Chris Economaki, one of a kind

- Contributor
Friday, Sep. 28, 2012

Fans were milling around outside the small race track in New England in the late 1950s, mulling whether to buy tickets.

Suddenly the P.A. announcer screamed, “Get a fire truck down there to the first turn immediately!”

The procrastinators rushed the ticket window.

Once inside, they discovered there was no fire. Not even an accident. They had been huckstered by the announcer, who also was the promoter.

That amusing tale was told to me in the late 1960s by famed motorsports journalist Chris Economaki, who passed away Friday at age 91. It was a first-person story.

Chris was the promoter/announcer who pulled the carnival barker trick that day.

Economaki chuckled at the memory as he rode with me from Charlotte to Darlington Raceway for the Southern 500 five decades ago. At the 11th hour he had decided to cover the race and needed a ride from Douglas Airport to the track in South Carolina after flying down from New York. He found out from my editor at the Charlotte Observer that I was driving to Darlington early on race morning to write stories from pit road.

I was glad to oblige. It was a decent thing to do, plus I wanted to draw on his knowledge.

Chris had been covering racing since age 14. As editor of National Speed Sports News, he became very well-known to motorsports fans across the country. I distinctly remember buddies in my little high school in the North Carolina mountains citing articles he had written in the 1950s about nearby Asheville-Weaverville Speedway.

The “fake fire” anecdote was just one of many that flowed from Chris in his distinctive, nasal voice as we drove through the piney Sandhills to Darlington that morning so long ago.

When the television networks increasingly aired races Chris was a fixture, usually covering the garage area and pit road. He was so well known and respected -- and, yes, brassy -- that he scored stories and interviews that many of the rest of us couldn’t get.

He formed a great team, especially, with anchorman Ken Squier and analyst Ned Jarrett, the two-time Cup Series champion and future NASCAR Hall Of Famer.

Seldom, if ever, was Chris known to let the TV assignments interfere with duties to his newspaper. A familiar sight in race track press rooms around the country was Chris hunched over a typewriter, furiously clacking out his column in “hunt-and-peck” style.

For some, including me, his column was difficult to read. Not because of its content, but due to the fact that he didn’t use paragraphs. His column was one long, unbroken stream of sentences, the varying items separated only by ellipses.

Economaki sometimes put his foot in his mouth, and like his scoops, these incidents could be “beauts.”

I especially recall three from 1988.

In the Daytona 500 that season Richard Petty was swept into a spectacular wreck in front of the main grandstand. His car spiraled high into the air, slammed hard back onto the pavement and was smashed to pieces by a following car.

"I predict this will lead to the immediate retirement of Richard Petty,” Chris intoned gravely on CBS.

Told of Economaki’s comment in the garage area, Petty, who miraculously sustained only a sprained ankle and a few bruises, flashed his famous smile and laughed.

“Tell Chris that if we could have fixed the car I would have gone back in the race right then!” Petty drove for four more years.

In February of ’88 NASCAR sanctioned what amounted to an exhibition race in Melbourne, Australia. I was lucky enough to be assigned by the Observer to cover the event.

Quite a few folks with connections to stock car racing were on a Continental Airlines flight from Honolulu to Melbourne with a stop in Sydney. Included was my pal Steve Waid. And Chris.

At Sydney about three-fourths of the passengers deplaned. Steve and I then essentially had the rear of the huge airliner to ourselves. Throughout the long trip the Aussie flight attendants had been amused by mine and Steve’s southern drawls. And now they sat down to tease us about the way we talked and to chat about the race.

Chris saw the gathering and rushed back from business class to join the conversation, plainly hoping to impress the attractive women.

He asked where Steve and I were staying in Melbourne.

We told him the Olde Melbourne Hotel.

“Me, I’m staying at the Southern Cross, one of the world’s great hotels,” boasted Chris. “It’s in the midst of downtown, near all the sophisticated restaurants and shops. I’m, an old Australia hand. I’ve covered lots of races in this country and I know the finest place to go.”

The flight attendants rolled their eyes.

“Good for you, Chris,” I said.

A few hours later Steve and I were waiting at a bar just off the lobby in the Olde Melbourne Hotel when we heard an unmistakable voice:

“Chris Economaki, CBS Sports. Is my room ready?”

“We have no room for you, sir.”

“But I’m with CBS Sports!”

“CB what!?”

“Let me see the manager!”

After some haggling Chris got his room, but it was far from the Southern Cross.

Later, as the cocktail hour arrived, Steve and I joined drivers Kyle Petty and Michael Waltrip in the Olde Melbourne’s main barroom, a splendid setting with rich décor, including a long bar of fine wood.

“Barman, barman!” cries Chris, entering and tapping the bar with his hand. “What a great antique you have here! How old is it?”

“Actually quite new, mate,” came the reply. “We had it built and put in a couple years ago.”

Laughter cascaded all around.

Characteristically, Chris was unfazed.

Somewhere, I hope this colorful newsman from far back in the old school now has lodging finer than the Southern Cross. Plus an antique bar of shiny beauty.