News & Media

Aumann: Nobody knew better than the 'Dean'

October 04, 2012, Mark Aumann,

Chris Economaki ran only one race, but made his mark as a racing expert

His career behind the wheel lasted all of one midget car race -- he termed it "a really frightening experience" -- but if you earned a mention in Chris Economaki's weekly motorsports column, you could count yourself as having "made it" in the business.

"... When ABC's Wild World of Sports came to [Bill] France and said, 'We want to televise your Fourth of July race,' he [was against the idea]. "They asked what was the problem, and he said, 'The announcers didn't know which way the cars went.' ... So I was pushed onto ABC... and have been there ever since. "


Over the course of more than 75 years, Economaki saw thousands of races and commented on up-and-coming superstar drivers long before they ever reached the big time. Mario Andretti once said of Economaki, "If he wasn't aware of you, you simply were not a factor in the sport."

It certainly wasn't because of Economaki's memory. Even in his advancing years, he could reach back into a vast mental file cabinet of memories and recite specifics about a race, a driver or even a situation from decades past.

Economaki, considered the dean of American motorsports journalism, died Sept. 28, three weeks shy of his 92nd birthday. He began selling copies of a brand-new publication called "National Speed Sport News" at local tracks in New Jersey as a young teen. One year later, he began writing for the paper and, by the time he was 30, he was named editor.

He soon found that if he worked as a track announcer, he could also promote his newspaper, so he added that to his repertoire -- a move which paid off handsomely later in his career.

Bill France had hired Economaki to work some of the events at the Daytona beach and road course in the 1950s. And after France opened Daytona International Speedway in 1959, television networks became interested in adding NASCAR coverage. But the first attempt was an abject failure.

"In 1960, CBS came to Daytona Beach for a day of racing that was created for television," Economaki said in a 2009 interview with Barry Meguiar. "Unfortunately, it got miserable ratings. So in 1961, when ABC's Wild World of Sports came to France and said, 'We want to televise your Fourth of July race,' he [was against the idea].

"They asked what was the problem, and he said, 'The announcers didn't know which way the cars went.' And they said, 'Well, we have Jim McKay.' He said, 'Don't tell me about Jim McKay. They had Walter Cronkite.' "

Finally, ABC asked France what they could do to close the deal. "Get an announcer that knows and understands the sport," France said. And then he suggested they add Economaki to the broadcast.

"So I was pushed onto ABC for the July 4th in 1961 and have been there ever since," Economaki said.

Economaki revolutionized the job of the pit reporter. With little regard for his own safety, he sometimes would stick a microphone inside the car during pit stops to get a driver's thoughts. And his reputation was such that even though his questioning was often blunt and direct -- "What put you out of the race, A.J.?" -- drivers respected him enough to respond in kind.

Name any driver and odds were Economaki could tell you about his or her driving style, their greatest claim to fame, even what they ordered from the menu the last time they went out to dinner.

When Dave Despain asked Economaki in 2006 about the greatest driver he ever saw -- remember that Economaki covered everything from dirt bullrings to Indy 500s, NASCAR, Formula 1, sports cars and rally races -- he didn't hesitate.

His answer? Bob Swanson, a two-time winner of the Turkey Night midget car race at California's Ascot Speedway who would lose his life in a qualifying accident at age 28.

"He was the finest race driver I ever saw button on a crash helmet, no question about that," Economaki said in that interview. "He understood the car, he understood the track, he understood his rivals, he understood his tires, he understood his engine. He knew what he could do and he knew what he couldn't do -- and he did it well."

Italian Tazio Nuvolari, considered one of the greatest drivers of all time, came to the United States to race in the 1936 Vanderbilt Cup at Long Island's Roosevelt Raceway. Swanson, in an underpowered car -- and with little road course experience -- kept pace with Nuvolari the entire race, finishing a close second. According to Economaki, Nuvolari later sought out Swanson to tell him he was the finest driver he had ever encountered on the track.

Economaki made headlines of a different sort during the 1960 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was taking pictures when Lennie Page was involved in a serious crash.

Economaki was the first person to reach Page's car and used his shirt in an attempt to stop severe bleeding from the driver's neck before rescue crews were able to get to the scene, an action which quite possibly saved Page's life.

Over the years, Economaki was honored with the NASCAR Award of Excellence, and named to multiple racing halls of fame, including the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame -- not bad for a legendary journalist who realized after one race that he was much better at reporting on racing than driving in it.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.