The ‘Dean’ And Dollar Hot Dogs

Charlotte, NC (October 1, 2012) – Chris Economaki loved auto racing.

He also loved hot dogs.

Given that I shared his passion for both, it was only natural that I would one day get to be friends with ‘The Dean of American Motorsports Journalism.’

In many ways, Economaki was a hero to me. Not just because he loved fast cars and tasty sausages, but rather as the man who brought auto racing in written form to the masses. Decades before I ever became a journalism student in the early 1970’s, Economaki was churning out columns for National Speed Sport News – a publication that he nurtured into the most read and respected racing trade newspaper ever printed.

As a kid following my dad’s stock cars in the 1950’s, I can vividly remember going to the local racetrack with my first stop being the concession stand to purchase a copy of Speed Sport. I’d read it several times during the week, pouring over race reports, statistics and – of course – Chris’ column just simply titled ‘Editor’s Notebook.’

Looking back now, spending all those hours digesting Speed Sport and multiple daily newspaper sports sections had a profound impact on me and, at the time, unknowingly helped set my feet upon a career path in journalism long before I ever took a class on the subject.

Eventually, Economaki gained iconic status in racing as his efforts at NSSN propelled him into the spotlight in front of the camera when the sport gained a foothold on television in the 1960’s. Simply stated, if there was a big race on the tube, Economaki was the man in the trenches explaining it to you and everybody else.

By the time I finally started my motorsports journalism career in the 1980’s, Economaki was a legend in the sport, his name and face better known that most of the competitors. As I started covering bigger events at places like Milwaukee and Indianapolis, I would see Economaki in passing offering a polite, respectful hello but never more than that.

In time, I got my big career break moving to North Carolina to work in NASCAR in 1994. By 1997, I was firmly entrenched in the NASCAR media community and one of the lessons I quickly found out was that aside from a free lunch, media members enjoyed an inexpensive one almost as much.

So it was that a number of us would make the pilgrimage to the Harrisburg Lions Club every Thursday for the $1 Hot Dog luncheon. We usually had a pretty good crowd including my Nashville Network/ partner in crime Glen Grissom and veteran NASCAR journo/curmudgeon Jack Flowers. Economaki was a regular too and one day, to my surprise, he motioned me over to sit at his table.

I dutifully agreed and as the conversation progressed, I was blown away to hear Chris say he was familiar with my writing – not just at TNN – but also the work I had done for publications like Winston Cup Scene, Stock Car Racing and Circle Track magazines.

From then on, I was a regular at Economaki’s table every Thursday munching hot dogs and taking in every word as Chris, Jack and the rest of the ‘old school’ scribes told tales about legends like Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker, the Flock Brothers and all the rest.

Grand times, indeed.

One day, I was bold enough to tell Economaki what an honor it would be to someday see my work in Speed Sport. To my amazement, he invited me to submit some story ideas – many of which found their way into the pages of NSSN over the next decade.

To say those stories are among of my most rewarding career accomplishments is an understatement. I still have copies of every one, each issue lovingly treasured just like those I purchased at the concession stand as a kid.

So it was with great sadness that I saw the passing of Chris Economaki last Friday. He was 91. A while there is a sense of loss to all who knew and appreciated him, it is comforting to know that few people ever attained the dreams and accomplishments that Economaki did.

It may be even more noteworthy that those accomplishments compiled over Economaki’s 70 year career had a profound on countless others – competitors, journalists, fans and the sport itself – making Economaki’s name synonymous with the sport he dedicated his life to.

That’s something to celebrate, so I dedicate this column to you, Chris. Thanks for the friendship, great times and career defining moments.

You can be sure the next time I have a hot dog, I’ll be thinking of you.

Post Script –

The passing of Chris Economaki again underscores the need for a special section of inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

There are far too many pioneers of the sport who are being excluded from induction to the Hall because of the limited number of spots available (5) for induction each year.

As stated in the past, I strongly urge NASCAR and the keepers of the Hall of Fame flame to consider adding a number of different categories of induction to honor Drivers, Crewmembers, Speedway Officials and Media Members who made significant contributions to the sport prior to the start of the ‘Modern Era’ in 1972.

Call it what you want – ‘Legends,’ ‘Pioneers,’ whatever – but get it done now and with an inaugural class of however many it takes – 10, 20, 30, 50.

As with Chris Economaki, we are losing the opportunity to honor these individuals prior to their passing. Honoring individuals posthumously isn’t enough – please get this done now so these greats can enjoy the adulation they earned and so richly deserve.

Share Button