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Jim Hunter: Now the legend.....

  Jim Hunter: 'And remember the time we ......' (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern



  Alas, Jim Hunter didn't make it.
   One of the most popular and influential NASCAR figures during his nearly 50 years in the sport, the former journalist and then long-time adviser and counselor to the France family from his various wide-ranging posts, Hunter Friday night lost a year-long fight against cancer.

   In May at Darlington Raceway, where he served as boss for so many years, Hunter, 71, was finally in remission. And he was in a happy mood, and reflective, when we sat down to talk about old times and some of the good ol' days:   http://bit.ly/cgJZmf

    And during his time in this sport, from his days as reporter through his time as track boss, at Talladega and Darlington, and through his time as the sport's chief communications executive, Hunter always had his fingers on the pulse of this sport. Having worked both sides of this sports business, including an award-winning stint at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hunter had a unique perspective.
   He had a delightfully zany side, like the time over in the first turn campgrounds here when he, in a humorous moment, taped several books of matches to his shoes, and, as he lit them off, announced he was blasting off to the moon. Well, if you've ever camped out here, you'd probably understand the moment....
   And he had his hard-nosed moments too, when he – regardless of his own personal opinions – had to be point-man for the company on controversial issues....like the time he had to fight the media over that Dale Earnhardt Jr. below-the-yellow-line pass for the win here.
   Through it all, Jim Hunter had plenty of that Bill France Jr. sense about this sport and its quirks and how to deal with tough situations. And he was mentor to some of the top men in the sport today.

  Jeff Byrd: All the world's a stage....October 17th (Photo: Bristol Motor Speedway)

   Grant Lynch, who runs Talladega Superspeedway and who has known Hunter for so many years, reflected on the heartbreaks of this season, with the deaths of legends like Jake Elder and Les Richter and Jeff Byrd and Ed Shull:
   "The past few weeks have been some of the saddest I can remember.
    "Quite honestly I don't know what to say about Jim Hunter that would even begin to describe him. He was just a larger than life figure in our sport. 
    "It wasn't because he sought the spotlight either, but because he was genuine and real. He was someone that people wanted to gravitate to, even if for only a moment. 
    "He was a great friend to Talladega, dating back to before his time as our public relations director. Our thoughts are with our friends at Darlington Raceway, where Jim spent much of his career strengthening the bond between track and community. 
    "It's because of those experiences I know he'd want us to put our best foot forward and provide a great experience for our fans this weekend. It's going to be with incredibly heavy hearts that we move forward, but I know it's what Jim would want and expect.
   "Our deepest sympathies go out to his wife Ann, his son Scott, daughter Amy and the entire NASCAR community as we all cope with the loss of a great man."
   Tony Stewart says Jim Hunter was "one of my biggest influences," during his struggles to make it in this sport, and the two-time Cup champion called him "irreplaceable," and said it was sad now that "his knowledge and experience will no longer be available to other young drivers as they enter the sport.
   "There's no playbook or manual when you eventually reach this level, and understanding all the things that come along with being a driver in NASCAR can be overwhelming. At least it was for me when I first got here.
    "Jim became a great friend to me because he helped me understand why things were the way they were and how I could better handle situations."
    Indeed, Jim Hunter had a bit of that Clint Eastwood-Harry Callahan in him, had to – because Hunter was the man invariably called upon to deal with whatever crisis had suddenly erupted. And Hunter did it smooth aplomb, and a good sense of humor, whether it was dealing with a recalcitrant Tony Stewart or swapping his pants for a female reporter's dress that day when she discovered she couldn't get in the NASCAR garage without proper attire.
   Those of us lucky enough to have known Jim Hunter have so many ways to describe him: the 'old school' guy who was always approachable, a great listener and friend and confidante, with a quick smile and down-home approach to life, a man who knew just about everyone in the world it seemed, a man who had the uncanny knack of resolving or defusing even the most difficult issues.
    A lot of what we all know as NASCAR today was created or deftly massaged by Jim Hunter, in that Bill France Jr. sort of way.


    Jake Elder: It's been a tough season....February 24th (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Men around the sport have been quick to pay tribute. 
   Matt Becherer, who runs Homestead-Miami Speedway, was right on the mark: "Jim Hunter personified NASCAR to a greater extent than anyone I have met in the sport.
  "Going to work for Jim at Darlington was almost like pursuing a college degree in NASCAR—there was everything to learn from him as a promoter. 
   "He was a pillar of the industry who achieved his great success through a passion for racing and a genuinely inviting style that set the bar for anyone who ever has walked the garages.
   "We're so fortunate to have had the opportunity to know Jim and to learn from him, and we'll miss him dearly."
   Charlotte's Humpy Wheeler, who knew the real Jim Hunter perhaps better than just about anyone else in the sport today, from their days as football teammates at the University of South Carolina, through some 50 years of work as teammates in NASCAR: "Jim Hunter will be sorely missed, because he knew more about pure media relations and particularly how it relates to the fan than anyone in motor racing.
    "He was best in crisis, always giving sage advice behind the scene.
   "He also knew when to interject humor when everyone was ready to crack.
    "There is no doubt that he stands as one of the best PR practitioners not only in racing but in sport. I will miss calling upon him for advice, for it was always the best and most practical."
   Kansas Speedway's Jeff Boerger: "I am saddened by the news of the passing of Jim Hunter. He was an icon in the sport of NASCAR starting with his days as a sportswriter and most recently heading up NASCAR’s public relations efforts.
   "Hunter was always quick to share his sharp wit and genuine smile along with his perceptive advice. He helped bring the history of NASCAR to life and his presence will be missed."
   NASCAR boss Brian France called Hunter "one of NASCAR's giants.
   "For more than 40 years Jim was part of NASCAR and its history. He loved the sport, but loved the people even more. It seems as if everyone in the sport called him a friend. Jim will forever be missed by the NASCAR community."
    NASCAR president Mike Helton was right on when he said "Jim was a uniquely talented man that cannot be replaced.
   "He was a great friend and mentor to so many in the sport. His influence will remain with and be carried on by so many of the people he touched."

  Jim Hunter (R) gets a laugh at Brian France's persuasive editing tactics (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Watkins Glen's Michael Printup, who certainly needed Hunter's support and encouragement during those years Printup was battling to establish a NASCAR track on New York City's Staten Island: "Jim Hunter was a great friend and mentor to me and I will truly miss him. 
   "He was always willing to take the time to provide strong encouragement when I was in Staten Island, and I will always remember the great advice he gave me over the years.  We have lost a leader, a friend, and a wonderful person."
   While Hunter played key roles in so many NASCAR ventures over the years, his work at Darlington Raceway is one of the best known.  That vintage track was struggling when he took over, and he helped resurrect it.
    Chris Browning, who now runs the South Carolina track, called Hunter "one of the most charismatic people in NASCAR.
   "I always enjoyed seeing Hunter at the track...and particularly enjoyed his participation in our 2009 historic racing festival. It was great seeing Jim joke and swap old stories with some of the true pioneers of NASCAR.
    "Everyone at Darlington Raceway will certainly miss Jim's smile, stories and laugh."
     David Beasley, the former South Carolina governor, and Darlington native, worked closely with Hunter during their years together there: "Jim Hunter is going to be missed. I don't know of anyone who loved God, his family, NASCAR, his hometown Darlington, his state and country more.
    "He taught me you only go around the track of life once, so give it your best."

    California's Gillian Zucker (R), with the late Les Richter, NASCAR's legendary West Coast promotion man...June 12th (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    California's Gillian Zucker, who runs the sport's Los Angeles track, called Jim Hunter "the epitome of all that is meaningful about NASCAR. 
   "He set a standard for professionalism in the garage and in life. 
   "We will miss him as an ambassador of our sport, but more importantly, I personally will miss him as a friend, a role model and my go-to guy on how to deal with the really hard problems. 
    "No one knew the drivers, the fans or the sport like Jim. To say he will be missed does not even begin to describe our loss." 
    Richmond's Doug Fritz: "Losing a personal friend and mentor is never easy...but the sport of NASCAR is better today because of Jim Hunter.
   "From the very first day I met Jim, more than 20 years ago, he was always there for me any time I needed advice. We have lost a great man."
   Daytona's Joie Chitwood:  "I am saddened by the news of the passing of Jim Hunter. Jim was a pioneer and a builder of the sport of NASCAR.
   "From his days as a sportswriter to most recently serving as track president at Darlington Raceway and heading up the NASCAR public relations team, Jim poured his heart and soul into the sport he loved so dearly. His presence in media centers across the country will be sorely missed."
    On a personal note, when I had just left the Winston-Salem Journal two years ago to start my own business mikemulhern.net, and didn't know if this thing would make it, Hunter was right there to support me....and even to say he was "proud" to support me in this venture.
   Well, Jimbo, I'm proud to have known you. I'm proud to have had you as a friend. You made me a better man.
   Here's looking at you, kid...

   Jim Hunter: October 29th (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Very well put. It was good to

Very well put. It was good to know that old school Jim was around. He is the last of the old guard in NASCAR. No offense, but a Washington, DC public relations guy is NOT what NASCAR needs. Jim was at the track - in the garage like Bill France Jr. was.

This creates another deep void in the troubled times of NASCAR.

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