For many of the drivers, crewmen and series officials who work in NASCAR, Darlington Raceway is a home game. Getting to the race track requires not flights and layovers, but rather a leisurely drive from the suburbs north of Charlotte, through the speed-trap town of McBee, and down into the agricultural heart of South Carolina. It's a three-hour drive back through time, from the modern hub of steel and glass shop complexes that populate the sport today, to a timeless facility that was opened in 1950 and in some ways looks now exactly as it did then.
And yet, Darlington feels like home for reasons other than proximity. There's just something about a place that's so unassuming and so uncomplicated, something beyond the friendliness of the locals and the sugar in the sweet tea. Being there on a weekend where NASCAR-sanctioned race cars are taking to the track just feels right, as if the way it was done years ago is still the way it ought to be today. Once the sun goes down and the lights come on, track founder Harold Brasington would scarcely recognize the place. But even in its newer, electric reincarnation, it's still Darlington. They're still racing the race track, still putting stripes on the wall like they always have.
It's that level of familiarity that makes Darlington so special, that makes races there feel less like major sporting events and more like family reunions. But this year, one member of the family is missing. And as a result, going home to Darlington Raceway won't feel quite the same.
It's almost unthinkable, the idea of going to Darlington and not seeing Jim Hunter, clad in his khaki pants and golf shoes and faded yellow "NASCAR '48" cap, as much his uniform as a sponsor-logoed firesuit is to a driver or crew chief. Hunter, the longtime NASCAR executive who died of cancer in November at age 71, was president at Darlington for eight years -- from 1992, when he was sent to a then-dilapidated track with the goal of modernizing the place, until he was called to revamp NASCAR's communications and public relations efforts in the wake of Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident.
In the lifespan of a facility that has stood for more than six decades, eight years is not a very long time. And yet, outside of Brasington -- who carved Darlington out of an old peanut farm, leveling the land atop his tractor as skeptical locals tossed rotting fruit at him -- no single individual has become more closely identified with this quirky egg-shaped oval than Hunter, who took to Darlington as if he had lived there his entire life. Two presidents have since succeeded him at the raceway and carried on his work in securing the facility's future as a NASCAR venue, but for much of the past two decades Darlington could accurately be described as Hunter's track. He and Darlington were as synonymous and as inseparable as the Intimidator and the No. 3.
It's easy to see why. The former football player at the University of South Carolina, who had once served as Darlington's public relations director, took a sense of ownership in the place, toiling to revitalize the track as if it were his own weedy front yard. He repaved the track, flipped the start-finish line, added new grandstands, kicked the hooligans out of the infield, planted trees and shrubs everywhere. Hunter took over Darlington during a dark time when many in its own state didn't even know the track existed, it had fallen so far off the map. So the man did what he did best -- built awareness. If you worked in a sports department in South Carolina in the 1990s, in those days before e-mail, scarcely a week went by without another release from Darlington accompanied by another photo of Hunter, holding some goofy sign or posed in some goofy way, all in the name of getting the word out about his race track.
And it worked. Although Darlington's greatest triumphs -- lights, grandstand expansion, a stable Saturday night date -- came after Hunter had moved on and after the track had endured the pain of losing one race date, the groundwork was laid by the man in the yellow cap. Hunter grew to love Darlington so much that he kept a residence there even after he was called to work with NASCAR in Daytona Beach. When cancer claimed him, there was only one place for his memorial. This past November, drivers, series officials, NASCAR executives and journalists all returned to the little town in a region known as the Pee Dee to wish a dear friend goodbye.
And now, another race weekend approaches, one that will feel both familiar and strange at the same time. It's still Darlington, still the old track past the lumber yard and the cottonseed oil plant and the auto auction, the oval with the little kink in the Turn 2 wall, the place where the years go by but the faces rarely change. But to think there won't be a time when Hunter comes strolling through a media center named for him, when he won't take a seat on the back of a golf cart and take a long pull on a cigarette and tell a story from back in the day that's so good you can hardly believe it -- it all seems too much to fathom. The idea of going to Darlington and not seeing Jim Hunter is as alien as seeing a No. 24 car with someone other than Jeff Gordon inside.
In some ways, though, Hunter will be there. The Jim Hunter media center at Darlington has been rededicated with a bright new sign, and a plaque bearing Hunter's photo will be installed near the main entrance. "I know Darlington Raceway held a special place in Jim's heart," current track president Chris Browning said, "and I am happy we can continue to honor him."
Thursday, friends, family members and colleagues will remember Hunter in another way, through the only activity that in his heart could rival racing -- golf. The Jim Hunter Memorial Golf Tournament, a scramble set for a country club in nearby Florence, will benefit the NASCAR Foundation and the McLeod Children's Hospital of Florence, and help to endow a memorial scholarship at the University of South Carolina in Hunter's name. Word is, even a few drivers plan to participate in the event, a fitting tribute to a man who always wore his golf shoes to the race track.
It promises to be a mirthful afternoon full of laughter and storytelling, just the kind of thing Hunter would have loved. And then the next day it's on to the raceway, where drivers will try to keep from marking up Darlington's red and white outside walls, an often-futile endeavor that was always sure to bring a grin to Hunter's face as he watched it. We won't get to see that grin this year. But it will surely be there, in spirit, for as long as race cars circle Jim Hunter's beloved track.