• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Friday, September 28, 2012

WHAT CHRIS TOLD ME

I'm not sure, but I think it's possible Chris Economaki's last "live" interview was with me on my old The Race Reporters Internet radio show. (He taped at least one TV interview after that.) That show was Wednesday, June 24, 2009, which was the day the 75th anniversary issue of National Speed Sport News was published.

Chris, in declining health in recent years, died Friday at age 91. But here are three highlights from that radio conversation. Chris -- as usual -- spoke out as he believed-it-to-be, and his comment about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway needing a "drum beater" certainly stirred things up over at IMS, I can tell you:

I asked Chris what was the most important story covered in the pages of NSSN during those 75 years:

"That was in 1935 with the general acceptance of the crash helmet by people in American auto racing . . . It was an incredible move. The death rate in American racing to that point was horrendous. The crash helmet saved life-after-life-after-life. When everybody decided to use one, it was a big story."

Is America's most important race the Indianapolis 500 or Daytona 500?

"The Daytona 500 is important because it is heavily promoted. The Indianapolis 500, unfortunately, is not heavily promoted. It's presented and managed well, but it isn't promoted well. That is the big difference. You have to beat the drums for your event and the Indianapolis 500 doesn't have a drum beater."

Who is the greatest driver you've seen?

"It's a toss-up between A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. It's a difficult question to answer. One of those two is, without question, the senior performer in American auto racing."


Occasions such as this demand an Economaki story. Dave Argabright invited me to share a personal story for the bonus section of the hardcover edition of Chris' 2006 book, Let 'Em All Go! (I still have an autographed copy of the book on my desk.) Here's what I wrote:

It was in the pleasant surroundings of the PPG hospitality tent at Long Beach that I learned an essential, and enduring, truth about auto racing.

I sat with Jim Chapman, the legendary public relations executive who precisely arranged every detail of PPG's CART series sponsorship, as he patiently helped educate a journalist who was new to the sport. The writer asked Jim what he expected to happen in the Grand Prix. Just at that moment, Jim looked up from his plate of fruit and Virginia baked ham, and saw Chris walking toward their table. In his wise and fatherly way, Jim responded, "There are only three things certain in racing. Someone will win. Everyone else will lose. And Chris Economaki will be everywhere, asking questions he knows his readers want answered . . . whether they like it or not!"

Mr. Chapman, a friend and fan of Chris, was right as always. In the 35 years I've been in motorsports journalism and PR, I've fielded my share of the famous to-the-point Economaki inquiries, especially in CART's early years when I was the communications director. Chris is always working on some story and he's certainly not shy to press anyone to get information. He has called me at home before 8 a.m. and after midnight and even on New Year's Day!

One time I was with Nigel Mansell, waiting for the David Letterman Show to begin, when the dressing room door suddenly opened and Chris came in firing questions machine-gun style. When Chris left, Nigel took a deep breath just as a producer arrived to escort him to the stage. I told Nigel, "Relax. The hard part is over!"

Chris has never apologized for his aggressive pursuit of the news he knows the public wants to know. Nor should he. Agree or disagree with him as we all may on occasion, but acknowledge this: Chris's unflinching trust in the story -- and the reader -- deserves our profound respect.


Amen. I sure hope that, somewhere, Jim and Chris are sharing a vintage bottle of wine, a gourmet meal, and those irreplaceable Economaki-Chapman stories. God Bless.

[ more next Monday . . . ]