During the Great Depression, automobile racers used to hold meets on a dirt track in Hoboken, N.J., that originally had been built for horses. A young boy named Chris Economaki, born in Brooklyn to a Greek immigrant father and the great-niece of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, lived nearby, and when he heard the roar of the engines, he couldn't resist their siren song. Economaki didn't have any money to buy a ticket, so he climbed over the fence to watch the races. What he saw gave him such a thrill that he spent the rest of his life telling other people about it.
Economaki, who died on Sept. 28 in New Jersey at age 91, went on to become motor sports' version of Howard Cosell and Red Smith, rolled into one. For 60 years, he was the editor and publisher of auto racing's most important publication, National Speed Sport News, but he reached an even wider audience as an announcer for ABC, CBS and ESPN, where his distinctively high-pitched elocution became associated in viewers' minds with the thrills and danger of auto racing. Here's Economaki doing a stand-up at the 1965 Sebring 12-hour Grand Prix:
Here are some things that you might not know about the dean of motor sports journalism.
- The voice of auto racing got his start in as a paperboy. When Economaki was 13, he discovered that a new racing tabloid, National Speed Sport News, was being published in Bergen, N.J., and he began selling them at the Ho-Ho-Kus Speedway. "I got 200 copies to take to the races that weekend," he recalled in an oral history. "Selling them for a nickel each, I made a penny apiece, for a total of $2." He kept peddling papers for the next decade and a half, except during a break that he took to serve in the U.S. Army's 2nd Armored Division during World War II.
- He may have attended the Indianapolis 500 more consecutive times than any other human. Economaki went to his first 500 back in 1938, when he drove 1,000 miles and slept in his car outside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the night before the race. From 1948 to 2010, he attended racing's preeminent event 62 straight times.
- In another era, he might have been a great carnival barker. After returning from the Army, Economaki decided to become a track announcer, partly to promote the paper he was peddling. But he quickly became a sought-after talent because his flair for the dramatic helped fill the stands at county fairgrounds. A sample: "Today is auto racing day - daredevil drivers from the world over are unloading their cars in the infield for high-speed racing. The governor of this great state has commissioned the secretary of agriculture to send the state soil expert here to condition the track for the record speeds we expect to see this afternoon. . . . Get your tickets now, before all the seats are gone."
- He once saved the life of a race car driver. Economaki was at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960, taking pictures during a race, when driver Lennie Page crashed and was seriously hurt. As this Sports Illustrated article details, Economaki reached Page before the rescue crew and used his shirt to stop the bleeding from his neck, saving his life.
- Nevertheless, he thought danger was one of racing's big attractions. "NASCAR keeps talking about safer barriers, safer walls," he complained in a 2006 TV interview. "I say to myself, that's fine, but they should shut up about it."