Chris Economaki turned 90 a few days ago but he hasn’t lost a step.
His column in the current issue of the publication he’s edited all of his working life, National Speed Sport News, suggests that Volkswagen will soon enter Formula One and the only question remaining is whether the team will be branded Audi or Porsche.
As a kid, and when it was a weekly supplement in the local daily newspaper, Economaki sold Speed Sport for a nickel (he got to keep a penny) at speedways near his hometown of Bergen, N.J. He eventually bought the publication and turned it into the “bible” of motor racing coverage, publishing reports of professional races and racers from Formula One to late-model stock car dirt track racing.
In the early 1960s, the late Roone Arledge decided to introduce auto racing to the weekly ABC Wide World of Sports program and went looking for someone who could explain the sport to an unsophisticated audience.
He settled on Economaki, who’d started announcing races at county and state fairs in order to promote his newspaper. (Aiming his pre-race patter at crowds on the midways, he’d say things like, “the drivers are on the track warming up, ladies and gentleman. . . . oh, there’s a car on fire, let’s hope the driver makes it out safely . . . racing will start in about 20 minutes and tickets are available starting at 25 cents.” The grandstands were invariably packed by the time the first green flag flew.)
Economaki was a natural on television. Working with the late, great Jim McKay, he covered Indy 500 time trials, U.S. Auto Club dirt races like the Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds (you can find portions of some of those telecasts on YouTube), NASCAR’s Daytona 500 and Southern 500 and, later in his career, Formula One races. He was so good at the latter that he left ABC in the 1980s to work for both CBS and NBC on their F1 coverage teams.
As you can imagine, Economaki has a million stories. He told one of his favourites several years ago when he appeared on a panel at the Canadian Motorsports Expo, held each January at the International Centre in Mississauga.
It seemed that Arledge had put a new director in charge of the live telecast of a race from the Illinois State Fairgrounds in DuQuoin. One morning, the director saw legendary racer A.J. Foyt walking around the one-mile dirt speedway. The next morning, he saw Foyt out there again, walking the mile. The director told Economaki that he wanted him to do an interview with Foyt and to ask him about his daily walks.
This was a live telecast, remember. So the show went on the air at 4:30 Saturday afternoon and it opened with Economaki’s interview with Foyt.
Moments before, the director had reminded Economaki that he really wanted to know what Foyt was doing each morning, walking around the speedway.
So early in the interview, Economaki looked at Foyt and said: “A.J., people have seen you in recent days out on the speedway, early in the day, walking the entire length of this great, one-mile track. Why are you doing this, A.J.? Are you studying the track? Looking for changes in the surface? Looking for places where your driving style might give you an advantage?”
And A.J. Foyt, who never was known for tact, looked at Chris Economaki and replied:
“Actually, Chris, I just can’t have a dump until I go for a good long walk every morning.”
Needless to say, the young director was never again put in charge of a live telecast at ABC.
And Chris Economaki? Still truckin’.