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Jim Hunter, Friend Of NASCAR Fans, Passes On

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 30 2010

NASCAR vice president of communications Jim Hunter died Friday evening in Florida. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Back in the day, it made editors very uncomfortable when their writers asked them if they could write something about the media or another media member. Journalists should just not write about journalists was the unwritten, though highly malleable, rule.

Over the next couple days, however, a lot of racing journalists are going to be writing about Jim Hunter, a former journalist and, until his death Friday evening, the NASCAR vice president of corporate communications.

I am writing about him right here and right now because while technically his job was to work with the media on behalf of the series, he was the best friend that stock-car racing fans never knew.

Hunter fought ceaselessly for fans over the years. In recent years, he fought for them in places where many around him were more interested in fighting for increased profits. I know that his fight got increasingly lonely in recent years but fight on he did.

That is what the racing public needs to know about Hunter.

Here is a thing or two about the less important and admittedly self-indulgent part of the Hunter story; the personal part of it, though it does show the man’s concern about whoever might be reading this auto-racing website right now.

On my first trip to Darlington as a reporter, my primary assignment was to do a piece on the

Jim Hunter gives straight answers – or tells off-color joke – to RacinToday's Jim Pedley, center, and Terry Blount of ESPN.com at some press room, some where. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Southern 500 for my daily newspaper. You know, the history, the importance, the people. What I wanted most was anecdotes; good stories about all of the above from eye witnesses.

I turned to old friend Ed Hinton, a legendary Southern-boy journalist who had worked at the Atlanta daily, Sports Illustrated and was at that point writing for the Chicago Tribune chain of papers, who was sitting next to me in a hot, crowded, noisy, smelly media room (they not only allowed smoking in those place in those days, they encouraged it with free cartons of cigarettes sitting at each desk) which was full of people I did not know.

Hinton pointed his finger at a casual looking guy who was sitting in the center of a group of reporters and loudly holding court.

That’s Jim Hunter, Hinton said. Track president of Darlington. Forget all the question you were going to ask. He’ll write your story for ya.

I cautiously approached him after court was adjourned (well, as he moved to the next group of reporters) and introduced myself.

Just like that I not only had a good story, a valued source, but I had a lifelong friend.

I discovered that NASCAR fans also had a friend in Hunter as well several years later. It was after the death of Dale Earnhardt. A press conference was called in Atlanta. At that press conference in a ballroom at a fancy downtown hotel, NASCAR officials, safety officials and medical people would release their findings into the death.

Some in the media did not know how much we would learn. How much truth we would be issued.

See NASCAR back in those days had a public info staff which was very courteous, very hard working, very sincere but very hamstrung by a series which was ruled over by very strong people.

Simple questions on important topics had to be run up and down chains of command before answers were issued. Along the way, those answers underwent massive cleaning.

After the main part of the press conference in Atlanta ended, and ended with a lot of tough questions still not answered, reporters were shown to a room set aside as a working media center for those who were filing live off the event.

Many of us were grumbling.

But in that media room was Hunter. He planted himself there and took all questions. Most importantly he gave out immediate answers. There was no: Well, I can’t answer that. I will check and get back to you.

NASCAR, finally and gratefully, had a person on site who had the power to answer tough media questions.

I am told that he took that job only on condition that he could speak for NASCAR and Bill France Jr., who was long time friend of Hunter and was also still in charge of the sport.

And that was the way it had been ever since. Got an important question, Hunter would answer it.

He understood the importance of getting answers out to fans. He understood the importance of fans.

Hunter, in his omnipresent baseball cap and spikeless golf shoes, never lied to me. He did not – could not – always answer certain questions. Not on the record. But on the record and off, he never lied or misled me. That, in my opinion, is the best thing that somebody can say about a PR official.

Over the next couple days, those fans are going to hear a whole lot about Jim Hunter. They are going to hear stories and testimonials and how much the guy meant to the writers of those things.

Other than to say that Jim Hunter meant more to me and my career and my views on the sport of stock-car racing than any other human being with whom I have crossed paths in 35 years as a sports writer, I plan to keep personal moments (and there are some treasured ones) to myself.

I just want say here that Jim Hunter, dead at 71 after a year-long battle with cancer, was the best friend race fans ever had but never knew.

Farewell, old friend.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 30 2010
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