.
“He’d start his introduction with the last row of the starting field,” recalls racing historian Joe Heisler. “His description of the color of the cars and the drivers so excited the crowd they would be in a frenzy of excitement by the time he called the front row starters. It was really something to see and hear.”
In 1959, when CBS started to televise NASCAR races, they installed Walter Cronkite and Art Peck at the microphones. Cronkite was an avid automotive enthusiast, but knew little about racing. According to NASCAR founder “Big Bill” France, the deal was a fiasco. When ABC wanted to broadcast NASCAR, France insisted they hire Economaki. The network was astonished when “the newspaper guy” immediately clicked with the audience. Without Chris’ input, NASCAR might not be the TV giant it is today.
One thing Chris receives little credit for is the fact that he brought auto racing out of the backwater and into the limelight. Before he really began to bear down on making drivers human beings, instead of “black hearted demons grinning at death,” yellow journalism had a field day berating the racers and their efforts. Besides putting in his own two cents every week, he hired writers like Vern “Flip” Fritch, Walt Woestman, Frank “Jim” Lunt, Gene Powlen and many others who knew racing from the inside. They understood what racing was all about and helped make it respectable.
Yes, Chris is gone, but he leaves behind a great legacy. It was a fabulous trip, Chris, just fabulous.