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Sturbin: Hunter Back On The Beat

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 5 2010
Jim Hunter is back to where he has spent most of his life – the media rooms at NASCAR race tracks. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Jim Hunter is back to the places where he has spent most of his life – the media rooms at NASCAR race tracks. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Fort Worth, Texas – He wasn’t listed among the special guest speakers taking the ballroom stage during Texas Motor Speedway’s annual Media Day, the sort of corporate function Jim Hunter has fronted seemingly forever.

Hunter’s official NASCAR title is vice president of corporate communications, an all-encompassing job description that for media members includes everything from formal news conference presentations to informal golf-cart chats. A former newspaper sports writer, Hunter is a beat writer’s best friend, often surfacing in stories as a “NASCAR source” – the guy with the background information critical to the news du jour.

Jim is also a former president of Darlington Raceway – his beloved home track.  As such, Hunter is an advocate of the estimated gazillion fans who populate NASCAR Nation.

But on Monday, and every day since Oct. 31, 2009, Jim is another friend fighting some form of cancer.

“I have small-cell lung cancer in the upper right lung,” Hunter repeated at The Speedway Club, where he had accompanied NASCAR president Mike Helton on the way home from a weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “And everybody assumes it’s because I’ve smoked for 58 years. However – and this is my story and I’m sticking to it – I think it was the preservatives they put in food, and not tobacco.”

We shared a laugh, and Jim added, “No, I’m doing good. I feel good. I’m looking at 2010 with an attitude of gratitude because so many people have sent me emails and asked about me. This is truly a caring industry. It’s been amazing.”

Hunter was strong enough to attend the latter portion of Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway last month, and made the cross-country jaunt with “Big Mike” to Vegas. The illness had forced Jim to miss the 2009 season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November and the relocated NASCAR Awards Banquet in Vegas in December for the first time since the mid-1970s.

Friday looms as another landmark day for Jim over at Twin Lakes Imaging Center in Daytona Beach. “I’m going for a PET (positron emission tomography) scan – that’s when they run dye through your system and find out whether the tumor is gone or in remission or whatever,” said Hunter, recalling how this journey began at Talladega Superspeedway last fall.

“I was there for the race,” Hunter said. “We had scheduled a funky Halloween party for Saturday night before the race. And Saturday morning I woke up and my face and arm were swollen, big-time. I went to the emergency room and I had a blood clot in my neck. And within two hours I was diagnosed with lung cancer. So they take me in the hospital, put me to sleep, took a biopsy on Monday…and it was malignant. And they gave me my first chemo treatment on Tuesday. So I had chemo Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and flew back to Daytona.”

Hunter said his chemo regimen was comprised of four, three-day sessions. “Halfway through it, my doctor (oncologist Richard Weiss) had me take X-rays and it had reduced 60 percent,” Hunter said of the tumor. “It was pretty sizeable and inoperable. It was inside the lung and they could have taken the lung out, I guess. But I never had any pain. Never. And I had had a full physical about two-and-a-half months before this and there was no sign of the cancer. Really weird. But it was a godsend having the blood clot.

“And then when I finished the chemo…boy, I wouldn’t wish chemo on anybody. I’ve got a pretty good threshold for discomfort and I’ll tell you what, even with the medicine they have today, like for nausea, chemo is bad. My wife thought it was funny. This was during the chemo. I said ‘Ann, I don’t know how old people handle this chemo stuff. It’s terrible.’ She said, ‘Jimmy. You are old.’ And I said…’I am not!’ Ann has been great. We’ve been married 48 years. She’s been there the whole time.” Jim’s daughter, Amy, lives in Atlanta. Son Scott and family reside in Charlotte, N.C.

The Hunters have discovered that 30 days of radiation treatment generate after-effects beyond hair-loss. “I’m just now…funny what it does to your appetite,” Hunter said. “All the things I used to like to eat – like hot dogs, grilled cheese, sandwiches like we had today – I can’t eat bread for some strange reason. But I feel really good. I lost about 30 pounds. And I’ve had great medical care – the same doctors that worked on Bill France Jr.

“My doctor (Weiss) is a great guy, an outstanding oncologist. And you might know, a big fan of racing – horse racing. Go figure. I talk about cars and he talks about horses.”

Recall that Hunter’s mentor, William Clifton France Jr., courageously battled lung cancer from 1999 until his death in June 2007 at age 74. Bill Jr. guided the sport through an unprecedented growth cycle that included the addition of TMS to the Sprint Cup schedule for the 1997 season.

Fast-forward to the Friday morning of March 28, 2003, opening day of the Samsung/RadioShack 500 weekend. Walking into the infield media center at the start of the day, I crossed paths with Jim and a couple of colleagues. Instead of his usual smile and some off-color remark, Jim was in full corporate mode.

“If I were you,” Hunter said, “I’d get my ass over to the NASCAR Trailer right now. There’s something there you need to see. We’ll be talking about it in here soon.” End of exchange.

Over at the hauler – and on full “trophy” display – was the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet driven by Tony Stewart. The car had failed pre-practice inspection, its rear window and deck twisted beyond acceptable NASCAR specifications. It was sitting there as a warning to every crew chief in the garage area not already named Greg Zipadelli. During a subsequent – and quite tense – news conference fronted by Hunter, Helton explained that the car had been impounded for the weekend and would be shipped to the NASCAR Research & Development Center for a total dismantling.

With that, another newsy weekend was off-and-running…thanks to a timely tip from Jim. Name the crisis involving NASCAR, TMS founder O. Bruton Smith and president Eddie Gossage, and Jim always found a way to smooth it over with an upbeat demeanor that continues to serve in this personal ordeal.

“I’ve had a great attitude. Still do,” Jim said. “I look at it like there’s no sense in whinin’…you might as well face it and move on. I’ve had great support from family. They kid me. My daughter sent me a hat, and it cracked me up. It had big letters – CCKMA. And then in real tiny letters down at the bottom it says, “Cancer Can Kiss My Ass.” And I wore that to chemo treatment.

“I’m 70. And being a smoker, I always knew there was a possibility (of cancer) and it didn’t surprise me a bit. People at the hospital say, ‘How can you be so calm? And joking around?’ I said, ‘Look, there’s nothing else I can do. I’ve got to do whatever the doctors tell me and try to whip this.’ Sooner or later, all of us are going to die. That’s just the way it is. It’s too late for me to worry about it.

“And I’m not going to say, ‘I wish I hadn’t (smoked).’ Because I enjoyed every damned cigarette I ever smoked. I really did.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 5 2010
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