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A Storied Treasure
It's almost Christmas and soon we'll be celebrating the New Year, so it's inevitable that an avalanche of stories have been or will be written trying to capture the year in review.
There is great interest to look back on in what was the 2010 NASCAR season. Like it or not, Jimmie Johnson proved what a great champion he truly is by winning his fifth consecutive Cup Series title. In NASCAR's other national touring series, Brad Keselowski showed why he remains an up-and-coming star by winning the Nationwide championship and Todd Bodine reminded everyone he's still a force with which to be reckoned by capturing his second Truck crown.
But of all the memories forged during the grind that is a ridiculously long nine-month season, one stands out above all the others -- and it didn't occur on any of the tracks.
It took place during a luncheon in a ballroom at the posh Bellagio hotel and casino on the Las Vegas Strip in early December. That was where -- at the annual Myers Brothers event to honor NASCAR's contingency award winners -- Dustin Long of Landmark Newspapers stood up in his role as president of the National Motorsports Press Association and deftly set up a moving video tribute to the late Jim Hunter.
Hunter passed away at the age of 71 on Oct. 29 after battling cancer for more than a year. He was awarded the NMPA Myers Brother Award posthumously at the luncheon, and the accompanying video filled more than a few eyes in the crowded ballroom with tears.
More about the man
Hunter's background has been well documented, both before and since his death. A respected newspaperman before becoming public relations director and later track president at Darlington Raceway, he became a close confidant to and friend of Bill France Jr.
He loved to tell stories about France. Then again, he loved to tell stories about many things from "the old days." Whether you had been involved in NASCAR for 10 minutes, 10 days, 10 years or a lifetime, Hunter had time for you and made you feel like you were as close to him as he was to France and many other NASCAR giants.
If you were reporting on anything at all and thought Hunter might be able to help, he was available and invariably would tell a few pertinent stories of his own on the subject before saying, "But you really ought to call so-and-so. I've got his number here somewhere. Call him and tell him I said for you to call."
Telling a potential source Jim Hunter had told you to call was like possessing the magic key that would open a treasure trove of additional stories.
In the end, that's really what Hunter was all about. He loved racing and he wanted everyone else in the world to experience the pure joy that he did nearly every time he was at the race track.
Sure, there were tough times when he had to stand up and be spokesman for the governing body. In October 2004, it was Hunter who met with the media to deliver the devastating, tragic news that 10 people had perished on a Hendrick Motorsports plane that crashed en route to a race at Martinsville Speedway.
"You know, I never would have wanted Jim's job," Rick Hendrick said shortly after Hunter's death. "He was thrown into media centers at some of the worst times -- and I've been in the middle of some of them. In the toughest situations, he always handled things with class."
The light-hearted side
But Hunter was at his best when he was exhibiting his own style of self-deprecating humor. A longtime smoker, he finally had to quit when he was diagnosed with cancer. That diagnosis began with a trip to an Alabama hospital in an ambulance during a Talladega race weekend.
A year later, with Hunter having seem to have beaten back the terrible disease, if only temporarily, I was privileged enough to be able to share lunch with him at the same track. He laughed when he was asked about no longer smoking.
"People ask me if I miss it. I tell them only every minute of every day," he said.
He then laughed more heartily and admitted that his very last puff on a cigarette came during the ambulance ride to the hospital one year earlier. No matter who you are, you've got to be charming to be able to get the paramedics to let you have one last smoke under those circumstances.
He loved to sit down and share stories. Prior to the 50th running of the Daytona 500 in 2009, he was in all his glory while sitting in on a panel that included several of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport. He talked glowingly about coming to many of the early races at Daytona International Speedway and sharing overnight accommodations not only with other journalists but at times even with some of the competitors.
"We'd wind up with three or four people sharing a hotel room," Hunter recalled. "Somebody would sleep in the tub. Somebody else would split the mattresses. None of us had any money.
"But I will tell you this: all of these guys had one thing in common, and that is that they all wanted to race -- and they all sacrificed early on to go race."
Through all the years, they also needed someone to tell their stories. Perhaps the greatest man of all time to champion that cause was Jim Hunter.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.