Interviewed by Dave Zortman
Editor's Note: Chris was
kind enough to sit down with me at the 2005 EMMR Convention and share
his incredible insight and opinions about racing's past, present and
future. His knowledge and journalistic contribution to the sport
over the years is simply second to none.
Where were you
born and raised?
Chris: I was born in Brooklyn, NY, at 133 Gates Ave. It was the home of my Grandmother. I was born in the front bedroom on the 2nd floor. Shortly after that, I went into a bassinette to my parent’s apartment in New York City on 142nd St., a real nice apartment.
My father was a successful businessman. We had a car… had a uniformed chauffer, I remember. My father liked Flint. That was a popular car back in the early 20’s. I went to school in Manhattan through the 3rd grade. That coincided with the stock market crash in which my father lost everything, and then some apparently.
So, we moved then to New Jersey, into the new home of my Grandparents. I started in the Ridgewood, NJ, schools in the 4th grade. That’s, in a sense, been my home ever since.
When did you first gain an interest in racing?
I could hear the roar of the engines at the Hajoca Speedway. So, I gravitated up there, went through the fence, under the fence and over the fence to get in to watch the cars.
It developed that the leading driver of the era and of that area was Bob Sall. Bob Sall had formerly driven a taxi cab in my town. His father owner a barber shop that I had been going to and it had pictures of racing cars on the wall. I struck up an acquaintance with Bob Sall’s father in 1933.
He wanted to go watch his son race, but his wife was fearful that he was going to get hurt. She didn’t like racing. So, he wanted company and he would take me with him in those days, to what we’ll call far away places.
It’s hard for people of this era to understand how big the United States was then. It’s a small country today, with interstate highways and jet travel. But in the 30’s, for example Philadelphia, which was 95 miles from where we lived, was like a foreign country… it was so far away. Nobody went 95 miles, anyplace.
So here I was, a kid 13... 14 years old seeing the world, so to speak, driving from NJ to Washington, DC, to see a race… Allentown, PA. One of the big stops in those days was the fair in Pottsville, PA, which was a big, big draw. I really got to see a lot of the country. It developed into an interest in travel for me, as well as an interest in racing.
Did you start helping out on the cars then?
For example, in 1936 there was a race in Goshen, NY, in the fall of the year. One of the cars that was entered was the Hinchman Miller and it was in Patterson. I went down the morning of that race… Goshen’s about 50 miles from Patterson. I was allowed to ride on the truck with the car to the race, where I helped to unload the car and washed the windshield, filled the radiator with water… menial tasks like that. There were other kids my age… they were fascinated with racing as well. They were doing the same thing. As far as working on the cars, it was a little bit more than polishing them, but no real mechanical talents required.
How did you first get involved in announcing?
Prior to that it had been a broadsheet, printed on a hand type press in East Patterson, NJ. As it got bigger, and for other reasons, they wanted to get a press that could print more copies at less cost. So, they changed it to the tabloid format that we enjoy today.
Anyway, I went in and I got 200 copies of this newspaper. This was August of 1934, which I sold at a race that weekend for a nickel a piece and made a penny. I made $2.00! It’s hard for people to grasp this today, but $2 in 1934 was a significant sum of money. Men were working all week long for $12 a week, or $14 a week. So, my two bucks I made selling newspapers was significant. I started doing that every weekend.
This story is interrupted by my 4 years in the Army, where I got shot at and shot back overseas. When I came back, I started with the paper again, selling it at races. At this point, I had had some people doing the actual selling for me… guys I would get. The paper had now gone from a nickel to a quarter and there was some more money around.
I remember one night in Pennsylvania, a Friday night, we sold 400 copies of the paper, which is a pretty good night. The next night, 50 miles away… Saturday night, at a track with more people… we sold just a handful of papers. It dawned on me that the difference in the sales was the track announcer. The one on Friday night had been an enthusiastic supporter of the paper and on Saturday, he barely mentioned it. So, that woke me up to the fact of the importance of the track announcer to the sale of the paper. So, I started announcing races, really for the express purpose of selling the newspaper. I was pretty good at announcing and pretty soon was getting requests to come here and there to announce races.
One of those people who wanted me to come and announce was Bill France. He made arrangements for me to come to Daytona Beach in 1951 to be the announcer on the sand beach circuit, at the beach itself. I started announcing in 1951, during Speed Weeks and went back there year after year for many, many years... first on the beach and then on the track.
Then in 1960… the Daytona Speedway… the track itself, opened in 1959. The 2nd year it was open, the middle Sunday of Speed Week was devoted to specialized racing events, tailored for CBS Television.
There was a race on the oval, for the stock cars… and then after a 10 or 15 minute intermission, another race on the road course for pony cars… they were broadcast live. Unfortunately, the reviews were awful. It was panned, it was terrible.
In 1961, ABC had started Wide World of Sports that year. They had gone to Daytona to find out about advertising the summer Firecracker 250 on the 4th of July. They were told, “Go back to New York City, where you came from. You were here last year and smelled out the place.”
They (ABC) said, “No, no, no! You got it wrong! We’re ABC and the people who did that to you were CBS.”
France said, “You’re all alike. You don’t know or care about racing. You’re stick and ball types!”
Then they asked what exactly was wrong with the telecast. <laughs>
France, with the ultimate criticism, replied that their announcers didn’t know which way the cars were going. ABC quickly pointed out that they had Jim McKay. France snapped back, “Don’t tell me about Jim McKay… they had Walter Cronkite!”
So, they got to negotiating. Now I don’t know, but I suspect that ABC sweetened the pot a little bit. ABC finally asked what they could do to change France’s mind. He told them to get an announcer who knows and understands the sport. At that point France pushed me off on them and that’s how I got started on television.
My first telecast was the 4th of July, 1961, Firecracker 250 at Daytona. It grew from there.
Central Pennsylvania and the east coast area in general are extremely
rich in racing history. What do you think contributed to that?
When you go to Indiana, where racing is very popular, more of the cars are “store bought” and so forth, than hand made by the locals. In different sections of the country the make up of the population dictates the kind of racing you see.
So here you see this rich history of cars that were made locally, and of course appreciated locally.
What very few people recognize about automobile racing in the United States is that the auto race, from the mid 20’s to the early 1950’s was the lifeblood of the agricultural fair. Almost all fairs had a race track, which were built in the days when the horse was the principal mode of transportation. Racing horses were the big attraction, so they had these ½ mile dirt tracks, which the cars used.
Starting in the mid 20’s, the largest crowds at a fair were for the auto race. Therefore, the largest profits accrued to the fairs were from the auto race. So, the fairs lived on the auto race revenues, year in and year out. The auto race kept the agricultural fair in this country alive.
In the early 50’s, the concert came along and started to take away the exclusiveness of racing as the money maker for the fair. Now today, the concerts prevail. Auto races are virtually nonexistent at fairs anymore.
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