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'Dean of Motorsports,' Chris Economaki Dead at 91

A native of Ridgewood, Economaki was widely regarded as the world's foremost authority on motorsports. He died at Christian Healthcare Center in Wyckoff on Friday.

The following obituary was submitted by Feeney's Funeral Home in Ridgewood.

WYCKOFF, N.J. — The Dean of American Motorsports Journalism has died.
Chris Economaki, who began selling single copies of National Speed Sport News at age 13 and eventually became the publication’s editor, a position he held for 60 years, died Friday at age 91.

His column, the Editor’s Notebook, was the most read feature in National Speed Sport News for six decades, and while Economaki’s contribution had been minimal in recent years, the Notebook, as it is called by readers, continues to be the most meaningful read in the newspaper, which debuted in 1934 when Economaki was 13 years old.

Economaki was also well known for his unique, recognizable voice, which he used first as a track announcer and later through nearly 40 years on television.

He worked with ABC’s Wide World of Sports, he was with CBS and ESPN, and it can be said he was one of the catalysts in bringing racing to television. It is not an oversimplification to say he knew racing and knew how to speak about it.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1920, Economaki’s father was a Greek immigrant and his mother was a great-niece of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Economaki spent his childhood in Ridgewood, N.J., and saw his first race at the Atlantic City board track when he was 9 years old.

He was hooked and by his 14th birthday he was a fixture in the racing world. Economaki sold his first copies of NSSN at Ho-Ho-Kus Speedway in northern New Jersey when he was 13. Papers sold for a nickel and Economaki got to keep a penny.

“I sold 200 papers,” Economaki recalled. “That was $2. An incredible amount of money in 1934.”

Economaki soon began writing his own column, known then as Gas-O-Lines, while continuing to peddle newspapers.

Much of Economaki’s knowledge about racing cars — and people for that matter — was acquired during 1938 and 1939 when Economaki traveled the Eastern half of the United States as a “stooge” [mechanic] for legendary midget racer Duane Carter.

“He would pay me $15 a week when he could, which was rarely,” Economaki liked to say when recalling his days busting his knuckles and learning “tricks of the trade.”

After serving in the Army during World War II, including a stint in the European Theater of Operation, Economaki returned to New Jersey and rekindled his passion for auto racing, selling newspapers and announcing at race tracks throughout the East.

“I had guys selling them for me. I was selling 700 to 800 copies a week. Business was excellent,” Economaki said. “One weekend, I can’t remember where I was, it was 1947, I sold a lot of papers on a Friday night, and Saturday night 50 miles away at another track, with even more people, I sold fewer than 100, and I couldn’t understand that. 

“It dawned on me that the difference was the announcer.”

So began his career as a track announcer.

After more than a decade announcing at tracks and working as editor of NSSN where he took the reins in 1950, Economaki got his big break when NASCAR founder William H. “Big Bill” France recommended Economaki be part of ABC’s first telecast from Daytona Int’l Speedway in 1961. Prior to that, Economaki had announced the famous beach races in Daytona for France.

Economaki worked races around the world for ABC through the 1983 season when he made the jump to CBS where he appeared through the mid 1990s. He also worked worldwide Formula One telecasts for ESPN in 1987 and 1988.

“If he wasn’t aware of you, you simply were not a factor in the sport,” World Driving Champion, Indy 500 and Daytona 500 winner Mario Andretti said in 2004. “If you weren’t on Chris Economaki’s radar screen, you probably weren’t on anybody’s.”

And that feeling was common throughout the motorsports industry.
In recent years, he continued to appear occasionally on Speed and more regularly on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network. All the time he continued to write the Editor’s Notebook and promote what had become known as “his” newspaper.

Through the years Economaki has received countless awards including the NASCAR Award of Excellence, and been elected to numerous Halls of Fame, most notably the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

Economaki appeared as himself in the racing movies Stroker Ace and Six Pack. His voice was also used in Winning.

He was preceded in death by his wife Tommye and is survived by his two daughters — Corinne Economaki of Davidson, NC, and Tina and husband Jeff Riedl of Midland Park, and two grandchildren; Alexis and Christopher Riedl.

Visiting Hours will be Monday, October 1st from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at Church of the Nativity, 315 Prospect St., Midland Park. The Funeral Mass will be Tuesday, 10:30 a.m. at Nativity Church, with interment to follow in Valleau Cemetery, Ridgewood. Arrangements entrusted to Feeney Funeral Home, Ridgewood.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in Chris Economaki's name to the International Motor Racing Research Center, 610 South Decatur Street, Watkins Glen, NY 14891. www.feeneyfuneralhome.com

JB October 01, 2012 at 02:54 PM
He will be missed. He was a wonderful man with a plethora of stories. I watched a Daytona 500 with him as a kid, he was a great man.
Eagle Racing Cars October 01, 2012 at 08:03 PM
My memories of Chris Economaki date back more than half a century. I was 16 years old in 1947 when my friends and I went to Freeport Stadium on Long Island to cheer for our idol "Ted Tappet" ( Phil Walters) We made a big banner sewn together lengthwise out of two bed sheets, printed his name on it and waved it from up in the bleachers. To our complete surprise this photo made it into National Speed Sport News, the first time any of us saw ourselves in a newspaper. Throughout my career here in the US and sometimes overseas Chris was a presence at the track or on television and while he always had a certain preference for East Coast vs. West Coast racing nobody ever doubted his sincerity and his unique "old school reporter's " ability to tirelessly dig out the story behind the headlines of a sport he passionately loved all his life. Thank you Chris for your incredible perseverance in putting it all into print, you were one of a kind and you will be missed ! Dan Gurney & the AAR Racing Team
Craig Hueneke October 01, 2012 at 09:29 PM
Mr. Gurney, - For someone like yourself that has taken the "Laurels of Victory" in every top division of motor sports and who's picture has been donned upon countless pages from the local Saturday night "bull ring" program to Sports Illustrated to remember your first taste of fame came from the fruits of Mr. Economaki's efforts as being what I consider the "Walter Cronkite of Speed" tells us all how much he had to do with making racing the sport that it is today! It's funny because his voice had a Pavlov's Dog effect on every race fan. Whether sitting on the couch in front of the TV on a cold NJ Sunday in February or sitting in the stands..As soon as you heard it, you could almost smell the exhaust and feel the ground begin to shake with the growing whine of the engines as they came up to speed to "take the green". Good Stuff that I am glad I was old enough experience and most importantly appreciate! C
James Kleimann October 01, 2012 at 09:53 PM
Thanks for sharing, Dan.
James Kleimann October 01, 2012 at 09:54 PM
I had no idea it was produced entirely right here in Ridgewood. Good info, Craig. Thanks.

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