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Chris Economaki, the Voice of American Motorsports on TV, Dies at 91

Chris Economaki – P 2012
ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

He called the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and races around the world for ABC, CBS and ESPN during four decades on the air.

Chris Economaki, “The Dean of American Motorsports,” who broadcast over the roar of the engines at the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and all manner of car races during four decades on the air, died Friday. He was 91.

After working as a track announcer and the editor of the racing publication National Speed Sport News, Economaki got his big break in 1961 when NASCAR founder William France recommended that he call the Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway for ABC, the network’s first motorsports broadcast.

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Economaki would broadcast races around the world for ABC and its Wide World of Sports anthology series (even demolition derbies) through the 1983 season before jumping full-time to CBS, where he worked through the mid-'90s. He also broadcast Formula One telecasts for ESPN in 1987 and 1988.

A native of Brooklyn, Economaki was in the booth for the 1979 Daytona 500, which many consider the most important race in stock car history. The product of a new contract between CBS and NASCAR, it was the first 500-mile race to air in its entirety live on U.S. national television, and a snowstorm that blanketed much of the country kept viewers indoors and glued to their TVs.

Near the end of the tightly contested race, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough collided, and the drivers got out of their cars and exchanged punches as Richard Petty zoomed past and crossed the finish line. The telecast attracted huge ratings, and NASCAR received nationwide attention for the first time.

“The passing of Chris Economaki is a tough loss for me on both a personal and professional level, having known Chris throughout my life,” said NASCAR chairman Brian France, William's grandson. “Many people consider Chris the greatest motorsports journalist of all time. He was, indeed, ‘The Dean.’ Chris was a fixture for years at NASCAR events and played a huge role in growing NASCAR’s popularity. I’ll miss seeing him, and of course, I’ll miss hearing that voice.”

Said Jeff Belskus, president and CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp.: “Chris was the dean of motorsports journalism. His accurate, incisive reporting helped increase the audience of the sport and put the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, its events and competitors into the global spotlight. He set a standard for others to follow for generations.”

The news conference room at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was named for Economaki in 2006.

Economaki appeared as himself in the racing movies Six Pack (1982), starring Kenny Rogers, and Stroker Ace (1983), starring Burt Reynolds, and his voice was used in the Paul Newman classic Winning (1969). He wrote a column for National Speed Sport News for more than 50 years. The publication announced his death with no other details.

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.”

Survivors include daughters Corinne and Tina and two grandchildren.

A wake will be held at 4 p.m. Monday at Nativity Church in Midland Park, N.J. His life will be celebrated with a mass at the church the next day.

The family asks that donations be made to the International Motor Racing Research Center: 610 S. Decatur St., Watkins Glen, NY 14891.

Below, watch and listen as Economacki, Jim McKay and Chris Schenkel announce the start of the 1973 Indianapolis 500.

E-mail: Mike.Barnes@THR.com

Twitter: @mikebarnes4