by Dan Smith
American motorsports has spawned many heroes. The raw nature of the life-risking sport causes people to admire those who manage to succeed. Rising to the pinnacle in racing is indeed a heady achievement.
One man made that journey without ever taking the wheel or working on a car. But on Sept. 28 the great Chris Economaki passed away at age 91. As a racing announcer and broadcaster Chris stood alone. His career lasted more than seven decades.
As a young boy listening to the Indianapolis 500 on the radio, I was amazed at the man with the shrill, clear voice. Whenever those in the booth said, "and now to Chris Economaki in the pits," I would stop what I was doing. His distinct voice would rise over the whine of the Offenhauser engines. You always knew whom you were listening to.
Chris was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a Greek father and a mother who was a niece of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. His accent was not Greek, southern or New York. It was all Chris. It always seemed to me that he spoke through his own echo chamber. Whatever the accent, his was the perfect voice for racing and he did it all. Indy, stock cars, Leman, drag racing and others all had the benefit of his call.
When Big Bill France arranged for the first live TV coverage of the Daytona 500 in 1961 he made sure Chris was on the broadcast team. His presence lent credibility to any event.
It was my good fortune to meet Mr. Economaki and spend a few minutes with him on several occasions. By the time that happened he was older, but each time I heard him speak it would take me back to the years of listening to him on radio or television.
When he passed Bill Warner of the fine Amelia Island Concours auto show reminisced that Chris was something of a wine connoisseur and had a fondness for the grape.
I can add to that his admiration for the ladies. I first met Chris in 1997 when I was asked to set up a track on the beach for Oldsmobile. The company came here to do a photo shoot honoring their 100th anniversary. Many racing and automotive celebrities were on hand, but I stayed close by Mr. Economaki. He was then in his 70s but seemed in good shape and spent most of our time on the beach taking photos with the many young ladies that were present.
Each time I saw him I was just thrilled to hear that magically distinctive voice. Chris is gone now and I can tell you there will be no replacement.
The day after Mr. Economaki passed away we lost another racing legend. On Sept. 29, Dick Fleck took his last checkers. While Chris was world famous, Dick was not and yet in his own way was just as big a part of racing history.
Dick Fleck was loud, boisterous, gregarious and a genuine good guy. He led an interesting life that included beach racing, he was fighter pilot over Korea and was a lifelong skydiver. In his latter years his website and e-mails kept all of us old gear heads connected and informed. He once told me that each e-mail reached 1600 people. Quite a guy.
I first met Flecky in 1996 when I was helping out with the first Living Legends Of Auto Racing parade. I had received a call from Zeta Baker who then headed up that group. She asked if I could provide antique cars to put with the vintage racecars to fill out the parade. I did and with the help of the Volusia Region of the Antique Automobile Club Of America we put 16 nice antiques in the parade.
Back then the event was held in Ormond Beach and it was my job to drive the city's mayor, David Hood, in the parade. When I took my beautiful 1949 Chrysler woody convertible to the beach someone from the city showed up to put magnetic signs on the car.
As I waited for the mayor to show up I wandered off to look at some of the other cars and when I returned there was a very large man in the back seat. I didn't know who he was but I knew he was not Dave Hood. It was Dick Fleck. I told him my car was reserved to drive the mayor, but he said that he didn't mind.
When the mayor finally showed up Fleck told him to climb right in and down the beach we went. I believe that many thought Dick was the mayor. I found out that day you could either go with Fleck or go home. Rest in peace Flecky.
Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Ormond Beach Historical Society, The Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of a fishing book.