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S.C. hall inductee Hunter: 'He was Darlington'

Jim Hunter's honesty at the track and his vision at Darlington still resonates in the sport

- Special to The (Columbia, S.C.) State
Monday, May. 14, 2012

He was loyal and compassionate and tough, a teacher and counselor and promoter, one of the rare who influenced so many in a positive way.

Those words describe the late Jim Hunter, who, yes, in his younger days, walked on the wild side, too.

But more than nouns or adjectives or verbs can say, he was Darlington.

Yes, that Darlington, the race track that annually stages one of the state's oldest and most captivating sports spectacles.

The timing is perfect: Another Southern 500, this one the first sponsored by Bojangles', unfolded Saturday night at Darlington -- Jim Hunter's Darlington -- and 48 hours later he will be among the inductees into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in ceremonies Monday night.

The two are entwined; if Jim Hunter had not come along at the pivotal point in the raceway's history, stock-car racing's first super-speedway -- which staged the first Southern 500 in 1950 -- would almost certainly be gone with the wind.

But like the cavalry in a John Wayne western, Hunter rode to the rescue of the track he fell in love with while listen to radio reports of races at his boyhood home in North Charleston.

Put it this way, said Mac Josey, the track's vice-president and general manager: "Jim gave this place a second chance on life. He was the key to keeping the track open. We wouldn't be here (on race weekend) without him."

His track-saving work represents only the tip of his contributions to the racing world, said NASCAR vice-president of competition Robin Pemberton, who noted, "There's not a life in the garage that he has not touched."

Those "touches" could be one-on-one sessions or the trickle-down result of conversations with others, but he always delivered the message in his special way to young and old alike.

"I'm sure he took established people under his wing and told them what they needed to know in his way that wouldn't hurt their feelings but was what they needed to hear," car owner Jack Roush said. "When I came into NASCAR in 1988 as an outsider -- not only an outsider but as a Yankee -- he mentored me and counseled me and established boundaries for me."

Ask the racing fraternity about Hunter, who died from cancer in 2010, and stories such as Roush's -- and some stories best left untold -- abound. Driver Kevin Harvick would say Hunter rescued his career. Tony Stewart could remember Hunter's guidance in his early feuds with the hierarchy.

Or, there is this endorsement from Hall of Fame driver-television announcer Darrell Waltrip: "If there was a Mount Rushmore of NASCAR legends, he'd be one of them."

"He could be tough -- tough but fair," said Josey, who has been at Darlington Raceway since 1990 and soaked up knowledge during Hunter's Darlington days 1993-2001. "He made me think; he taught me how to think. By that, I mean he taught me how to think analytically as a business person.

Hunter's career included stops at Columbia and Atlanta newspapers, public relations director for Darlington and Talladega speedway and in NASCAR administration before the International Speedway Corporation sent him to oversee the company's new purchase, Darlington Raceway.

"It's what Bill (France) saw that said, 'All right, we've got to figure out what we're going to do with Darlington and Hunter, you're the best guy to go up there and figure it out,'" NASCAR president Mike Helton said.

What Hunter found in 1993, Josey remembered, was a facility badly in need of upgrading. Despite inflated attendance estimates from races, Darlington seated about 30,000 at the time, and some damage from Hurricane Hugo (1989) had not been repaired.

"Darlington was down, and racing was growing by leaps and bounds at the time," Josey said. "Jim found ways for us to not only catch up but also be to more competitive with other tracks as the sport grew. He was a wonderful promoter, always thinking of ways to sell tickets and spreading the word about Darlington and the raceway, whether it was at the Dairy Bar downtown for lunch or if he were traveling halfway across the country."

Today, the track seats 60,000 with most of the additions coming during Hunter's tenure.

He was a master in getting publicity, and Josey laughed at some of the memories -- everything from having Darrell Waltrip jump out of a birthday cake to having Dale Jarrett climb out of an armored car to arriving at a news conference with David Pearson in the bucket of a bucket truck.

Said Hall of Fame driver Cale Yarborough: "He did more for this race track than everyone else put together."

Eventually, the racing powers needed Hunter more at headquarters than at one race track and brought him to Daytona Beach as vice-president for communications. Essentially, he became the face of NASCAR.

"We were in a situation that we could use someone of Hunter's talent and ability and character and experience to help us on the communications side, because everyone in the industry knew him," Helton said. "We had been leaning on him part-time from (Darlington), and this came very near of the (2000-01) stretch where we had (deaths of) Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Dale Earnhardt."

NASCAR capitalized on what Waltrip called Hunter's wisdom and knowledge and integrity.

"He was a friend of everybody, and he would call you off to the side and have a conversation with you," Waltrip said. "He would give you some pointers that were pretty pungent. He didn't pull any punches. ... Everybody trusted him because we knew he wouldn't (soften the blow). Bill and Bill Jr. (the Frances) trusted him, and he had the big overview of everything -- how things fit in and how you fit in the big picture."

Conversations such as those steered Harvick in times of crisis. "I always felt like if there was anything wrong, I could go and talk to Jim, and usually when I did something wrong, he was the first to tell me," Harvick said at the time of Hunter's death. "... If it weren't for him, there's a good possibility I wouldn't be where I am today."

The story is similar for Stewart, the 2011 champion who said, "When he said something to me, I knew it was coming from a place of experience."

Hunter talked to Roush about the importance of being open and honest with the media, and the car owner said, "That's how he helped me the most. Where I came from, there was a reluctance to be open to the media, and he wanted to make sure I didn't make myself more of an outsider."

Hunter knew everyone, and Roush said, "That proved helpful when our rookie drivers would get themselves in trouble with the local constabulary."

What made Jim Hunter tick?

"I've often wondered," Helton said. "It boils down to his personality and style. He was an athlete (football and baseball at USC), so he understood the perspective from that standpoint. He was also a heckuva story-teller. ... His personality was such that he was just a guy you liked to hang out with.

"He always had a unique perspective on things. That not only made him likeable but also valuable in offering perspective. It's just a combination of that chemistry."

His passion for racing was obvious, and he carried that same passion to the golf course.

"I often wondered which was his hobby," Pemberton said. "The best jobs are the ones you do for the love of the job, so he should have been a golf pro, too."

But being on the golf course with Hunter did not always lead to the game's expected decorum.

"I had great times golfing with him, and I had never been heckled so much on the golf course until I played with him," said Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champion who won Saturday's race. "They guy would wish my ball into the water and sand traps -- and that was a lot of fun."

Johnson said that Hunter "meant the world to me personally and professionally" and added, "I couldn't help but think about him on the way (to Darlington)."

Of course he did. Everyone in the racing community did. After all, he was Darlington.

Reporter Andrew Shain contributed to this report.


S.C. ATHLETIC HALL OF FAME

WHEN: Monday, 5:30 p.m.

WHERE: Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center

INDUCTEES: Bill Wilhelm, Hootie Johnson, Dale Davis, Stephen Davis, Jim Hunter, Evelyn Jordan, June Raines and Duce Staley

MORE INFO: (803) 779-0905, SouthCarolinaAthleticHallOfFame.org

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