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Jim Hunter dies at 71

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010

Jim Hunter, the former president of Darlington (S.C.) Raceway who most recently served as NASCAR’s vice president of special projects, died Friday night in Daytona Beach, Fla., after a lengthy battle with cancer.

He was 71.

While a mainstay in the sport, in recent years Hunter had become a familiar face to most race fans.

"Jim Hunter was one of NASCAR's giants," said NASCAR chairman Brian France. "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."

He was often the NASCAR spokesman assigned to explain the sanctioning body’s rule changes and penalties in news conferences and never missed a chance to reflect on the sport’s history or his beloved Darlington Raceway.

“You know I wouldn’t want Jim’s job. He’s been thrown into media centers at some of the worst times in the world and I’ve been in the middle of some of them,” said team owner Rick Hendrick.

“He always, in the toughest situations, Jim always handled things with class. He always tried to be factual and to the point and not overdramatize things.

“But he also has never been afraid to walk in, step up and give NASCAR’s side.”

As a close friend and confidant to former NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr., Hunter played a large – if sometimes hidden – role in many of NASCAR’s biggest moments. "Jim was a uniquely talented man that cannot be replaced," NASCAR President Mike Helton said.

"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. This is a sad day for Jim's family and his extended, NASCAR family."

"He not only helped bring the sport of NASCAR to a national level, he also had a profound influence on the lives of everyone he met," said Lesa France Kennedy, CEO of International Speedway Corp.

"His charm, sharp wit and incredible sense of humor will be remembered by everyone who had the pleasure of meeting him. We'll also greatly miss his warm smile and sage advice."

Hunter's influence will likely be felt for years to come.

“I don’t know if there is anything Jim Hunter hasn’t done in this sport, short of driving a car,” said Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“The thing about Jim is you hear people use the term ‘he gets it,’ and I don’t think it fits anybody more than Jim Hunter about every aspect of this sport. He ‘gets it’ from everybody’s perspective and that’s the thing he always tried to recognize, appreciate and advance.”

Kelley said Hunter became a trusted “go-to guy” when the sport’s history was being assembled for display throughout the Hall.

“He didn’t just get it, he lived it,” Kelley said.

In April, 2004, Hunter was given the new title of vice president of corporate communications/regional series where, in addition to overseeing NASCAR’s overall public relations efforts, he spearheaded NASCAR’s commitment to grassroots racing.

Prior to joining NASCAR’s main office in 2001, he served as vice president of ISC and as regional director of the company’s Atlantic Division, overseeing Darlington Raceway, North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, and Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.

As a South Carolina native and former football player with the University of South Carolina, Hunter’s role as president of Darlington Raceway from 1993 to 2001 may have remained closest to his heart.

Longtime promoter Humpy Wheeler was a teammates of Hunter's on the USC football team.

"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," Wheeler said.

"He was best in crisis, always giving sage advice behind the scenes. 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," Wheeler said. "I will miss calling upon him for advice for it was always the best and most practical."

Hunter got his formal start in motorsports in 1968 as public relations director at the Darlington track, where he worked for two years before joining the staff of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1970.

Hunter was sports editor for The State in Columbia, S.C. and a writer in Atlanta. He also wrote books on stock car racing, Gamecocks football and youth league football.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

Hunter is survived by his wife of 48 years, Ann Hunter; his children, Scott Hunter and Amy McKernan; and his grandchildren, Dakota Hunter, and Hunter and Luke McKernan.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the NASCAR Foundation, NASCAR Plaza, 550 S. Caldwell St., Suite 200, Charlotte, NC 28202; or Hospice of Volusia/Flagler County, 3800 Woodbriar Trail, Port Orange, FL 32129.

The Associated Press contributed.

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