For nearly eighty years Chris Economaki was the undisputed Dean of Motorsports journalists. A self-made man in so many ways Economakis’ rise to industry fame was unquestionably due to his life-long love-affair with all facets of American automotive racing. While ever the objective reporter, constantly searching for and presenting only the facts Economaki’s personal enjoyment of each and ever automotive event he attended was always clear to one and all.
Having said that I think it is critically important to note that concentrated groups of Greek-Americans can be found in literally a host of industries, businesses, professions and creative ventures. It is no exaggeration that not long after the 1880s, Greeks living in North America have had a commanding presence in a surprising number of businesses, industries and creative ventures.
This is most certainly the case with Greek-Americans who were and remain unquestioned innovative leaders in the decidedly American field of motor sports. Even a short list of such persons would have to include: Art Arfons, George and Sam Barris, Pete Chapouris, George Constantine, Tommy Hrones, Chris Karamesines, Danny Kladis, Andy Papathanassiou, Alexander Sarantos Tremulis, Emanuel Antonius Zervakis—and most certainly–other names could be added.
Chris Economaki’s place, as an equal, among these other Greek-Americans is unquestioned by those who know and write about the diverse field of American motorsports. That Economaki basically helped to create the current field of modern motorsports journalism is also a point few who know the history of this specialized area of American journalism would contest.
I think it is also necessary to note, that the world-wide field of motor sports and the automotive industry in general has three innovators whose contributions basically define the current conceptual parameters of a modern automobile. These individuals are Sir Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis (18 November 1906 – 2 October 1988); Alexander Sarantos Tremulis (January 23, 1914 – December 29, 1991) and George Barris (born George Salapatas; November 20, 1925 – November 5, 2015). Now while Issigonis was a British citizen I think my point here is still well-made. Give credit where credit is due.
To say that Greek immigrants ‘owe’ everything to American society without knowing something of our complicated history of work and real world contributions in this nation since (at least) 1880 is—as an old Anglo-American might say, ‘simply hogwash.’ As a case in point, let us now survey something of the life story and accomplishments of Chris Economaki.
Christopher Constantine Economaki was born in Brooklyn, New York on October 15, 1920 to an immigrant Greek father Christopher C. Economaki and American-born mother Gladys B. Economaki who was a great-niece of Robert E. Lee. As all available sources agree Economaki witnessed his first live auto race on the old Atlantic City board track at the age of nine. Just this first glimpse immediately hooked the young boy on any and all forms of motorsports. At the ripe old age of 13, Economaki began selling copies of the ‘National Auto Racing News’ (now known as the ‘Speed Sport’ franchise) newspapers, at race tracks around the northeast. Hitchhiking both ways Economaki would pocket a penny for every five cents copy of the NARN he sold.
Clearly, a quick study Economaki began writing his own column for the ‘National Auto Racing News’ at age 14. Economaki became the editor of this same publication in 1950. As one might expect from this individual he eventually became owner and publisher as well as editor of the National Speed Sports News. Along with his other duties at this newspaper Economaki began writing a column called ‘The Editor’s Notebook’ which he continued to write, uninterrupted, for the next fifty years. His daughter Corinne Economaki took over as the publisher until the final issue of National Speed Sport News was published, on March 23, 2011.
Obviously, a quick study Economaki, in the 1940s and 1950s, first began as track announcer at a number of major races for both television & radio. He began at the July 4, 1961 running of the Firecracker 250 NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway for ABC Sports. He covered most ABC Wide World of Sports motorsports events, including several Indianapolis 500s, Daytona 500s, Formula One Grand Prix races, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the East African Safari, and the Bathurst 1000. He would also cover Wide World’s less glamorous motorsports assignments, such as demolition derbies.
After 23 years he switched to CBS Sports. He covered International Race of Champions (IROC) events, Daytona 500s, and Formula One Grand Prix events. Without missing a beat Economaki also contributed to ESPN’s SpeedWeek, and TBS’ Motorweek Illustrated. There did not seem to be a type of autoracing he did not report upon and with a depth of knowledge few other commenters could match including sprint cars, Championship Cars, stock cars, drag racers, and CanAm cars. Economaki was a part of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network coverage of the Indianapolis 500, contributing essays and analysis.
Somehow during all his attention and work devoted to motorsports Economaki still, somehow, found the time to meet, court and marry Alvera Helene Economaki (1923 – 1972). The Economaki couple had two children; Corinne Economaki and Tina Economaki Riedl.
After hearing all this it is not too surprising to learn that Economaki received numerous major awards. To name just a few, and I do mean just a few. In 1987, Economaki was part of the CBS broadcast team which won the Sports Emmy for ‘Outstanding Live Sports Special’ at the Daytona 500; Economaki was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1994; he was inducted in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993; he was awarded the 1990 NASCAR Award of Excellence, and then in 1998 the NASCAR Lifetime Achievement Award. Other awards bestowed upon Economaki include (but I have emphasize again, these are but a selection) his 1993 induction into Oceanside Rotary Club of Daytona Beach Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame; the 2000 NASCAR/Federal Mogul Buddy Shuman award; then the 2001 International Automotive Media Council Lifetime Achievement Award; in 2002 Economaki was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2002. The Economaki Champion of Champions Award is named after him. As well as there is now annual day at the Dodge Charger 500 at the Darlington Speedway race weekend which is named ‘Chris Economaki Day.’
The press room at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was named the ‘Economaki Press Conference Room’ in 2006. Pocono Raceway named its press box ‘The Chris Economaki Press Box.’ As well as the New Jersey Motorsports Park’s media center being renamed ‘The Chris Economaki Media Center.’
Somehow, after and during all of the above events Economaki found time to write the book, ‘Let ‘Em All Go! The Story of Auto Racing by the Man who was there Chris Economaki (Argabright Books, Noblesville, Indiana: 2006).’
In 2011, ESPN’s Ryan McGee caught up with Economaki…on the occasion of his 90th birthday. In that story, Economaki said, ‘Television is a strange and wonderful thing. My life literally changed overnight. I know people like to tell horror stories about how being on television ruined their lives and took away all their privacy. I am not one of those people. It opened doors I could have never opened on my own.’
At the age of 91, Chris Economaki died early on the morning of September 28, 2012 in Midland Park, New Jersey. Public documents place Economaki’s place of burial as being in Wyckoff, Bergen, New Jersey. Without a doubt Economaki was the premier American motorsports commentator, pit road reporter, and journalist.
I’ve learned recently that those American-based academics who specialize in and seek to advance the study of Greeks in the United States have been successful in establishing new classes and programs in different parts of the country. I offer my congratulations. I can well understand how these recent events have helped to secure the advancement of the yet to be fully-acknowledged field of Greek-American studies. Yet institutional advancements at the university, as significant as they may be to academics, do not automatically mean that the history of Greeks in the United States is better understood by the average American.
Who maintains, or better still, who creates ‘culture?’ How is it done? When is that cultural creation truly and completely ‘America?’ When is that cultural creation truly and completely ‘Greek?’ I’m sorry but the university academics have it all wrong. The arriving foreigners don’t owe ‘everything’ to America. Are we to believe such human beings are merely blank slates on which only American ideas and creativity can be found? And what of their children? Are they less or more from having been raised by individuals who did not automatically share every idea or assumption of the surrounding society?
When are innovations and accomplishments on American soil directly and identifiably due to one’s Greek heritage or upbringing? Again, I ask, where are our cultural champions? Must I write another 40 to 50 years citing one notable Greek woman or man after another before we stop passing the ‘we’re nothing but poor foreigners who owe everything to living in America?’ fantasy around in print?