In January of 2000, I was at Ricky Craven's Snowmobile Ride for Charity along Moosehead Lake when I approached the NASCAR driver to tell him that I was leaving his home state and coming to Myrtle Beach. Naturally, the first topic of conversation was getting to see him race at Darlington Raceway. I'll always remember the first thing that he said when I mentioned the Track Too Tough to Tame. "Jim Hunter. He's one of the most influential people in our sport. He's also one of the most respected people in our sport. Listen to him and always follow his advice."
Craven had taught me everything I knew about NASCAR and the current ESPN analyst was spot on in what he said. When I first got to South Carolina, I was anxious to cover my first race at Darlington. It was Dale Earnhardt, Jr's rookie season and everyone was trying to get a piece of NASCAR's rising superstar. I thought that perhaps Mr. Hunter could give me an in to try and follow Junior for the weekend and chronicle it as a preview for the following race in the fall. He liked the idea a lot, but said that there was another rookie driver who was going to be a big star in NASCAR and that I should follow him around. That driver was Matt Kenseth and I learned that Jim Hunter was a pretty darn good judge of talent. When we did our September preview show live from the track, I was hoping that Earnhardt, Junior would come on the show. Jim Hunter said there's another young gun that needed to come on with us. His name was Kurt Busch. Looking back now, Jim Hunter gave us two Cup Champions on our preview show. Pretty amazing.
Then there was another time when the phone rang in the sports office in Florence. Mr. Hunter asked if I could swing by Governor's Run golf course in Lamar, he had a couple of people he wanted me to talk to about the upcoming race. When I went to the back porch with the camera, there was Jim Hunter in a straw Darlington hat and another guy with the same hat on next to him. "Dale, could you give a couple of minutes to our new sportscaster in town to talk about the Southern 500. It's going to be his first Labor Day at Darlington." Dale Earnhardt, the Intimidator, gave a sly smile and said "Shoot". It was right then and there that I learned first hand that Jim Hunter was one of the most respected people in all of NASCAR. After talking to Dale, Senior, Hunter introduced me to another legend - the Silver Fox, David Pearson. Not a bad couple of sound bites on a Thursday afternoon to get Southern 500 coverage going. You ask every mega-name in the sport about Jim Hunter and you're going to get a story and it's usually a good one.
It was Jim Hunter who helped NASCAR guide through the tough times of Dale Earnhardt's death and became the spokesperson of the sport. It was also Jim Hunter who believed in Darlington so much that the Lady in Black went from the endangered species list to a Saturday night fixture every May for many years to come.
He is one of the sports great ambassadors. For the stories I just shared above, there are countless others in the media who will have their own tales of how Jim Hunter helped them to bring the sports biggest stars to their readers or viewers.
NASCAR's got a long list of worthy candidates for the Hall of Fame. I hope that one day Jim Hunter will be a part of it, because he was one of NASCAR's true pioneers. Even after he left the track in 2001, you could also go to the Media Center that bared his name and see a crowd of people around Jim Hunter. It will be an empty feeling in the Media Center this May when he's not there.