Friday, May 24, 2013

Dean of American Motorsports Chris Economaki's Presence Still Felt in IMS Media Center

Chris Economaki, the Dean of American Motorsports, has a special place in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Media Center. It's the pole position. The place he occupied for decades covering the Indianapolis 500, and later, the Brickyard 400.

He's even so revered here in Indianapolis that they named the press conference room after him, down on the first floor of the Media Center. After every race, all the journalists gather in the Economaki Press Conference Room for the post-race interviews, as well as any interviews after accidents, as well as Qualification Day and special press conferences.

Economaki's career in motorsports journalism started when he sold copies of the National Speed Sport News newspapers at age to 13, becoming a columnist a year later, and finally becoming the editor by the time he was 30. He went on to become the owner and publisher some years later, turning out issues until his daughter, Corinne, took over until its last issue in March 2011. He was even chosen by Microsoft to write the auto racing history portion of Encarta.

But that's only scratching the surface. Here's what else he did during his long and storied career, as told by Wikipedia.

  • Economaki began as track announcer at a number of major races in the 1940s and 1950s. 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 in Australia. He would also cover Wide World's less glamorous motorsports assignments, such as demolition derbies.
  • For several years during the 1960s, he contributed "Sport of Speed" segments twice each weekend to the NBC Radio Network program Monitor.
  • After 23 years he switched to CBS Sports. He covered International Race of Champions (IROC) events, Daytona 500s, and Formula One Grand Prix events.
  • He contributed to ESPN's SpeedWeek, and TBS' Motorweek Illustrated. Economaki also covered Formula One races on ESPN in 1987 and 1988 alongside British race driver and commentator David Hobbs, before being replaced by the younger Bob Varsha from 1989.
  • In 1988 he was the expert pit reporter for Australian television station Channel 7 for the first ever NASCAR race run outside of North America, the Goodyear NASCAR 500 at theCalder Park Thunderdome in Melbourne. Economaki had previously worked for Seven during the Bathurst 1000 telecasts of the late 1970s and early 1980's, mainly working as a pit reporter.
  • He covered several types of auto racing, 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.

I'm a bit of a journalism geek, reading past works sports writers and columnists like Roger Angell, the New Yorker's revered baseball writer; Studs Terkel, broadcaster and author; and, Mike Royko, Chicago newspaper columnist, and the reason I became a newspaper columnist myself.

So I've been interested in the history and legacy of Economaki, and what he's done for motorsports. And until I started writing this piece, I was never quite sure of all the things he did. I just knew he was considered the top motorsports journalist ever, but I didn't know exactly how much he had done for the sport.

Economaki, who died in 2012, never bothered to learn how to use a computer. He wrote everything on a typewriter, even when everyone else in the media was tapping away on laptops. Economaki kept it old school at the 500, banging out his column on an old Olympia typewriter. Tim Sullivan, Indianapolis Motor Speedway public relations, kept the Olympia in storage, and put back in Economaki's spot year after year, waiting for the Dean to show up. During my first year at the 500, I spotted the typewriter, asked Sullivan whose it was, and he told me about Economaki. I was hooked.

One of the other things I love doing is being in the places of cultural history, treading the same ground that other notable figures from history have walked on. Just last week, I was in San Francisco, and visited Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books bookstore, which not only was the publisher of many Beat writers, but the place served as their unofficial headquarters for several years.

I walked in that store, running my hands over the tops of the books — I love the comforting smell and feel of a good bookstore — and thought about breathing the same air and walking on the same floors where Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs had stood decades before.

I get that same feeling every year I show up in the Media Center, and see Economaki's place in the media center. Economaki's last appearance at the 500 was 2008, the year before I ever started covering the race for this blog, so I never had a chance to meet him.

But, the Speedway is a wellspring of tradition, so no one has taken Economaki's spot, and never will. His desk will continue to sit empty in his honor. And this year, Sullivan put Economaki's manual Olympia typewriter out in his traditional spot, as if he may show up any time and write just one more piece.

Sullivan and I have had a couple email conversations about Economaki's typewriter over the years and what was going to be done with it. I even suggested putting it in an acrylic case and putting it on display in the press conference room, but in the end, he decided to put it back into Chris' seat, in the "pole position" of the media center, and put up a little sign next to it.

Coverage of the Indianapolis 500 and the entire world of auto racing, is what it is because of Chris Economaki. Even though our paths never crossed, I know I'm walking on holy ground every time I walk past his desk, and I try to do my job a little better because of him.

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