Celebrating Jim Hunter
Impact on short-track racing carries on in lives he touched
October 30, 2010 - Jim Hunter's influence was felt throughout NASCAR, from the Sprint Cup drivers he counseled and the media he befriended. His biggest footprint was felt in the short-tracks, which held a special place in his heart. He always called them the foundation on which NASCAR was built, and was always quick to remind people that this sport owed its existance to the local tracks, drivers and fans, and their passion.
Following are a small sample of the stories from those whose lives he touched and the legacy he created.
"My first or many great memories of Jim Hunter is one of the first times I met him. It was at Stafford Springs in a Spring Sizzler in 1982. I had cut down three tires that day and got a little excited and was eventually told to pit by NASCAR. I was getting out of my car and Jim walked out of the old scoring stand and I thought waved me back out to the race as the fans were going crazy that I told to pull by NASCAR. So I went back out and raced and finished in the top five. The series official was all mad at me and I looked at Jim and said I thought you waved me back out. He said 'oh I was just waving at you' and winked. I never got that fine letter in the mail. Jim knew what NASCAR needed and how to handle things. There will never be another one like him."
- Jimmy Spencer Former NASCAR competitor and SPEED personality who started his NASCAR Touring career in the Whelen Modified Tour.
"You always knew where you stood with Jim. On one occasion, I remember having a disagreement with Jim and the conversation got a little heated. He paused, and in a calm and collected voice simply said, let's start over. The issue was easily resolved.
"When Jim left Daytona, to became the President of Darlington Raceway, we stayed in contact and talked from time to time. In one conversation I mentioned it would be nice to have Darlington as a sponsor of the Modified drivers at Bowman Gray Stadium. Jim quickly said let's do it and began offering an annual cash driver award that stayed in place for years.
"Jim was a class act , a wonderful person and a tremendous friend to NASCAR Whelen All American Series tracks. He will be greatly missed. Our prayers are with Ann and the rest of his family."
- Dale R. Pinilis, Bowman Gray Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C.
Craig Armstrong and his brother, Fred, had been doing some announcing at special events and with what was then known as the NASCAR Winston West Series. Dennis Huth was trying to recruit Craig and Fred to work at Portland (Ore.) Speedway. The brothers were working on a product and had gone to Daytona in February of 1987 to promote the product. Dennis invited them to tour the old NASCAR headquarters and meet Jim Hunter, who was vice president of administration. Got to meet Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr.
"I think I was most impressed with Jim Hunter for a couple of reasons. One of them was that he really did take time to talk with us. He sat down and began to talk about the history of the sport, where it was and what he saw happening with NASCAR in the future. Keep in mind, this was 23 years ago. That was looking quite a ways into the future. A lot of the things that he said have actually come to fruition. What I was struck by, not only was he a really nice guy and I felt very comfortable being around him. He had a great self-deprecating sense of humor that was very enduring. What I was most struck by was that he had an understanding of the history of the sport -- where it had been and why that was relevant to where it was at that time and why that was also important in the direction and future tense of the sport as it grew and expanded beyond what it was at that time.
"He looked directly at Fred and I and said 'you guys are the future of the sport. I'm one of the old guards. I'm not going to be here forever. I'm hopeful that you guys will catch the inspiration and want to take this sport to the next level. It's young people coming into this sport that are going to perpetuate it now and in the future.' What he said to me that day really stuck with me. It wasn't a year later that I had the opportunity to learn how to promote a race track. I had to make a decision. Do I leave the world of advertising and public relations, with a steady paycheck and bright future, for the unknown and much less compensated, as least initially, world of professional motorsports, which wasn't anywhere near where it is today. And the opportunities were not anywhere near what they are today.
"At that moment, I remember what Jim had said. That was a defining moment. That was a time when we really realized that there was great potential in this world of motorsports entertainment. That's probably the thing that tipped me over and convinced me to roll the dice and take the chance, because I was really passionate about the sport and wanted to be a part of it. I was a little bit scared, because I didn't know what the future would hold, but I really truly believed what Jim Hunter told me was true. Over the years it has born itself out many times over."
- Craig Armstrong Vice President & GM, Iowa Speedway / Former promoter at Portland (Ore.) Speedway
"Most PR guys, kinda like us racecar drivers, talk too much. It's just in their DNA, and it's probably what makes them so damn good at PR.
"Yet, the best PR man I've ever known didn't. For as much as Jim Hunter always had a lot to say, he was one of the most effective leaders I've ever known because he never said too much. He could take the most Goliath of problems facing our sport, the very things that the rest of us felt really threatened by, and shut them down. He was their David, because he brought us all back to sanity with those perfect little soundbites. And he always said them with an infectious smile.
"With time, I, along with so many others, developed the habit of seeking out Hunter with our own problems, sometimes wholly unrelated to racing. I've sought his help with everything from Duke classes to upcoming interview, from conflict management to career management. I'd often write Hunter e-mails of embarrassing length, just because I wanted him to understand every detail of my situation. Without fail, a reply would come within a few hours, no matter if I had e-mailed him at noon or midnight.
"And those replies, as I look back on them today, were all remarkably similar. In a sentence or two, he would sympathize with my issues and, in typical Hunter fashion, remind me what was inside my control and what I could do to fix it. Without fail, each of those e-mails ended with Hunter's subtle, but meaningful, encouragement: phrases like 'I believe in ya' or 'Hang in there.' Those phrases meant so much because of how much I admire Hunter. If he believed in me, well, then, I need to believe in me, too.
"What could be more appropriate for a guy like Hunter to call himself than ChiefBSer? It is the perfect juxtaposition: fearless leader and lighthearted friend. To me, Jim Hunter's twitter tag is a perfect summation of the man I feel privileged to know. While I will miss him terribly, the mark he left on me is indelible. I'm a better person because of Jim Hunter, as are so many of us."
- Paulie Harraka NASCAR K&N Pro Series West driver and member of Drive for Diversity
"Jim, my dad (Jack Arute Sr.) and Bill France Jr. shared a close friendship. Over the years, Jim was a guiding person for all of us at Stafford Motor Speedway. Jim was a father figure, advisor and friend to NASCAR short track operators. He was the personification of NASCAR's partnership with its short tracks. People looked up to Jim."
- Mark Arute Second generation track operator, Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway
"Jim was the ultimate PR guy. He treated everybody at every level of racing like they were important because to him, they were. No one was more interested in weekly racing than Jim. He was already ill when the Living Legends of Auto Racing asked him to present an award to me in Daytona Beach last February. As always, he went beyond the call of duty, spent time with everyone and presented the award to me.
"I always appreciated and enjoyed our friendship. I'm trying to write a column about him right now, trying to see the keyboard through the tears."
- Ernie Saxton Operator of Ernie Saxton Communications / columnist / track announcer & publicist for Grandview Speedway in Bechtelsville, Pa.
"Jim was a great golf partner, and he was just a good person. Whenever we played golf, he'd always have some kind of token to give me.
"He was a 100 percent short track person, and he understood short track racing in the big picture. He always told me to first do what was best for our race track. He was knowledgeable of Northeastern pavement Modified racing, and he knew what was on the minds of drivers and fans. He always wanted to know more. When Modified racing was teetering, he helped the division survive.
"Jim built and maintained relationships through his whole career. He was always a gentleman. If we needed him, he never dodged a phone call. If he wasn't available at the minute, he'd return the call as soon as he could."
- Don Hoenig Owner/operator, Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway
"Driving to the first All-American Challenge Series awards banquet at a National Guard Armory near Highland Rim Speedway in Tennessee, series director Stormy Weathers told me I'd have to be the master of ceremonies and that Jim Hunter from NASCAR was going to be there.
"At some point in my banquet remarks, I said I would never want to be a scorer for a race. When Jim came up to speak, I remember him saying he could tell I was new to NASCAR. He said at NASCAR, we never say 'never.'
"Working with guys like Hunter, Bob Harmon, and Joe Collins -- with Bill France Jr. always starting every conversation with me by asking "What's Harmon up to?" -- those were special times.
"Jim hired me for NASCAR PR on November 1, 1986. He was a people person, he cared about short track racing, and he was an innovator."
- Bill Desmond NASCAR All-American Challenge Series and NASCAR Dash Series media coordinator 1986-1996, Dash Series media coordinator 2001-2003
"Our track joined NASCAR in 1986, and Jim took us under his wing. We considered ourselves as 'little guys.' We went down to Daytona Beach to sign our sanction agreement, and he made it a big deal. He had our picture taken at a desk signing our agreement and it was in all the newspapers. He made us feel like we were part of NASCAR, and we've felt that way ever since.
"When he was leaving NASCAR (in 1993) to become the president of Darlington Raceway, Dennis Huth was coming in to lead the NASCAR weekly racing program. Jim introduced me to Dennis by saying 'he's one of us.' I'll never forget that. I'm proud to say that never changed.
"If you were in a foxhole in battle, Jim would be the guy you'd want in there with you. He'd have your back. He was just a good guy."
- Larry Cirillo Operates Monadnock Speedway in Winchester, N.H., with his wife Deneen
"Jim was first and foremost a gentleman. He was a real race fan who had the best interests of short track racing at heart. You didn't have to do business with NASCAR for Jim to be interested in what you were doing.
"When our paths crossed over the years, my experience with him was always positive. One night we went out for barbecue after a race and all we talked about was short track racing.
"When our Dirt Track World Championship won the RPM Workshops Outstanding Short Track Event of the Year Award in 2009 he sent a letter of congratulations to me. He had a "big picture" interest in what was happening throughout the sport."
- Carl Short Special event dirt Late Model promoter
"People respected Jim. He was the best there ever was at what he did. He knew public relations, marketing, management and how to run a short track. Promoters loved him. He was "The Man," even out here on the west coast. He "got it." He understood short track racing.
"Bill France Jr. and Jim France called a meeting on December 16, 1983 to restructure NASCAR. Duties were divided between Jim Foster, Les Richter, Bill Gazaway, Hunter and me. Hunter took on the leadership of the NASCAR weekly racing tracks, and ran with it. The NASCAR Whelen All-American series of today began with Jim Hunter.
"If he told a track operator he'd do something, he did it. He never failed. He always followed through. He could manage people, and people liked working for him. He loved his wife and his family, and he loved what he did at NASCAR."
- Ken Clapp Consultant and former NASCAR Vice President of Western Operations
"When NASCAR would call you, that would be Jim Hunter calling to see if there was anything they could do for you and how were things working out for you. He really stayed on top of it to make sure we were okay. I thought the world of him."
- Gary Cressey Former promoter at Shasta Speedway in Anderson, Calif. Cressey operated one of the original tracks in NASCAR's short track program
"What I will never forget about Jim Hunter is how he always was willing to deal with the competitors directly. He never got hung on a big title behind his name. He was always Jim and always willing to help competitors out. He was known for his gift with the media, but I think it is important to know how much he worked with competitors and always me each one of us feel the same. He never let his title change who he was."
- Travis Carter Former NASCAR team owner
"Whether you covered the entire Sprint Cup Series schedule or just a few races each year, Jim Hunter always made you feel like you were an important part of what was going on at the track to NASCAR. For me, it was Hunter who personally helped me immensely through first time visits at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway and it was Hunter who always wanted to spend a half hour catching up on what was going on at the New England short tracks whenever he visited New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He always went above and beyond. His huge heart, welcoming spirit and warming laugh will be missed so greatly."
- Shawn Courchesne Hartford (Conn.) Courant
"A lot of people you just talked at or they talked at you. Jim was a person you could talk to. We had many discussions where we wouldn't agree, but he would always made sure you knew where he stood with you and that is something you don't see much of anymore."
- Jim McLaurin Retired motorsports writer, The State (Columbia, S.C.) newspaper
"Never was it tougher than in the aftermath of the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. NASCAR was caught in a national uproar over safety. Hunter was brought in from pasture, a nice job that included a lot of golf, as president of Darlington Raceway in South Carolina.
"Hunter was ordered back to Daytona Beach to handle the Earnhardt crisis. He brought in reinforcements -- mainly his old Georgia buddy Jody Powell, former press secretary for President Jimmy Carter, who by then had his own public relations agency in Washington, D.C.
"First time Hunter brought Powell into the NASCAR boardroom, Bill France Jr. went on a diatribe about how unfairly NASCAR was being treated by the damned media.
"Powell leaned back, winked at Hunter and said, 'I believe you need a plan. And in my experience, being pissed off at the media is not a plan.'
"France busted out laughing along with Hunter and Powell, and NASCAR was on its way to recovery from the Earnhardt crisis."
- Ed Hinton Senior writer, ESPN.com
"Hunter was a master craftsman, among the very best spin doctors the NASCAR industry ever saw. He would grab a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a pack of matches, light a Salem and draw a puff, adjust the trademark "NASCAR 1948" hat atop his head, and in a matter of minutes churn NASCAR's biggest messes into steaming casseroles of stretched truths and hilarity.
"Recipients often knew he was feeding them a line of mess. But it was Hunter. So for whatever reason, it was OK. With Hunter came an unquestioned acceptance of his genius -- deflection. Nobody else had a chance to get away with his approach.
"But he was old school. And for me, somewhere deep in the back of my mind, I knew he was Bill France Jr.'s best friend and had run with the old guard from town to town, building my path to right here, right now.
"He'd held every position from reporter to track president to sanctioning body vice president. He was a revolutionary promoter, a hands-on guy who took out the trash and stapled fliers to telephone poles.
"He loved NASCAR. He lived NASCAR.
"So I listened intently always, scribbled some notes and laughed a lot.
"No matter how heated any reporter got during a conversation with him, that reporter left with a grin.
"He was one of those folks you just never wanted to disappoint."
- Marty Smith Analyst for ESPN and ABC's coverage of NASCAR
"He had a lot of vast knowledge and experience throughout the industry. He was a PR guy in Darlington. He was a PR guy here. He was a PR guy for a manufacturer. And then he was heavily involved in our development of our Home Tracks program for years. But he was involved in everything, and the France family depended on him, and the current management really depended on him a lot because of his experience and his style and his passion and love and commitment and loyalty to the sport."
- Mike Helton NASCAR President
"About a year after I joined NASCAR, we spoke about a particular issue I was having, I laid out the various hurdles I saw. He would make a suggestion but I was quick to interrupt with why that was a problem. Suddenly, he stopped me and said, 'all I'm hearing is why you can't do it. Find a way to get it done.' And he leaned back and gave me his look that indicated that was the end of the discussion. I had no response. Nor was he looking for one.
"The more I thought about it then - and whenever I look back at it - I realize it how right he was. If I spent half as much time and energy coming up with 'how we can' instead of 'why we can't,' I would get so much more accomplished. Hunter had a way of cutting through all the BS, figuring out what needed to be done, and making the call. Whenever I get particularly stalled or frustrated by an issue, the solution usually presented itself by simply asking myself, 'How would Hunter handle this?' "
- Jason Christley Manager of Communications, NASCAR Developmental Series
"Years ago during an NMPA (National Motor Sports Press Association) convention I was invited to sit in on a friend game of cards. Hunter asked me to sit in and I this really meant a lot to me as there was over 200 years of experience covering or working in motorsports at that table. I really thought it was a big deal all these legends in the sport I respected made me feel like one of the guys. During a break I went up to Jim and said thank you for letting me sit in. He said, "We like you and all but we just did it cause you are easy money." That is the kind of guy he was, always having fun and making you feel comfortable around him.
"Several years ago I was offered a job with NASCAR by Hunter in the PR Department. I couldn't take the opportunity at the time for family situations. The next time I saw Jim I made sure I spoke with him to explain my situation and he was very understanding. He told me family was the most important thing. I will never forget that. I eventually came back to NASCAR and Jim helped make that happen too. He always looked at the big picture and treated me just like he would anyone else. That was a great characteristic he was blessed with."
- Tim Southers, Media Coordinator, NASCAR Touring Series Southeast
"Ernie Saxton told a story: 'If Jim went to a NASCAR short track and a light was burned out in the restroom, he'd mention it to someone at the track. At one particular track, he was told they didn't have any spare light bulbs. He went out to his car, drove to a store, came back, fixed the restroom light and gave the rest to the track.'
"The light bulb story is true, and Jim by example was making a point. For us kids he hired in the 1980s, the point was to instill in us a sense of vested interest in the image and success of NASCAR weekly series tracks; and it was a reminder to everyone that something as simple as a light bulb could make a difference in a family's experience at the track."
- Paul Schaefer NASCAR Public Relations