National Speed Sport News was racing

March, 23, 2011
03/23/11
10:26
PM ET

When weekly racing papers were fans' main source of news, a veteran driver once said he could read any one of them cover to cover in 15 minutes, "except Speed Sport. I can spend two hours with it, and still not read everything that's interesting."

There was that much substantive content in the National Speed Sport News. Hardly did a wheel turn on any North American track, or in any major event worldwide, without at least a few paragraphs of coverage in Speed Sport.

Today is Wednesday, an important day of the week for many race fans, going back nearly 77 years. The latest edition of Speed Sport is out.

It is the last.

Speed Sport will be printed no more. It died today, with the edition dated March 23, 2011, after a lengthy battle with changing times.

Born during the Great Depression, it survived myriad wars and recessions, but could not survive this economy and this slow death knell of newspapers in general.

In its prime it wasn't fancy, just authoritative. From Indy to Le Mans to Monaco to Daytona to every Podunk track in America, from the dirt modifieds of Upstate New York to the sprint cars of Southern California, you knew where you could find coverage.

If the Sporting News was "Baseball's Bible," then Speed Sport was auto racing's Bible, Koran, Torah, Wall Street Journal and New York Times.

It was Speed Sport that scooped the nation on a young bull Texan named A.J. Foyt, splashing him on its cover in 1956, two years before he arrived at Indy.

Editor Chris Economaki's column was a one-stop briefing on everything from tidbits of racers' personal lives to imminent business ventures in the sport. "From the Editor's Notebook" alone attracted its own audience, for Economaki was far and away the best known -- and simply the best -- auto-racing journalist in the world.

He had spanned the globe with ABC's "Wide World of Sports," asking the tough questions, nose to nose, of Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, the Unsers, the Andrettis, Fred Lorenzen, Junior Johnson, Richard Petty. Then he'd gone to CBS Sports for the early years of live, flag-to-flag coverage of the Daytona 500.

In the 1970s, to a 20-something daily newspaper writer wandering wide-eyed through the garages of Daytona, Sebring and Indy, Economaki was a walking titan, a legendary sight to behold.

Yet quickly he befriended me, showed me the ropes, became a mentor. His judgments were not always flattering, but were always educational. Most of all, he epitomized objectivity.

For all his decades of motorsports TV stardom, Economaki wanted to be introduced first and foremost as "the editor of the National Speed Sport News." It was his proudest achievement.

Growing up, he had lived within earshot of a racetrack in New Jersey, and "the sound of the racing cars was a siren song to a boy," he once told me.

Naturally, when some entrepreneurs turned what had been a weekly racing section in the Bergen (N.J.) Herald into a separate publication called the National Auto Racing News, the 14-year-old Economaki jumped at the chance to hawk the paper at Ho-Ho-Kus Speedway in New Jersey.

That was in August of 1934 and the kid netted a $2 profit from his sales. Ahh, his life was set: There was big money to be made off his passion for auto racing.

In 1936 he was given his own column, and he wrote it for three-quarters of a century.  In 1943, in the midst of World War II, the publication's name was changed to the National Speed Sport News. In 1950, Economaki was made editor.

He issued a statement Tuesday calling this "one of the saddest days of my life." At 90, he doesn't get out to the races anymore and isn't up to doing interviews, even with the journalists who are so grateful for his mentoring -- there are so many of us that there aren't enough hours in this awful day for him to talk to all of us on the phone.

While other racing papers were being bought up by the big publishing corporations, Economaki and then his daughter, Corinne Economaki, published Speed Sport independently.

In his statement he cited the "sluggish economy," but the public abandonment of printed paper, held in the hands, is what has led advertisers away from newspapers in general.

He concluded that "no matter how I try to make the numbers work -- and believe me I have tried -- it is just not feasible to keep the business going."

If Speed Sport couldn't make it, then the death knell of all newspapers everywhere grows louder, deafening. For decades Economaki's paper was as cost-effective as they come. He got the news in from correspondents who worked for little money and a lot of love. So frugal were his payouts that some photographers dubbed him "Chris Economical."

But that's how he was able to get all the news out and keep his paper afloat.

The publication's online version, NationalSpeedSportNews.com, will continue. But its long-term future appears uncertain.

The heartrending thing is, the printed copy all of us could buy and hold in our hands, at every Podunk track in America and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and educate ourselves about racing from childhood on, is no more.

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