NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth was lounging in his motor coach at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway last Saturday morning when he received news that hit him like a punch to the gut: Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications and the sport's most important behind-the-scenes figure, had died the night before at age 71. "Jim was the guy drivers talk to when we have problems," says Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion. "He was the last link to the old days. There will never be another one like him."
No, there won't. Always strolling through the garage area in his golf shoes (that sport was his passion) and wearing a yellow cap with the number 48 in honor of the year NASCAR was founded, Hunter, who died of lung cancer, played many roles for NASCAR. To reporters he was a history teacher who relished spinning yarns on topics ranging from Dale Earnhardt's ferocity to historic deals written up on the back of napkins. To drivers he was a peacemaker—no one could defuse a feud faster—and often a father figure. "If it wasn't for Jim Hunter," says driver Kevin Harvick, "I probably would have run myself out of the sport."
A longtime sports journalist with the Columbia (S.C.) Record and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who also served as president of Darlington Raceway, Hunter first joined NASCAR in 1983. More than anyone, he shaped NASCAR's image during its boom in popularity in the early 2000s.
In 2004 Hunter pulled me aside at Daytona. It was my first year on the beat, and he spent hours explaining the nuances of NASCAR and why he so loved the common-man nature of the sport. "There are a lot of fine people in NASCAR," he said, "and most of them know what a good bologna sandwich tastes like." Hunter, without question, was one of them.
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MARSH STARKS/ICON SMI (HUNTER)
FACE OF THE SPORT For nearly 30 years, Hunter's trademark cap and ever-ready smile buoyed drivers and journalists alike.