R.I.P Chris Economaki
Chris Economaki narrated the rise of auto racing from county-fair dirt tracks to a global multibillion-dollar business.
His death was announced by National Speed Sport News, which Mr. Economaki owned, edited, published and transformed into, by most estimations, the bible of motor racing. He also wrote a column for it for 74 years.
Mr. Economaki maintained a romance with racing from the time he was a child sneaking over, under or through a fence into a raceway near his home in Ridgewood, N.J. He was soon selling photos he took with his Kodak Brownie camera and hawking the earliest editions of National Speed Sport News, then called National Auto Racing News, a weekly tabloid. By 14, he was writing a column, “Gas-O-Lines,” for the paper.
He introduced his distinctive spoken voice in 1951 to announce races at various tracks. It reminded some of a rumbling racing engine. A decade later, hired by ABC, he became one of the first television commentators in the sport. He forged a niche by explaining what mechanics and tire-changers did at pit stops.
Mr. Economaki reprised the role at CBS, ESPN and other networks, channels and radio stations. When Hollywood directors needed a racetrack announcer or commentator, they turned to him. He twice played himself in movies, in “Six Pack” (1982) and “Stroker Ace” (1983).
Mr. Economaki was a fixture in the sport in all its variations, showing up at Indianapolis, go-cart tracks, the Grand Prix circuit and drag races. Bill France Sr., who was often called the father of Nascar, was his patron. The champion driver Mario Andretti said, “If he wasn’t aware of you, you simply were not a factor in the sport.”
Mr. Economaki was considered the dean of American motorsports journalism well before he became the first journalist inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame, in 1994. The Road Racing Drivers Club said in his biography: “No driver in any series, no publicist, no sanctioning-body head will ignore his phone call.”
Christopher Constantine Economaki was born on Oct. 15, 1920, in the front bedroom of his grandmother’s home in Brooklyn. His father, Christopher, was a Greek immigrant; his mother, Gladys, was a great-niece of Robert E. Lee. He lived most of his life in Ridgewood. The family fell into poverty after the 1929 stock market crash.
Mr. Economaki said the first race he watched was on a board track in Atlantic City when he was 9. At a track near his home, he would sneak into races by lying on the running board of a car as it passed through the ticket gate.
He volunteered to sell 200 copies of the first issue of National Auto Racing News for a nickel each, and earned a penny a copy. Take-home pay of $2 a day was good during the Depression, he said. His high school yearbook predicted he would spend his working years in auto racing.
At 17, he said, he hitchhiked to Indianapolis with $15 in his pocket, spent a week watching races and returned with $3 in his pocket. In 1938-39, he traveled the eastern half of the United States as a mechanic for Duane Carter, a driver of very small racecars called midgets. He served in the Army in Europe during World War II and experienced combat.
After the war, he noticed that the most popular tracks had the best announcers, so he honed his speaking skills and became an announcer at a succession of tracks. In 1961, France, who had founded Nascar, agreed to let ABC broadcast the Firecracker 250 from his track at Daytona, provided that Mr. Economaki was part of the team. In an interview with The Boston Globe in 1983, Mr. Economaki said he had refused to read the lines a director gave him and instead wrote his own.
“ ‘Not bad,’ the guy said, and I went on the air,” Mr. Economaki recalled.
He wanted to broadcast from the press box, but ABC could find no one to equal his performance as a track-side commentator describing the action in the pits. “I try to tell stories while explaining the machinery,” he said.
His signature line: “This is Chris Economaki in the pits.”
After 23 years at ABC, Mr. Economaki switched to CBS Sports, for which he covered Daytona 500s and Formula One Grand Prix events. In 1995, CBS dismissed him after he used a racially charged phrase in a column.
Mr. Economaki’s wife, the former Alvera Helene Tomljanovic, died in 2001. He is survived by two daughters, Corinne Economaki and Tina Riedl, and two grandchildren.
For all Mr. Economaki’s intimacy with racecars, he raced one only once. At 16, he drove a midget car on a cinder track carved from a used-car lot in Ashley, Pa.
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