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Friday, September 28, 2012
Understanding Economaki's greatness


When, six years ago, Chris Economaki finally agreed to publish an autobiography, I was asked to write a dust-jacket blurb. It bears repeating now, on the day of his death at nearly 92.

"Anyone worth a damn in motorsports journalism -- and I mean anyone, electronic or print -- who doesn't acknowledge Chris Economaki as his or her mentor is either a liar or a fool," I wrote. "I proudly and dearly claim the man as my inspiration 32 years ago when I started, my inspiration today, and my inspiration for whatever remains of my career.

"If there is a heaven, I mean to spend my first thousand years there listening to Chris tell stories. And that will only amount to happy hour."

The six years from then 'til now have moved so swiftly that there is now a generation of motorsports media who didn't even know Chris personally. But I state firmly to them now: You may not hold him as your father in this business, but he remains your grandfather, whether you realize it or not. You were taught, and given standards, by those he taught and gave standards.

Dale Earnhardt and Chris Economaki
If it was happening at a race track, Chris Economaki, right, was likely there.

He was the very first of our lineage, and he will remain the greatest, always.

His was God's own voice, with a sharp crack of thunder in it, to all the world's motor racing: NASCAR, Formula One, Indy cars, sports cars, drag racing -- he was a walking, always talking encyclopedia of it all.

"Many people consider Chris the greatest motorsports journalist of all time," NASCAR chairman Brian France said in a statement from Daytona Beach.

Count me in that legion, absolutely, positively.

Why the man who never seemed to sweat in his ABC Sports blazer took an upstart kid under his vast wingspan in 1974, I will never quite understand. But I am ineffably grateful that he did, that he taught me how to be thorough in reporting and gave me self-confidence as a writer.

Perhaps he sensed I was as consumed with this stuff as he was. We bonded right away, exchanging the stories of how we were drawn to the once-taboo sport of automobile racing in the first place. His was from New Jersey in the 1930s and mine from Mississippi in the 1950s, but the themes were identical.

As a child, "I would hear this tremendous roar coming across the trees from the track," he told me. "I wanted to find out what that was. They were called, simply, 'the racing cars,' in those days.

"And that roar was a siren song to a boy."

A siren song. Precisely. Just as the "old stock car races," as my mother called them in disgusted explanation of what I was hearing from the fairgrounds, were to me.

The siren song lured Economaki all around the world, for ABC, CBS, ESPN and TBS, and all the while he edited the bible of all racers in the U.S., the National Speed Sport News.

He began as a boy hawking copies of the direct predecessor of Speed Sport at the tracks, then began reporting, writing and announcing at tracks before moving to television.

"The crowd," he once told me, "should never leave a track having seen nearly as good a race as it thinks it has seen. And that is the job of the track announcer."

When you think about it, they all go by that now, from track P.A. systems to live national television, and therefore they are all descendants of Economaki.

Never once, in any conversation at the tracks or in the bars, could I bring up the name of a single driver, anywhere, that Chris didn't have a story about.

When finally he published his autobiography, with Dave Argabright of Indianapolis, they called it "Let 'Em All Go!" after an old short-track promoter's gimmick line. A mutual friend of ours from Economaki's TBS days, producer Chet Burks, always thought the title should have been "You Had to Be There," and I agreed on that.

Often, Economaki would begin a story to me, "Eddie, you had to be there …" and then make me feel I really had been there.

And that was the genius, and the essential greatness, of Chris Economaki.