Racing requirement

Chris Economaki talks to Nigel Roebuck about the US racing stars of the ’50s and ’60s, why it was very bad to crash and the birth of the seat belt

Chris Economaki is 86 years old now, but he still goes to races. The owner of National Speed Sport News for more than 50 years, he still writes his weekly column, and recently his autobiography Let ‘Em All Go! was published in the USA. Economaki is always spoken of as ‘The dean of American motorsports writers’ and for most of his career his voice was as renowned as his pen, for he also worked as a track announcer, then as a TV commentator.

It is always that voice which comes to mind when I think of Economaki. Born in Brooklyn, you know within five seconds that he could have come from nowhere else, and the voice – very ‘Noo Yark’ to my ears, anyway – lends itself perfectly to his vault of racing anecdotes. He is a born raconteur.

Just as I loved to listen to Denis Jenkinson talking about ‘the old days’, about grand prix racing before I got involved in it, so I relish Economaki’s tales of the 1950s and ’60s, when NASCAR was purely provincial and meant nothing north of the Mason-Dixon Line, when ‘open-wheel’ racing still reigned supreme in America, when the gorgeous front-engined roadsters ruled at Indy, when sprint car racing was in its golden age.

As a young kid, I was quickly besotted with Formula 1, but also developed a strong interest in Indycar racing, which remained with me until 10 or so years ago, when there came the CART-IRL split, instantly dividing a single strong series into two of little consequence.

One of the reasons why I have so much enjoyed Chris Economaki’s company down the years is that racing – in other words, cars overtaking each other – has always been his first requirement of this sport, and I feel exactly the same. No surprise that his favourite era in American motor racing was, and will always be, the 1950s.

Not that it was an easy time to be an insider, mind you. As in Europe, racing in America was extraordinarily perilous 50 years ago, and Economaki lost a huge number of friends. How had Chris coped with that aspect of his job? “You were inured to it, Nigel,” he said. “It happened every week…”

They were a colourful breed, the American drivers of that time. Yes, there were the wealthy folk who raced sports cars on a strictly amateur basis, but as Economaki says, his kind of racing – Indycars, sprint cars, midgets – was still predominantly a blue-collar sport. The drivers raced ‘to put food on the table’, and if they were apparently fearless, perhaps this owed something to the fact many had survived bloody campaigns
in the Second World War.

“Mike Nazaruk, for example, had been through Iwo Jima, so nothing after that was going to frighten him too much. I was the track announcer at Langhorne the day he was killed, in May of 1955. He was a friend of mine, and I went to his funeral. Nazaruk was a Slav, and he had all these women from the Slavic countries… One of them got in the coffin with Mike at the funeral home, trying to prove she loved him more than the rest. Unbelievable…

“At that time sprint car racing was incredibly dangerous. One of the reasons why there were so many fatal accidents was the way the cars were made. They all had solid axles, so when a car ran over another car’s wheel, instead of something breaking and the wheel coming off – as they would do on a Formula 1 car, say – it would start a series of over-and-over rolls. And there were no roll-over bars back then, of course. If you got upside down, it was a roll of the dice whether you survived.

“You know what a Sam Browne belt is? They’d just begun to come into play back then, but it was just a single leather strap across you, a sort of home-made thing. In fact, seat belts got started when a guy named Joie Chitwood went to Indianapolis for the first time. Back then the track was surfaced in brick, of course, and very rough. Joie was a native Cherokee Indian – very bright guy – and when he couldn’t keep his foot on the gas because of the bumps, he figured if he could do that, he had to go faster. So he put this lap belt in the car – and all the other drivers revolted.

“The belief of the time was that if you had an accident, your best chance was to be thrown out, and they were concerned about running into a car that was upside down with the driver still in it. They petitioned against his belt, but he told them
he wanted it, not for safety, but to keep his foot on the gas – and that’s how seat belts got started in racing.

“It was a tough time, but the racing was phenomenal. What won races in those days was drivers, not cars: the man-machine equation was weighted heavily in favour of the driver. No one knew how to make a car go better – there was very little you could do to it. It was very simple: you changed the tyre pressures, and if it didn’t do any better, you changed the spark plugs; if that didn’t help, you changed the driver…

“Most of the tracks were dirt, but the most dangerous of all were the paved, steeply banked, half-mile tracks – Winchester and Salem and Dayton. They were known as ‘the banks’ or ‘the hills’, and some drivers wouldn’t touch them. Jimmy Bryan was as great on dirt as anyone I ever saw, but one day, in my presence, some fan said to him, ‘You don’t go to the banks, do you?’ And Bryan said, ‘Not even on weekdays…’

“Bryan won the Indy 500 in 1958, then semi-retired, then came back because he needed the money. Like Nazaruk, he was killed at Langhorne, a track where he’d always excelled – hooked a rut, got in the air, flipped… Very sad. Good guy.”

In the course of his extraordinary life, Economaki has seen everyone from Nuvolari – he attended the 1936 Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island, where the great Tazio won – to Schumacher, from Ted Horn to Sam Hornish. Who, I wanted to know, was the greatest he had seen?

I might have expected him to say Fangio or Foyt or Clark or Andretti. “Bob Sweikert,” he replied, and without hesitation. “He had it all. He was a phenomenal driver, and also a hell of a good engineer. Back then drivers were not asked to deal with the press or sponsors, and so on, but he did that, anyway.

“Racing in those days was constant needle – the ‘why have you bothered to show up?’ sort of thing. Only 18 cars started in a dirt track race, so 10 or 12 guys would not qualify. If you didn’t qualify, you didn’t get paid. It was a hard school.

“Anyway, there we are at Syracuse one year, and Sweikert and I are having dinner. Eddie Sachs walks by, and he needles Sweikert. And Bob says, ‘Eddie, tomorrow, on the 64th lap I’m going to lap you on my way to victory’. Just bullshit, right? But on the 64th lap Sweikert lapped Sachs, and won the race.

“What really opened my eyes to Sweikert’s greatness was Sebring in 1956. There was a guy named Jack Ensley, who was a joke as a driver, but he had a Jaguar D-type, and asked Sweikert to share it with him at Sebring. Bob had won the Indy 500, but he’d never done a road race in his life.

“So here are all these Ferraris and Maseratis, and all the leading road racing drivers of the world, and the race starts – and Sweikert’s up there, passing these guys. Then he stops, and Ensley gets in. When he handed back to Sweikert, he was 23rd or something. Bob gets back in, and gets the car back to second again. Eventually they finished third, and if it hadn’t been for Ensley, that car would have won the race. That race really opened my eyes to what a superb talent Sweikert was. Three months later he was gone.

“Know what killed him? Ed Elisian was from Sweikert’s neighbourhood and Elisian was a crumb. A lousy guy, a bum, wrote bad cheques, didn’t pay his bills, lied. Sweikert was a high-type guy, and he had no respect for Elisian. In a sprint car race at Salem, Elisian passed him, and Bob could not stand that. And he killed himself trying to go back by him – just incensed at having this peasant in front of him…”