Commentary

Jim Hunter was the face of NASCAR

Updated: November 16, 2010, 2:28 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

"It's not what you gather, but what you scatter that tells what kind of life you have lived."

-- Quotation on the order of service program for Jim Hunter's funeral

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Some hours before Jim Hunter's funeral Wednesday morning, a solitary piper stood practicing his wailing scales among more than a century's local dead in the churchyard.

There was no other sound.

Hunter would not be buried here nor anywhere. Hunter belongs to so many different places now. There was time enough, and quiet enough, to think on that.

The myriad mourners would be along in due time, filling every pew, standing all along the interior walls and spilling outside the stately old Darlington Presbyterian Church.

***

[+] EnlargeDarlington Church
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFamily and friends filled Darlington Presbyterian Church on Wednesday to remember one of NASCAR's greats.

Four-peat champion Jimmie Johnson and Formula One émigré Juan Pablo Montoya -- both mentored into NASCAR by Hunter in a way he tailored to each young driver -- would find standing room only in the back.

Kevin Harvick would come early to find a seat because as Harvick said, "If it wasn't for Jim Hunter, I probably would have run myself out of the sport," and he would not have been around to challenge Johnson's drive for a five-peat this fall.

George Pyne, president of the mammoth international sports agency IMG, would sit near the Hunter family, where he belonged, for he'd learned much from Hunter.

The left side of the nave was sort of a reconvention of the NASCAR Hall of Fame ceremonies a few weeks ago. Bobby Allison sat at the end of one pew, Bud Moore at the next … each one a longtime, deeply-trusting friend of Hunter.

"He was the face of NASCAR, and in many ways NASCAR was his face," sanctioning body president Mike Helton would say in a eulogy.

"He was hired by Bill France Sr., he became Bill Jr.'s right arm and trusted lieutenant, he mentored Brian France gradually to the top. I'm not sure who else could say they touched all three generations of NASCAR leadership in such a way."

But this crescendo of choirs, bagpipes, pipe organ, eulogies, streaming tears and out-loud laughter was still hours away.

***

For now, in the gray morning, in the wind, there was only the one set of bagpipes, moaning, braying and wheezing through the rudiments of its range of tone, heard only by the dead and me.

It's not that Hunter doesn't belong here in this churchyard. It's not that his native South Carolina soil wouldn't have embraced him for the ages.

It's more that he belongs to so many places now. He was cremated, and as one of his lieutenants put it, "his ashes could be scattered in a lot of interesting places."

Cremation does not produce the sort of ashes you might think, fine ashes that blow away with the wind. The remains are more like gravel, tiny pebbles. They have some staying power where they're put.

Hunter's pebbles ought to be rationed wisely, scattered widely.

Some should go to Daytona Beach, Fla., NASCAR headquarters, because Hunter was the calm, steady counsel to the France family as their sport grew beyond even their own imaginations. He could grasp the sport as it changed.

Jim Hunter
Streeter Lecka/NASCAR/Getty ImagesThe Darlington Raceway sign said it all.

He died in Daytona Beach last Friday, at age 71, with the title of NASCAR vice president of corporate communications. He had held many titles over his last three decades with NASCAR and had spanned six decades around NASCAR as a journalist, publicist and executive.

I always called him first and foremost the chief troubleshooter for NASCAR's second czar, Bill France Jr. Perhaps a more accurate term is, in Italian, consigliere. The France family might bristle at that, but he was a trusted, totally-loyal adviser and direct representative of the power.

Hunter used to crack that he held a world record. "I've had my ass chewed by Bill France Jr. more than anyone else," he said.

"If you needed something," said Dale Inman, likely to be a Hall of Famer for his decades as Richard Petty's crew chief, "you could always go to him [Hunter], because he always had time to listen, even if you couldn't get to the rest of the people [in the NASCAR hierarchy]."

Some pebbles belong at Talladega, Ala., where Hunter dug the giant track out of its white-elephant image -- too big and fast to be practical -- as chief publicist in the 1970s.

Some belong, to be sure, at old Darlington Raceway, where Hunter was sent by the France family to revive the run-down old Lady in Black and make her the supreme icon of the entire Cup tour.

Some belong in the waters of Lake Lanier, near his birthplace of Chicopee, Ga., but more belong where he grew up, in North Charleston, S.C.

Some belong beneath the stately oaks and statues on the grounds known as The Horseshoe on the University of South Carolina Campus, where Hunter played varsity football and baseball for the Gamecocks and then moved only a few hundred yards to become sports editor for the Columbia Record.

Some belong on the fairways of St Andrews, Scotland, where Hunter went to golf in his later, more financially secure years.

***

As the funeral hour, 11 a.m., grew nigh and the pipe organ thundered out stern old Presbyterian hymns, I thought of what Donnie Allison had said the previous evening, during visitation at Darlington Raceway.

For decades Hunter had been NASCAR's public face and voice through all its controversies -- the fatalities, the cheating scandals, the drastic technical changes …

"If you go back and think about it, all his conversations were in exactly the same tone," Donnie Allison said. "He never changed. No matter how critical the situation was at the time."

Donnie was right. In my 36 years of knowing Hunter, I never heard him raise his voice.

"I never heard it," Donnie confirmed. "No matter what we did, or what happened. No. No. No."

Maybe not to the public, but to all insiders of NASCAR, "He was an icon in our sport," said team owner Richard Childress. "He did so much for so many people in private."

"It didn't matter if you knew him for 50 years or five minutes," Helton said, "Hunter made you feel like your issue was all he had to pay attention to."

For the two miles from the church back to Darlington Raceway, traffic was bumper-to-bumper, creeping as if it were a race day, with license plates from as far away as Montana heading for the post-funeral reception.

Leaving the track, I thought of how Hunter had long ago described to me the funeral of Fireball Roberts at Daytona in 1964.

"It was raining," he said. "And the people were lined up … I don't know how far …"

Wednesday afternoon, it was raining. And the people were lined up … I don't know how far …

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.

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