The passing of long-time NASCAR official Jim Hunter is more than the sad loss of a family man who spent his life contributing to the world of racing. It's also the the end of an era to be sure.
Hunter (no one who knew him well called him Jim) was as Old School as they come, a former sports writer who moved into the PR and track management game at his beloved Darlington Raceway before heading up NASCAR's public relations efforts for years. With Hunter it was all about the relationship - between drivers, media, track presidents, PR reps hell even maintenance people. A smile, a handshake, a pat on the back, a dirty joke or two and a smile was how Hunter got the job done. And he did it in a way that will be sorely missed in today's very non-personal age of iPhones, Blackberries and Twitter.
The official obituary documents all of Hunter's achievements in his long storied career. His six decades in the sport, countless journalism awards and accolades for his time as a newspaper reporter and author, the accomplishments in the managerial portion of his career at Darlington and with NASCAR. If there was an honor to be given working at any level of the sport, Hunter earned it.
But it was Hunter's style and low-key demeanor that will be remembered most from those who were fortunate to be personally touched by the man.
He sounded like one part Foghorn Leghorn and two parts the KFC Colonel with his deep Southern twang, which was most of the time delivered in a soft spoken manner but one that when it was needed got the point across. He was often assigned to be NASCAR's spokesperson and explain policy changes, rules interpretations or penalties assessed and did so in a conversational and effective manner.
Over the years Hunter helped countless people inside the industry get their starts in the business of NASCAR, public relations and journalism and he seemed very pleased being able to mentor not just younger people but even those with experience.
There are no doubt thousands of stories of how Hunter helped individuals over the years and yes, I have one as well.
My first job that actually paid me to go to the race track came back when while still a student at Northern Illinois University I was hired as track announcer and public relations director at Rockford Speedway, the legendary short track in the northwest corner of Illinois. Twice a week I'd go to the track and announce the Wednesday and Saturday night shows on the track's PA system while also writing race story summaries and pre-race press releases for local media as well as the then myriad of weekly racing trade papers.
Simply put it was a dream come true for a kid who grew up in the sport.
Rockford was and still is a part of NASCAR's Weekly Racing Series, an umbrella program that in its hey day had more than 100 local tracks under its sanction with drivers eligible for a national points fund. Hunter, then NASCAR's Vice President of Administration, oversaw that program as well as many other things on his plate in those days.
I had the opportunity to meet him on one of his trips to check things out at Rockford and we hit it off, thanks in no small part to my uncle "Tiger" Tom Pistone's tenure in NASCAR back in the 1950s and 60s, whose sometimes colorful exploits were covered and shared by Hunter in his previous role as a sportswriter.
One thing led to another and after about a year when my education was complete, I got a call from Daytona Beach with Hunter on the other end of the line asking if I'd be interested in working for NASCAR, while still keeping my Rockford responsibilities. I was offered the media relations director position for what was known as the Busch All-Star Tour, a dirt late model series sanctioned by NASCAR that ran about 16 races throughout the Midwest.
The answer was of course emphatically yes and I began an adventure that led me to meet people and experience things that until then I could only have imagined. A guy by the name of John Darby, today's Sprint Cup Series Director, was the head tech guy of the tour, and I spent three summers working together, traveling around the country and learning about the sport in a way like no other.
Along the way there was Hunter, showing up unannounced at races, offering his advice and counsel, stressing he was only a phone call away and helping shape a career that today continues to be blessed.
There are thousands of others who no doubt have a similar tale to tell.
His adoring family and the legion of those who were touched by his intelligence and kindness are his legacy.