For almost eighty years, Chris Economaki was the undisputed dean of motorsport journalists. Self-taught in many ways Economakis’ rise to industry fame was unmistakably due to his lifelong love affair with all facets of American motor racing. Although he was always an objective journalist, constantly researching and presenting only the facts, Economaki’s personal enjoyment of every motoring event he attended was always clear to all.
That said, I think it’s extremely important to note that concentrated groups of Greek-Americans can be found in a multitude of industries, businesses, professions, and creative endeavors. It’s no exaggeration to say that soon after the 1880s, Greeks living in North America had a dominant presence in a surprising number of businesses, industries, and creative endeavors.
This is certainly the case of the Greek-Americans who were and remain undisputed leaders of innovation in the resolutely American field of motorsports. Even a short list of such people should 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 – d’ other names could be added.
Chris Economaki’s place, as an equal, among these other Greek-Americans is undisputed by those who know and write about the diverse field of American motorsport. The fact that Economaki essentially helped create the current field of modern motorsports journalism is also a point that few people familiar with the history of this specialized area of American journalism would dispute.
I think it is also necessary to note that the global field of motorsport and the automotive industry in general has three innovators whose contributions fundamentally define the current design parameters of a modern automobile. These people are Sir Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis (November 18, 1906 – October 2, 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 anything about our complicated history of work and our contributions to the real world in this nation since (at least) 1880 is, as an old Anglo-American would say, “simply bullshit”. As an example, let’s now look at something from the life story and accomplishments of Chris Economaki.
Christopher Constantine Economaki was born in Brooklyn, New York on October 15, 1920 to Greek immigrant 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 attended his first live car race at Atlantic City’s old plank track when he was nine years old. This first glimpse immediately hooked the young boy to all forms of motorsport. At the ripe old age of 13, Economaki began selling copies of the “National Auto Racing News” newspapers (now known as the “Speed Sport” franchise), at Northeast race tracks. Hitchhiking back and forth, Economaki pocketed a penny for every five-cent copy of the NARN he sold.
Evidently, a quick study Economaki started writing his own column for the “National Auto Racing News” when he was 14 years old. Economaki became the publisher of this same publication in 1950. As one would expect from this person, he eventually became owner and publisher as well as editor of National Speed Sports News. Along with his other duties at that 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 editor 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 started out as a track announcer at a number of major television and radio races. He started on July 4, 1961, racing the Firecracker 250 NASCAR race at Daytona International Speedway for ABC Sports. He has covered most of ABC Wide World of Sports motorsport events including several Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, Formula 1 Grand Prix races, Le Mans 24 Hours, East African Safari and Bathurst 1000. It would also cover the less glamorous events of Wide World. motorsport missions, such as demolition derbies.
After 23 years, he moved to CBS Sports. He has covered International Race of Champions (IROC) events, the Daytona 500 and Formula 1 Grand Prix events. Without missing a beat, Economaki has also contributed to ESPN’s SpeedWeek and TBS’s Motorweek Illustrated. There seemed to be no type of motor racing he hadn’t reported on and with a depth of knowledge that few other commentators could match, including sprint cars, championship cars, stock cars, dragsters and CanAm cars. Economaki was part of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network’s coverage of the Indianapolis 500, contributing testing and analysis.
One way or another, during all his attention and work devoted to motorsport, Economaki always 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 of this, it’s not too surprising to learn that Economaki has received many major awards. To name a few, and I mean just a few. In 1987, Economaki was part of the CBS broadcast team that won the Sports Emmy for “Outstanding Live Sports Special” at the Daytona 500; Economaki was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1994; he was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993; he received the NASCAR Award of Excellence in 1990, then in 1998 the NASCAR Lifetime Achievement Award. Other accolades bestowed on Economaki include (but again, these are just a selection) his 1993 induction into the Oceanside Rotary Club of the 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. Additionally, there is now an annual day at the Dodge Charger 500 during Darlington Speedway race weekend called “Chris Economaki Day.”
Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s press room 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 Media Center 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 History of Motor Racing by the Man Who Was There Chris Economaki (Argabright Books, Noblesville, Indiana: 2006).’
In 2011, ESPN’s Ryan McGee met Economaki… on his 90th birthday. In this story, Economaki said, “Television is a weird and wonderful thing. My life literally changed overnight. I know people love to tell horror stories of how being on TV ruined their lives and took away all their privacy. I am not one of those people. It opened doors that I could never have opened on my own.
At the age of 91, Chris Economaki died in the early morning of September 28, 2012 in Midland Park, New Jersey. Public records place Economaki’s burial place as being in Wyckoff, Bergen, New Jersey. Without a doubt, Economaki was America’s premier motorsports commentator, journalist and pit road reporter.
I learned recently that American scholars specializing in and seeking to advance the study of Greeks in the United States have successfully established new classes and programs in different parts of the country. I offer you my congratulations. I can very well understand how these recent events have helped to ensure the advancement of the still unrecognized field of Greek American Studies. Yet institutional advances in college, important as they are for scholars, do not automatically mean that the history of the Greeks in the United States is better understood by the average American.
Who maintains, or better still, who creates the “culture”? How is it made? When is this cultural creation truly and completely ‘America’? When is this cultural creation truly and completely “Greek”? I’m sorry but the academics have it all wrong. The foreigners who arrive do not owe “everything” to America. Are we to believe that such human beings are just blank pages on which only American ideas and creativity can be found? And what about their children? Are they more or less due to having been brought up by individuals who did not automatically share all the ideas or assumptions of the surrounding society?
When are innovations and achievements on American soil directly and identifiable due to his Greek heritage or upbringing? Again, I ask, where are our cultural champions? Do I have to write another 40 to 50 years quoting one notable Greek woman or man after another before we stop going the ‘we’re just poor foreigners who have to live it all in America?’ fancy around printing?