There is a poster on the wall behind me from the night we first turned on the lights at Darlington, signed by David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Jeff Gordon. Over there next to the printer sits a chunk of old asphalt from the repaving project. And somewhere around here I have a photo of Tony Stewart sitting in my office in the media center at the first Mother’s Day weekend race, eating Target-brand cashews out of the jar while waiting to be interviewed by ESPN.
The fourth and final item has looked over my shoulder from the top shelf of the bookcase for a number of years. But today I need some more direct help, so he has moved over to the desk. I am sitting nose to nose with the Jim Hunter bobblehead doll that, just like the real-life man he represents, has his eye on what I am doing, but is making me do it on my own.
Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people have offered their condolences and their memories of Hunter on the Internet since his death on October 29, almost a year to the day after he was diagnosed with cancer. The same words keep popping up over and over in these posts, words like humor and honesty, mentor and friend.
Jim’s life and career will make a great book someday. His list of accomplishments, honors and achievements would probably stretch all the way around Richmond, a track of which he was tremendously fond.
By the time I met him in 1994, he had landed in the president’s office at Darlington Raceway, his favorite track, the place where he covered his first NASCAR event for the Columbia Record, and the place where he held his first ‘real’ NASCAR job, serving as the director of public relations in the late 1960s. I was the editor of Darlington’s hometown newspaper, a job for which I was uniquely unqualified and which scared me to pieces most of the time.
Jim was a friend to all sorts of people -- ‘fair’ is another word that described him -- and although I don’t know exactly why or how it happened, he decided to include me in that group. He liked to talk about the publishing business, always willing to admit with a laugh that no matter how hard NASCAR tried, it was never able to beat the old reporter out of him. I learned a lot from listening to his stories. I was so generally ignorant of the world of newspapers back then that basically I just felt honored he wanted to talk to me at all.
Sixteen years later, we were still talking. And I still felt honored.
When Darlington Raceway had an office to fill, the writer-turned-PR guy turned another writer into a PR person, hiring me for yet another job I knew next to nothing about. Recently I was listening to an interview Hunter did as part of the “Speedway Legends” series on NASCAR Radio, where Jim commented that one of the things he enjoyed most was taking young people and helping them find what they were good at doing, and then helping them find a way to do it. I guess I was one of those people, trotting along in the footsteps of Jim Hunter. Although I never looked that great in golf shoes.
Jim’s idea of ‘helping’ often involved giving you something to do, then sitting back and watching you do it, even when he could clearly see you were making a total mess of things. As you despairingly surveyed the ensuing carnage, he would call you into his office, look at you over his glasses -- you never wanted that to happen, by the way -- and tell you what went wrong and how to fix it.
Early in the week of my first race after starting my job at Darlington, I had a mini-meltdown in the hallway outside Jim’s office. OK, to be honest, it was more of a major hissy fit.
Anyway, Jim called me in there, looked at me over the glasses, and said, “You need to understand something. No matter how badly you screw up, there will still be a race at Darlington on Sunday afternoon. Get over yourself; you are not the center of the universe here.”
That laser-beam directness of his was often quite uncomfortable to experience, but those doses of honesty always made you better in the long run. He was blunt, but he was right.
Jim had a fierce work ethic. He was always the first one in the office each morning, knocking back a gallon or so of the sludge he called coffee and challenging all of us to find some way to make Darlington better that day, and not to even consider going home until we had done it.
He accomplished so much, was so successful and well-respected, that it would be natural to assume he would develop an ego the size of Talladega, another of his favorite places.
But this one story -- my favorite -- offers a look at the kind of self-deprecating guy he really was. I believe the thing I will remember most about Jim was his sense of fun.
We used to book regular appearances for Jim on the John Boy and Billy radio program, which was syndicated just about everywhere you could think of, and whose listenership included a huge number of NASCAR fans.
Jim was always very engaging on the radio, trading joke for joke with the gregarious hosts, who one day, at the end of a particularly important interview, went on and on about what a pleasure it was to have “our good pal Jim Turner” on the show.
Jim Turner? Uh-oh. In NASCAR terms, this was the rough equivalent of referring to Tom Hanks as Tom Hicks or something like that, a disaster of epic proportions. How could we possibly do damage control on this?
But Hunter found the whole thing hilarious.
Invoking one of his favorite phrases, about the importance of being able to make chicken salad out of another, much less appetizing thing commonly associated with chicken, he enthusiastically embraced his new alter ego.
Jim approached his work with NASCAR in the same manner by which he lived his personal life. He helped us when we needed it, taught us a thing or two -- or 50 -- when it was warranted, was honest even when the truth wasn’t easy to hear, and outworked us all.
He was always, always ready to laugh.
While he interacted with an untold number of people, and had some type of impact on each one, the truth is that individually, we may not have meant all that much in the wide-open, live-it-like-you-stole-it world of Jim Hunter.
But I believe I speak for a lot of people when I say that collectively, Jim Hunter meant the world to us.
Cathy Elliott is a former P.R. representative for Darlington Raceway who currently covers NASCAR as a freelance writer.