Wednesday, February 12, 2003
Economaki relays ‘racin’ above roar
By KEN WILLIS
DAYTONA BEACH — Chris Economaki, by any definition of the word, is the dean of motorsports journalism. As a newsboy in his native New Jersey, he sold the first copy of the Speed Sport News in 1934.
A few years later, he was writing a column -- Gas-O-Line -- for the tabloid.
In 1950, he became editor of the Speed Sport News and was also doing track announcing on the side. He was a fixture on motorsports television from 1961-94 (23 years on ABC, 10 on CBS).
At age 82, Economaki still writes a column that appears in every weekly edition of the Speed Sport News. He´s currently working his 53rd consecutive Daytona Speed Weeks
“I was here for the first time in 1951 as an announcer on the beach.
Bill France flew up to New Jersey in 1950 and asked me if I´d be part of the announcing team down here the following February.
I was on the P.A. system from 1951 until the last beach race. When the Speedway opened here, I was the track announcer. Then in 1961, at the July race, I moved to ABC.
I was also covering events for our newspaper as well. I was young and enthusiastic.
In those days, you had an exclusive, in a sense. The daily press, with the exception of the Daytona papers, the only auto racing they did was the Indy 500. So it was relatively easy. I suppose in my rush to do things, I overlooked a lot of important things, but no one ever called me on it.
The promoter I had worked for prior to working for Bill France, Sam Nunis, was a showman. He wanted the people to leave the grounds on race day knowing they had seen the greatest auto race ever run, regardless of how bad it was.
He would stand at the foot of the judges stand and yell at me, ‘Sell it! Sell it! Sell it!’
You had to sell the show.
The beach and road course, it was two miles long on the beach straightaway, and two miles long on A1A, with two-tenths-of-a-mile turns on each end -- 4.2 miles long.
I was working on the north turn. They had a little grandstand there, eight or 10 rows high, and a little perch up there. From there, you could see down the track about halfway; you could see a mile or thereabouts.
The first year I did this, the race was pretty much a parade. There wasn´t much passing. So they came by on the eighth or 10th lap, with no change for position up front.
So I said, ‘I´ve got ´em in my binoculars as they go down the backstretch, and now Fonty Flock is passing Curtis Turner for the lead going into the south turn’ -- which he wasn´t, you see. And then I had to get ´em back where they belonged before they got back within sight again.
‘Coming off the south turn, Turner is out in the water with his right-hand wheels, and he regains the lead.’
I did that a couple of times. Now, the race is over and I´m walking down out of the grandstands, and I hear these two guys say, ‘Well, next year I´m gonna sit in the south turn. that´s where all the passing is.’ That about put me on the floor.
As time went by, we alternated, and I announced the south turn every other year. One of the things I used to do in the south turn -- Curtis Turner had this style. In the south turn, the grandstand was on the inside of the track, so peoples´ backs were to the straightaways.
At some point, I´d say, ‘Is´s time for Turner.’ And everybody would stand up and turn around to watch him throw the car sideways on the asphalt. You could hear the tires squealing on the asphalt, over the sounds of the engine. He had this incredible control of the car.
Last night I drove down U.S. 92, looking for this bar that was kinda like the headquarters, the gathering place. I can´t think of the name of it. (Joe) Weatherly and Turner had an apartment on the top of a two-story motel across the street and up half a block from this bar.
The apartment had an outside staircase. They were famous for their parties. Anyway, one of these parties is in progress, and Weatherly finds a mule or a jackass -- I can´t tell them apart. He gets it to the foot of the stairs leading to the apartment, and he gets a broom and whacks this animal in the ass, and it´d go up one step. He whacks it in the ass again and it goes up another step.
At some point, he´s got this mule about halfway up the stairs, and now he´s got no place to stand because he´s up there with it. It was a logistical nightmare, but Weatherly finally gets this mule into the party, and it was the talk of the town the next day.
Stuff like that went on all the time, you know.
Robinson´s -- that was the name of that bar. I looked for it last night and couldn´t even find the building, couldn´t identify it.” -- Chris Economaki