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.