NASCAR remembers Jim Hunter at Darlington service

The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 2:56 PM

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Before a lineup of stock-car greats past and present, Jim Hunter was remembered Wednesday as friend and father, communicator and counselor by the racing family he loved.

"He was the face of NASCAR and, in many ways, NASCAR was his face," NASCAR President Mike Helton said.

The hourlong memorial service at Darlington Presbyterian Church honored the man who spent about half a century connected to NASCAR as promoter, journalist, author and executive. Hunter died at 71 last Friday after a yearlong fight with cancer.

Drivers Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne attended the ceremony, along with car owner Jack Roush and recent Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Allison.

"He'll be missed deeply on a personal level as well as professional," said Johnson, who is attempting to win his fifth straight Sprint Cup title.

Inside the church, a photo of Hunter was placed up front, surrounded by flowers. In the picture, Hunter is wearing his faded NASCAR ball cap.

A bagpiper led the choir in "Amazing Grace" to start the service before 14-year-old grandson Hunter McKernan opened with a prayer. He called his grandfather the most generous man he knew.

"Thank you for his life and leadership over our family," McKernan said.

Hunter began writing about NASCAR for several newspapers before working public relations at Darlington Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway. After a stint with NASCAR, Hunter became president of his beloved "Track Too Tough To Tame" from 1993 to 2001 before moving to NASCAR headquarters to lead an expanded public relations effort.

Hunter had the personality, Helton said, to connect everyone in NASCAR - journalists, drivers, executives, family.

Johnson remembered the ultra-competitive Hunter being his most outrageous on the golf course.

"I thought I knew levels of heckling with your golf friends, but Jim took it to a whole new level," Johnson said. "Every time I addressed my golf ball or watched it fly off into the water or a sand trap, all I would hear is his voice wishing it deeper into the woods or the sand or the water."

Darlington's electronic sign out front flashed, "Jim, We'll Miss You."

A reception was held for Hunter at a tent in Darlington's garage area. His trademark yellow NASCAR ballcaps were given to attendees. The stories flowed of his humor and get-up-and-go to make NASCAR a success.

Former Charlotte Motor Speedway executive H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler said Hunter, then Darlington's president, would call to advise him when he was about to bash him and the Charlotte track in the press to stir up a phony feud that always seemed to sell more tickets.

Brian Vickers said Hunter was a mentor to him and other young racers.

"Actually, I don't think I have one bad memory of Jim," the 27-year-old driver said. "More than anything, I'm going to miss my friend."

Hunter, no matter where he went, rarely ceased being an advocate for Darlington Raceway, Helton said. Hunter kept his primary residence in town even as he worked at NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla.

"He traveled away from here and did a lot of other things," Helton said. "But when it was time to come back home we're here in Darlington saying goodbye to him."

© 2010 The Associated Press