Friday, September 28, 2012

Chris Economaki, 1920-2012

Around the world -- literally -- today people are noting the passing of Chris Economaki, certainly the most influential person in the history of racing.  There is a bit of irony in that he was not a driver, car owner, engineer or designer, and yet it is entirely correct to describe him as the most infuential person in racing.

Chris Economaki covered racing from the grassroots to the highest levels of the sport, and he treated all forms of racing, including small regional segments such as the ATQMRA, with the same level of respect and professionalism.  It is no stretch to credit Chris Economaki with a good measure of the success enjoyed by the ATQMRA.

Here is the formal obituary released by the family:

Chris Economaki, an Appreciation
by Leo Levine

Whoever you are, wherever you are, take a moment to think of Chris. Make it your personal tribute, however brief, to this grand old man of auto racing journalists because he left us the today at the age of 91, and he left a hole in the motorsports firmament that can never be filled.

Whether or not you have ever read National Speed Sport News before or are a long-time subscriber, whether you realize it or not, a portion of your outlook regarding automobile racing was formed by his weekly column. It was required reading for any serious racing journalist in this country, and his opinions invariably had some influence on all of us. We knew that he knew. He may have been a pedestrian writer, but as a reporter, commentator and interpreter of events, he had no peer.

What is perhaps even more important is that he knew how to evaluate motorsports as a reflection of the social conditions of a particular era. It was a rare talent that would normally require someone with a doctorate in sociology. Chris didn’t have a college degree, but he was more erudite and more knowledgeable about the world around him than most people who have letters after their name.

The use of superlatives is inherently dangerous, as someone always seems to come along who knows of one bigger, or faster, or whatever, but in the case of Chris it is a safe bet to say he was the most knowledgeable racing authority of all time, having spent nearly eight decades involved in – and in love with – a sport that he saw grow from a county fair attraction to a staple of television programming on a worldwide basis.

To look at it one way, his passing was inevitable; all of us shall accomplish this sooner or later. What was important is how he lived, and that was spectacular. He was one of a kind – brash, funny, marvelously articulate, a great story teller, and in his 80’s he could still outwork the younger competition.  He had connections with anyone – and seemingly everyone – involved in it, from the top to the bottom of the racing food chain, from the smallest back-country dirt track to Indianapolis and Daytona.

Chris left behind two daughters, two grandchildren, a host of friends and admirers all over the globe, and left NSSN, of which he was the heart and soul. He was here at the beginning in 1934, when as a 13-year-old he stumbled across its first issue being printed in a storefront in Ridgewood, N.J. He did everything from delivering it, to hawking it at race tracks, to becoming a correspondent, then editor in 1950 and later publisher, part owner, and eventually editor and publisher emeritus, of this country’s premier newspaper devoted strictly to competitive motorsports.

For the breadth of his career, try this: In 1936, while still in high school in Ridgewood, he hitchhiked to Long Island to watch Tazio Nuvolari win the 1936 Vanderbilt Cup. And he was still with us when Dario Franchitti won this year’s Indianapolis 500. He saw his first 500, incidentally, in 1938. 

He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1920 as a child of well-to-do parents whose fortunes were wiped out in the stock market crash of 1929, and who more or less came apart at the seams during the ’30s. As such he grew up on his own during the Depression, and although he went on to become successful financially, there was a side, hidden for the most part, that showed he never forgot the hard times of his youth. When he would leave a room, he would turn out the lights. It was a small thing, but it was indicative.

Economaki spent his teenage years in north Jersey, and after a five-year move to North Carolina  for the sake of his newspaper, yet went back to Bergen County in 2003, leaving day-to-day management of his creation behind. It was time to go home.

He covered races all over the world, but his heart lay with the eastern dirt tracks of his youth – when as he used to point out, before World War II there were only two paved ovals in America of more than a half mile, Indianapolis being one and Thompson, Conn.  -- five-eighths of a mile – the other (who else would know this?)

In the 1930s racing cars were primitive creations, and their ability to win lay more with their drivers than with their designers. As a consequence, although he understood the advance of technology better than 90 percent of his colleagues, he always preferred the two-leaf spring, three-spring, four-spring single seaters of the ’30s, cars that made the driver the determining factor, as opposed to the technical marvels of today that effectively rule out all but one or two entries in almost every event.

He worked with ABC’s Wide World of Sports, he was with CBS and ESPN, and it can be said he was one of the catalysts in bringing television to racing. It is not an oversimplification to say he knew racing and knew how to speak about it, and when the networks began paying attention, he was there.

In one sense, when you think of it, he was everywhere. From being an errand boy at Paterson, New Jersey’s “Gasoline Alley” in the ’30’s, when garages could be rented for one dollar a month, to the Avus in Berlin, when Sergeant Economaki of the 2nd Armored Division took his Jeep around the German circuit in the week after VE Day, to Havana when Juan Manuel Fangio was kidnapped in 1960, to hundreds of those minor-league dirt ovals.

After all, there was always the chance he might find another Bob Swanson, who was always on his list of the finest drivers he had ever seen. Swanson was a midget driver in the 1930s, who ran wheel to wheel with Nuvolari at the Vanderbilt Cup, and who was killed in a race at Toledo, Ohio in 1940.

But Chris never forgot him.

Chris won’t be forgotten either.

Chris Economaki tries on a race car as a young man.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mr Zip and the Boss

Here is a study in racing evolution.

At the recent Warren Township Car Show, the vintage #71 is shown alongside the brand-new #23.

The vintage car is well-known to followers of ATQMRA racing as being the car of the late Bruno Brackey, perhaps the winningest postman in all of racing. The car dates back to the 1950s and Brackey continued to race it into the early 1980s!

The new car is well-known to followers of ARDC racing by its number, 23, which has long been associated with car owner and former ARDC president Ray McCabe. The new car is to be piloted by longtime McCabe driver and past ARDC champion Phil DiMario.

(One of the first things that McCabe noticed when he got involved with TQ racing was how little fuel the cars consume. TQ racing should be considered "green!")

On the side of the #71 is a picture of "Mr Zip," the Postal Service character for the promotion of ZIP Codes. On the side of the #23 is a line from Bruce Springsteen. The always-smiling Bruno Brackey was indeed Mr Zip on the speedways, and the equally-cheerful Phil DiMario hopes that the new car proves in fact to be "born to run!"

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mountain Motoring

Under simply perfect weather conditions on September 23, Karl Mondschein and Bill Force Jr each took top honors at Mountain Speedway, Mondschein by winning the feature race for the roll bar class and Force for leading the roll cage cars to the checkered flag, all under the auspices of the Vintage Club.

Driving the DeMasco #18 in the roll bar class, Mondschein grabbed the lead at the start with Drew Fornoro in pursuit in the Wehrle #02. With Mondschein leading Fornoro raced for second place with Bill Force Sr, at the wheel of his own #26. When the engine in the #02 faltered, Force grabbed second place and Keith Majka moved into third position. At the finish it was Mondschein, Force, and Majka, with Fornoro finishing in fourth position and Mark Sasso completing the top five.

In the roll cage class Mike Trimble was the early leader in the rear-engine #16 driven by his father decades ago. At the half-way point in the race Tim Arntz took the lead in the Jon Fick #11, and Matt Janisch moved the Mike Osite #81 into second position. When a cracked oil reservoir took Arntz out of the lead with three laps remaining, Janisch and Bill Force Jr swapped the lead before Force gained the upper hand and claimed the victory. Janish, Tom Hindley, Art Lawshe Jr and Arntz rounded out the top five.

Wait... they race these cars?  Yes, they do, albeit under controlled conditions. But even with this and other safety-related rules in place, the drivers are really racing and they’re having a ball doing it. "This was fun!" said Bill Force Jr in victory lane.

Some Vintage Club events are display, only; some are on-track exhibitions, and some – like this one – are turn-the-clock-back races.

Karl Mondschein kneels between the DeMasco #18 and the Trimble #16
to show off his trophy from Sunday's race.
Did anyone get a photo of Bill Force Jr?  Send it to us here!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Old Master?

This photo, taken at Pine Brook in the mid-1970s, shows John Little's #73 leading Bruce Kindberg's #10.  Bruce is driving the #10, but who is in the #73?  (Click the photo for an enlarged view.)

Vintage Division president Gary Mondschein thinks that it is Frankie Schneider, "The Old Master," in a rare TQ appearance.

In case you have been living under a rock, Schneider first won a stock-car race at the Flemington Fairgrounds in 1947, and scored his last stock car victory at the Nazareth Speedway in 1977 -- a remarkable 30-year record of winning that was punctuated by more than 750 visits to the winner's circle.

He won numerous big events but the bulk of his victories came in what we think of as ordinary Saturday night short-track racing.  Such racing was never ordinary when Schneider was in the field.

Born in 1926, Schneider is still with us today and is rightfully accorded immense respect in the racing community.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Spec Racing?

A criticism that is leveled at major racing series today, from NASCAR to IndyCar, is that the cars are "spec" cars – all the same except for paint.

The photo below, taken at the Vintage Club’s appearance at Mountain Speedway earlier this year, demonstrates how the ATQMRA midgets have been anything but cookie-cutter.

(Click the photo for an enlarged view)

The yellow #26 is a Crosley-powered "upright," a car with the driveline centered in the chassis.

The red #16 is a Triumph-powered rear-engined machine.

The blue #1-X is a Rotax-powered offset roadster.

Each of three of these cars was built to a common set of specifications, but clearly those specifications left plenty of room for innovation!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Len K

Driving car #3k at Hershey Stadium in 1981 is Len Krautheim, who probably liked the tow to Hershey from his Pennsylvania home a lot more than the trips to Pine Brook, Islip, and elsewhere.

Krautheim spent a relatively short time racing in the ATQMRA -- only a season or two -- then went on to find success in the Central Pennsylvania sprint car ranks.

Chasing Krautheim in the #29er is Glen Rittenhouse, and coming around the outside is Mark King.  As with most of the photos we feature on this page, click the photo for an enlarged view.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Warren Piece

Racers are involved with the annual Warren Township Classic/Antique Race Car/Motorcycle Show because a racer is at the heart of the show.

Ken Brenn, the former Warren Township councilman, mayor, and championship-winning race car owner, is one of the movers and shakers behind this show which enjoyed perfect weather for it’s 7th annual installment this past Sunday. Hundreds of classic cars, street machines, and race cars filled the Warren Township Municipal grounds, and among them was a very nice turnout of Vintage cars.

The Vintage cars at the Warren Car Show

The event has become a staple of the community and it benefits the Warren Township Fire Department.

"This show is getting bigger and better each year, we have a wonderful hard working staff that pulls together and makes all of this possible," Ken Brenn told the Vintage Club’s Gary Mondschein. "But we are not resting on our laurels. We have been in discussion with our racing clubs and racers with the intention of expanding their presence."

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Oh Two!

There is plenty of history in this shot!

It was taken this past Saturday, at the Oswego Speedway, a track which itself has a long and distinguished history.

The car is the Wehrle "Slingshot" #02, a car which in the hands of driver Tony Romit dominated ATQMRA racing in the early 1970s.  In addition to being distinctive in accomplishment and appearance, the car has some very innovative features, including twin front axles that give it a longer wheelbase on the right than on the left.

It is a car that caused all other competitors to raise their game.

Then there is the driver in this photo.  It is Joe Payne, Jr., who has a stellar record not only in TQ racing, but in NEMA midgets and in the supermodifieds at Oswego.  As noted in the post below this one, Joey has elected to step back from racing at Oswego next year in order to be able to spend more time with his family in New Jersey.  But what a way to say au revoir!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Big "O"

The Vintage Club was proud to be a part of the Budweiser Classic at the famed Oswego Speedway on September 1st. "The Classic" has a history that stretches back many decades, and this year’s event included putting the spotlight on the racing career of Joe Payne Sr and by extension, the entire Payne family.

That Joe Payne Jr went out and won the modern ATQMRA Midget portion of the program was only icing on the cake.

Honoree Joe Payne Sr was lauded for his long and successful career in racing, and he spoke of his early days at Pine Brook Stadium. "We started at Pine Brook in 1971 with a car I copied from Fletcher Fish," Payne said. Fish was one of the pioneering car owners of the early ATQMRA. Payne continued, "Past champion Joe Kidd ran the car for us and we've been at it ever since."

Joe Payne Sr is rightfully proud of his accomplishments as a car owners but was quick to talk of his great racing family. "Racing has kept my family together for many years, it's our way of life," Payne said. "I am so proud of my boys, they have become great racers, but more importantly the have become great people." Payne was joined at the track for this event by his family, including his wife, Betty.

With the accolades Payne also received a pen-and-ink rendering of himself standing next to his first TQ with Kidd at the wheel, prepared by Bill Force. "This brings back so many found memories," Payne said. "I am so grateful for the people I have been surrounded by in racing."

Joe Payne Jr, known to most as Joey, was equally touched by the proceedings. "I am so proud of my father, my family, such a special night." Joey, teary eyed, continued, " I have chosen to step back from running full time here at Oswego and spend more time with my family." Joey’s decision is understandable, despite his considerable racing success at Oswego, because the track is 280 one-way miles from his home in New Jersey.

When the cars of the Vintage Club took to the Oswego track for demonstration runs, Joe Payne Sr saw his two sons, Joey and John, and his grandson Joe Payne III among the drivers in the gleaming vintage machines.

Vintage Club VP Tom Berry proclaimed it "another fantastic event for the club," and went on to say that " we are looking forward to returning again to the big O."