SEMA News—August 2011
Honoring Four Trailblazers
Gray Baskerville, Art Chrisman, Chris Economaki and John Towle Join the SEMA Hall of Fame Elite
For the true automotive pioneer, trailblazing is its own reward. You don’t race, tinker, invent and innovate with an eye toward peer accolades. You push the envelope for the sheer thrill of it—it’s who you are, what drives you, it’s the challenge that fires your soul.
Of course, if you happen to build a successful career, inspire others and, ultimately, leave something enduring behind in the process of doing what you love—now that’s the dream of a lifetime.
Since 1969, the SEMA Hall of Fame has celebrated outstanding persons in the industry who have enhanced the stature of, or significantly contributed to, the industry and/or the association’s growth. Without diminishing the contributions of early Hall of Famers, the increasing professionalism of the specialty-equipment market over the past 42 years has raised the bar significantly. For that reason, today’s Hall of Fame candidates must boast at least 10 years of industry experience and/or association. Their influence must also be national in scope. Finally, nominees must show technical achievement, unquestioned integrity and extraordinary leadership in helping the industry thrive.
There can be no doubt that our 2011 Hall of Fame inductees represent the finest of these SEMA traditions. Gray Baskerville, Art Chrisman, Chris Economaki and John Towle are all legendary names within the automotive realm. Their careers, enthusiasm, innovation and personal genius are synonymous not only with the growth of the specialty-equipment market but with the hobby, sport and overall mystique of automobiling itself. Indeed, it would be impossible to conceive today of racing, performance or driving adventure without their contributions.
Sadly, one of our inductees has passed from the scene and is much missed. Thankfully, three of these icons continue to shape our industry’s future. In each case, we remain inspired by the stories of these four individuals whom we are honored to add to the exclusive SEMA Hall of Fame.
How can the legacy of Gray Baskerville ever be summarized in a few short paragraphs? His passing in 2002 left a giant void that is not likely to be filled for a very long time—if ever.
As a long-running writer for one of the world’s most popular and successful automotive publications, Baskerville had a sweeping impact on the industry. But holding Hot Rod magazine’s senior editor title for some 30 years isn’t the rationale for his SEMA Hall of Fame induction. Rather, it’s the passion and candor that flowed from his writing and captivated readers. In the tradition of SEMA’s true Hall of Famers, Baskerville cultivated a deep love for cars that clearly permeated all of his endeavors.
Born in Los Angeles, Baskerville spent many of his formative years in Hermosa Beach, immersing himself in Southern California’s early rod and custom car culture. Graduating with a history degree from UC Santa Barbara in 1958, he honed his writing and photography skills at his family’s publishing house even as he drag raced locally. Eventually, the former history student landed a gig at Hot Rod, where he went on to actually make history.
If the hot-rod movement ever had a defining voice, it was Baskerville’s. His prose so exuded life and excitement that editors rarely changed his text—even when he invented words that did not exist in the dictionary. His style and flair helped focus and mainstream a Southern California phenomenon into a national pastime, taking it beyond niche hobby to industry proportions. Yet, never one to adapt to corporate rules or aspire to the corner suite, “Ol’ Dad” Baskerville was equally known for his casual disposition, playful wonder and basic shorts-and-flip-flops office attire. After retirement, the former senior editor kept a modest office with Hot Rod and Rod & Custom, where he remained a valued contributing editor.
Baskerville had numerous interests, including reading, gardening and jazz music. But his passion for cars outshone them all, as epitomized by his beloved daily driver: a ’32 Ford roadster in which he racked up about 250,000 miles over the years. His family relates that, just days before his passing, his brother and friends carried Baskerville from his bedroom to the roadster for one last poignant jaunt around his Pasadena neighborhood and a visit to his mother.
Those who knew “Ol’ Dad” will tell you that he wouldn’t have it any other way. In a tribute to Baskerville upon his retirement as Hot Rod senior editor, friend and fellow automotive journalist Ro McGonegal observed: “His automotive interests are eclectic. He’s just as excited about a vintage highboy as he is about clean modern machinery…. In Gray’s opinion, the key word is drive. Drive your hot rod: on Power Tour, on the dry lakes, on the dragstrip and especially on the street.”
At Baskerville’s passing, Jeff Smith, another former Hot Rod editor, further reminisced: “[Gray] is a guy who never sat still, who was always visiting someone’s shop, looking at the cars or writing away.... He set his own agenda and that was fine with us.”
Indeed, Baskerville was more than a unique figure on the automotive scene. Ultimately, he was the real deal—always genuine, always himself—and a performance advocate who exuberantly challenged an industry to march to its
Given his many achievements, pinpointing any single reason for Art Chrisman’s induction to the SEMA Hall of Fame is difficult. Yet, for many, it’s unlikely that a single reason is even needed.
Chrisman played such a pivotal role in the hot-rod movement that his list of contributions is legendary. In fact, his story inspired The Chrisman Legacy: Always Faster, a 224-page book by Tom Madigan chronicling the Chrisman family and its indisputable influence on motorsports.
Originally from Sulphur Springs, Arkansas, Chrisman moved to California with his family during the Great Depression, settling in Compton. Working at his father’s Southern California auto shop in the ’50s, Chrisman acquired his family’s passion for car building and eventually met and competed against many of early racing’s biggest names, including Ed Iskenderian, Vic Edelbrock, Wally Parks, Pete Petersen, Mickey Thompson, C.J. Hart and Lou Baney, to mention a few. Along the way, his dedication, sincere work ethic and racing skill attracted a legion of followers. As Tony Thacker, the executive director of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, has observed: “Art Chrisman is just one of those heroes that drag-racing fans look up to even if you grew up in another country.”
And with good reason. Fifth to earn a place in the prestigious Bonneville 200 MPH Club, Chrisman’s accomplishments include many notable firsts: First drag racer to hit 140 mph in the quarter-mile. First to exceed 180 mph. First to make a pass at the NHRA’s first national event in 1955 at Great Bend, Kansas. Winner of the first Bakersfield March Meet in 1959. And, as a member of the famous Autolite race team, he also ranks 29th on the NHRA’s roster of top 50 drivers of hot rodding’s first 50 years.
“The first time I recall seeing him race was probably around 1957 or 1958, out at the old Riverside Raceway at a drag race,” said Carl Olson, another former racer, SEMA Hall of Famer and current motorsports manager at the SFI Foundation. “I was extremely impressed by his car and his driving ability. Suffice to say, he was one of my earliest racing heroes.”
Eventually, Olson found himself introduced to Chrisman at the latter’s Autolite sparkplug workshop, and the two became lasting friends. Of all the celebrated personalities deserving of SEMA Hall of Fame recognition, Olson believes that few exemplify the industry’s heart and soul more than Chrisman.
“He’s willing to share information, experience and knowledge with just about anyone who walks up to ask,” he said. “And the cars that he turns out, whether they be race cars or street rods, are just absolutely fabulous. They’ve won every kind of award known to mankind, including Pebble Beach and the Grand National Roadster Show. He’s a masterful engine builder. He’s just the nicest, kindest, most generous, caring individual that I know, along with being an absolute icon in motorsports.”
Olson is not alone in this view. Industry pros universally praise Chrisman’s integrity and gentlemanly demeanor both on and off the track. And the legacy continues: Chrisman and his son Mike now work side by side at Chrisman Auto Rod Specialties, which the elder Chrisman founded after his Autolite years—and where he still serves as mentor, role model and inspiration to hot-rodding’s next generation.
Visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and you’ll find the Economaki Press Conference Room. At the New Jersey Motorsports Park, you’ll find The Chris Economaki Media Center. And each year on the day of the Daytona 500, thousands celebrate Chris Economaki Day.
Having served as a motorsports commentator and journalist for more than 70 years, Economaki is hailed as the founding father of American motorsports media. Even those unfamiliar with his name are instantly likely to recognize the voice behind the trademark horn-rimmed glasses.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Economaki got hooked on motorsports at age nine after watching an auto race at the board track in Atlantic City. By age 13, he was selling copies of National Speed Sport News (NSSN) at the fairgrounds racing events cropping up in the mid-’30s. A year later, he was penning a column for the publication. By the ’50s, he had complete charge of the title, became publisher and turned NSSN into what many have called “The Bible of Motorsports” and “America’s Weekly Motorsports Authority,” reporting on races throughout the country, regardless of series or track.
Economaki even flirted with midget-car competition himself at a Pennsylvania cinder track.
“It wasn’t for me,” he recalled later. “It was a really frightening experience. That was the first and last time I drove in competition.”
Deciding he was better suited to covering motorsports, he became a track announcer in the ’40s, even as he continued to churn out NSSN.
“We all came to know Chris because of the wonderful National Speed Sport News that he published,” said Steve Lewis, publisher of Performance Racing Industry [PRI] magazine and producer of today’s well-known PRI trade show. Like many in the industry, Lewis became an avid reader of Economaki’s publication in the early ’60s. “That was the pipeline to knowledge of racing back then. There was no ESPN, no SPEED Channel, nothing. The national and daily papers didn’t cover racing. He covered it in-depth. He covered NASCAR and Indy car and also covered weekly short track.... Chris’ paper was so important because it provided information and developed the hero status of people such as Bobby Unser, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti.”
That could be considered achievement enough, but Economaki next turned his attention and energies to broadcasting, covering several Indianapolis 500s, Daytona 500s, Formula 1 Grand Prixes and other motorsports events for “ABC Wide World of Sports” in the ’60s. Two decades later, he moved on to CBS Sports and later contributed to ESPN and TBS motorsports programming.
“All that wasn’t an accident,” explained Lewis. “Chris pushed the networks to expand their coverage. He was the driving force behind it, and his insightful interview technique and unique voice as a real wordsmith made his before-and-after race interviews with drivers classic. He was very good at asking unexpected questions that made drivers have to think. Some of us forget the work he did that helped develop a racing industry. He’s not just a publisher, editor or writer. He had the vision, knowledge and energy to put forth an effort to upgrade and bring racing to
NSSN ceased print production in March 2011, but Economaki continues to impart his original vision, knowledge and insights through daily contributions to his famous publication’s new online version.
“If you have an idea and a plan, share it. Who knows, maybe you will start something cool.” That’s been the motto of John Towle, whose stellar career in the performance aftermarket has spanned five decades.
In 1964, Towle walked into a hotbed of performance—the Edelbrock Equipment Co. in Los Angeles—to take a job sweeping floors and cleaning restrooms. He ended up staying for 27 years, moving up from department to department, learning every aspect of the performance business from manufacturing to sales to distribution. In 1982, he became Edelbrock’s vice president for sales, propelling the company to tremendous growth and helping it garner three Performance Warehouse Association (PWA) Manufacturer of the Year awards (1984, 1989 and 1990).
The early days with Edelbrock introduced Towle to drag racing and the chance to assist Ed “The Master” Pink with his Top Fuel dragster.
“I was mostly changing oil and packing the parachute, but it was a great time and a lot of fun for a very young kid,” said Towle.
In the mid-’70s, he campaigned a B/Econorail dragster. After much success at the local strips, Towle came to the believe that A&B Econorails deserved their own NHRA class and rules. So he committed his ideas to paper and shared them with the NHRA. Then he went on to further suggest that blown alcohol cars should have their own class as well. The NHRA agreed and instituted the Pro Comp class along with Econorails as Competition Eliminator cars.
Still, it was Towle’s dedicated work at Edelbrock, SEMA and PWA that truly set him apart as a leader eager to help advance the industry. In 1990, Towle received the PWA’s Person of the Year award—in his words, “a prestigious honor and very rewarding.”
Retiring from Edelbrock in 1991, he became PWA executive director the following year. Under his guidance, the PWA has continued to grow, especially with its annual Industry Conference. Meanwhile, Towle was also elected to the SEMA Board of Directors in 1993 and served a two-year term.
“What always amazed me about John is how the entire Performance Warehouse Association ran like clockwork” once Towle took the helm, observed Van Woodell, owner and president of Weathers Auto Supply.
Woodell first met the PWA leader in the mid-’90s, when Weathers Auto Supply joined the trade organization. Noting that the aftermarket’s selling and buying sectors were far from seamless at the time, Woodell credits Towle with bringing the principals of the manufacturing companies and the principals of the distribution leg of the industry together for face-to-face meetings on a scale never imagined in the industry’s early days. And he did so with unmatched integrity and organizational expertise.
“What John has really offered the industry is a level of professionalism so that a bunch of ‘rednecks’ like me can sit down and negotiate with our suppliers and our vendors to build relationships on a national level,” said a smiling Woodell. “It has certainly made a huge difference.”
While Towle retired from Edelbrock years ago, he has yet to retire from the PWA, let alone the industry. True to his lifelong calling, Towle remains the quintessential idea man, still sharing his plans for an increasingly healthy and vital specialty-equipment aftermarket.