When we reach that point in our lives when the end is near, we all want to look back and think we made a difference.
That’s exactly what Chris Economaki did with his life. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t create a cure for cancer or bring peace to the middle east. What he did was help lay the foundations for modern racing journalism. It wasn’t just the fact that he was the editor (and eventually owner) of National Speed Sport News. Or that he practically invented being a TV pit reporter. It was the way Chris treated his craft. He was a journalist who specialized in racing. He didn’t let his passion interfere with his standards. He made it clear that the drivers and the sport were to be the center of attention, not Chris.
Mario Andretti supposedly once said if Economaki wasn’t aware of you, “you simply were not a factor in the sport.” Which leads me to my own story about Chris.
The first time I met him I was with a small group of people at Phoenix International Raceway. While I was impressed to be in his hallowed company, it didn’t go both ways. The introductions around our group went quickly and by the time I put out my hand to shake his, Chris was gone. He didn’t intentionally slight me, he was just off to his next interview.
Years later I knew that I had finally arrived as a player in the racing world when I was filling in as a pit reporter on an ESPN NASCAR event. Bob Jenkins had gotten sick that week, so Jerry Punch moved to the booth. I took Jerry’s spot on pit lane. As I walked through the garage I heard this (incredibly) distinctive voice yelling after me, “Rick, Rick! How’s Bob?” It was Economaki wanting to know if Jenkins was OK. I told him that it was minor and that Bob would be back the next week. Chris thanked me and walked away. I may not have been a big wheel in the racing world that day, but I had landed on Chris’ radar. He knew my name. As far as I was concerned, I had arrived.
When I covered my first Formula One race as a pit reporter, I was proud of the fact that I was filling the position once held by Chris Economaki.
The last time I saw Chris, I was in Charlotte doing play-by-play for Formula One. Chris had invited our broadcast team to dinner. We met at his office before heading out for food. As we got ready to leave, Chris asked, “Who’s riding with me?” I couldn’t pass up the chance to spend another 20 minutes alone with Chris (after all, so many questions, so little time), so I volunteered. It later occurred to me that being the passenger with a man already in his 80s might not be the safest move. Fortunately, Chris got me there safely and that last dinner is still a great memory.
Incidentally, as I read back over this story, it occurs to me that Chris wouldn’t like it. It has too many of one letter: I. Chris didn’t think the writer should inject too much of himself in the story. Journalists are supposed to cover the news, not be the news. While that may be true, Chris Economaki was more than just a writer. He was a racing historian and advocate. He was a passionate voice for everything that mattered in our sport. And he made a difference.
Incidentally, National Speed Sport News lives on. Check out the good work being done by Ralph Shaheen and his crew.