DOVER, Del. (AP) — Chris Economaki, a journalist regarded as the authoritative voice in motorsports for decades, died Friday. He was 91.
National Speed Sport News, where Economaki worked as an editor for more than 60 years, announced his death Friday. It did not release a cause of death. Economaki was known as the "Dean of American Motorsports Journalism," and worked in TV for more than 40 years with stints at ABC, CBS and ESPN. He was part of ABC's first telecast from Daytona International Speedway in 1961.
His love of motorsports blossomed as a child and he sold copies of National Speed Sport News as a teenager.
"Many people consider Chris the greatest motorsports journalist of all time," NASCAR chairman Brian France said. "He was, indeed, 'The Dean.' Chris was a fixture for years at NASCAR events, and played a huge role in growing NASCAR's popularity."
Economaki, who switched from ABC to CBS in 1984, watched stock car racing branch out from its Southern roots to become a national attraction. The watershed year, he said, was 1984.
"That was the year ABC did the closing ceremonies at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo at the same time CBS was showing the Daytona 500 — and Daytona got the higher rating," Economaki said in the 1980s.
"It was also the year that President Reagan came to the Firecracker 400 and said, 'Gentlemen, start your engines.' And the next day, there was a picture of him next to Richard Petty on the front page of The New York Times. After that, it seemed a lot of people discovered stock car racing."
Economaki told The Associated Press in 1991 that even if fans didn't recognize his face out in public, they sure knew him by the sound of his voice.
"I do have a distinctive voice. And it's nice to know that it registered somewhere along the line," he said.
"I remember I was getting a pair of shoes in Des Moines, Iowa, one time. The salesman was lacing up my shoes, and I'm looking at the bald spot on the back of his head, and he asks: 'Aren't you on TV?' This guy's got his nose six inches from the floor and asks my shoes if I'm on TV. He doesn't recognize me, but he recognizes my voice."
In 2006, the Trackside Conference Room at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Media Center was renamed the Economaki Press Conference Room in his honor.
Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt remembered when Economaki pegged him early in his career as one of racing's next big stars.
"He saw the sport grow to where it is today and how it grew, including NASCAR," Foyt said. "And he contributed to that growth. I'd say when he was in his heyday of writing that more people would read his column than any column that's been written today by far. I know I did."
At Dover International Speedways, drivers remembered Economaki as a man who shaped the way they loved the sport.
"Speed Sport News is something that I read religiously," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "Chris did a lot for that newspaper and for motorsports and he was passionate about all of it. The last time I saw him was earlier this year and, still, that is all he thought about was racing. And he cared so much about what was happening in this sport and wanted to make a difference and wanted to get those stories out there."