Thursday, March 24, 2011


I've been saddened by the death of a life-long friend. This friend never missed a weekly visit to the home where I grew up. More importantly, this friend played a major role in my learning to read as a young child (and where would I be today without strong reading skills?).

My father had been a race car driver in the 1950s, but quit racing when I was born. However, he stayed in the sport by becoming the manager of a local dirt track. Some of my best early childhood memories are from Saturdays at the racetrack. One of Dad's duties was to receive a huge bundle of newspapers tied up in twine to be sold at the track each week (it was too big to fit in the mailbox, so the postman would just drop it on the driveway). Even after Dad was no longer manager, we always had a subscription.

You see, the weekly house visitor was the National Speed Sport News (NSSN)—the most comprehensive authority for all forms of motorsport. Its longtime editor, Chris Economaki, was the auto racing specialist for ABC's Wide World of Sports (for those of you born after the '70s, you will never understand how important that weekly show was to America), and his expertise as well as his unique voice were renowned.

It has been published weekly since 1934 (!), but the current economy—and the growth of the Internet—made them announce this week that they were ceasing publication. It is a big shock to the racing community--we didn't see it coming. I was so enthralled with NSSN as a kid that it was one of the primary motivations for learning to read. The pictures were great, but I wanted to read the stories as well. Especially in the '60s and into the '70s, when racing was not covered by the regular newsmedia (and ESPN did not exist), NSSN was the Bible for auto racing fans. In the old days, unless it was a really major race, you had to wait until NSSN arrived on Thursday to find out who had won the previous weekend. Plus, one of the best things about NSSN was that it covered the whole gamut of auto racing—from NASCAR to USAC to SCCA to Formula 1, plus dirt tracks across the nation (I also learned a lot of geography from NSSN, too).

In the spring of 1980, I was about to graduate from the University of Charleston, but was still not sure what I wanted to do with my political science degree. One thought I had was that maybe I could get a job working for NSSN, since auto racing had been a constant love of mine. I sent a letter to Chris Economaki, who apparently read it and called me. I can remember classmate Jay Swearingen being all excited about taking a call for me at the Benedum dormitory from Chris Economaki, and how he had recognized his voice from Wide World of Sports. As I recall, I called him back and he invited me to come to New Jersey to meet him for an interview. However, at the same time this opportunity was developing, I was also pursuing a job with Congressman John Anderson's Presidential Campaign as well as applying for the Master's in Public Administration program at WVU. I ended up accepting the campaign job upon graduation, plus winning a full-ride fellowship to grad school. With these opportunities directly related to my degree, and the difficulties at that time with getting to New Jersey, I gave up the chance for a job at NSSN.

I wonder how my life would have turned out if I had pursued the opportunity to work for Chris Economaki at NSSN? I would have been getting into the motorsports business just before it began to really take off, with the expanded coverage by ESPN and other channels, the development of in-car cameras, and the boom of stars like Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, etc. Despite the fact that its numbers are slightly down in recent years, the racing world is far more popular now than it was in the spring of 1980. However, if I had taken a job and stayed there, I might be looking at the unemployment line right now after 31 years of employment, just when retirement is within sight.

Another reason why this is sad for me is that I see it as a tangible example of how our world is subtly changing without much notice. Newspapers are becoming a thing of the past. With NSSN going under, and with the local Parkersburg News & Sentinel on the ropes (they already combined from two into one paper), my parents—who don't do the Internet thing—will be devastated when they can no longer read newsprint. And finally, I will most of all miss the conversations that my Dad and I have had about the latest stories from our beloved National Speed Sport News. Thanks for a great ride, but I sure hate to see it end. R.I.P. NSSN!

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