His is a name that NASCAR fans would probably not recognize. Yet, he did arguably as much for the sport of NASCAR as any star driver ever did. While Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and other big name drivers were attracting fans on the track, he worked tirelessly behind the scenes helping to keep fans informed about their favorite sport.
The name Jim Hunter doesn’t appear in any NASCAR stat; he never won a race, nor lead a lap. Yet without him, NASCAR would not be as popular as it is today. Jim spent nearly his entire life around NASCAR, after an early life far from the racetrack.
As a young man, he was a football and baseball player at the University of South Carolina but was soon attracted to motorsports. He was a rare breed having learned the world of motorsports from both sides. He moved to the public relations arena in the 1960s becoming a rep for Dodge handling public relations for several top IndyCar drivers before taking on the role of public relations director at Darlington Raceway, the historic track the South Carolina native always called his home track and Talladega Superspeedway.
Hunter was the sports editor of the Columbia (SC) Record newspaper. He also had an award-winning stint at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was a columnist for Stock Car Racing magazine. He also authored a number of books, including a widely read biography on NASCAR great David Pearson, entitled “21 Forever”.
Hunter joined the executive ranks of NASCAR in 1983 when he was named vice president of administration. A decade later he took on the role of president at his beloved Darlington Raceway and become a corporate vice president of the International Speedway Corporation. This stint led to Hunter returning to Daytona Beach in 2001 after accepting the role of Vice President of Corporate Communications leading the newly expanded public relations effort for NASCAR. It was a position offered by then NASCAR Chairman and CEO Bill France Jr.
It was a tumultuous start for Hunter; Dale Earnhardt Sr. had been killed on the final lap of the season opening Daytona 500 that year. Hunter however charged forth leading the public relations effort as NASCAR worked to investigate just what had happened and ensure the safety of its drivers in the future. He always made sure that the media had the right information; if he didn’t have the answer, he would apologize and work until an answer was found and delivered.
Perhaps his greatest legacy was the lessons he imparted to younger members of the media. Hunter loved the sport of NASCAR and was one of its biggest ambassadors. Among the many lessons he imparted to this author during many hours of conversation, one stood out: “You know something,” he once told me.” What people need to understand is that all of us who work in NASCAR are just fans. Fans who are lucky enough to work in the sport we love. We keep it safe, and fair, and we love it.”
During Hunter’s stewardship, the popularity of NASCAR grew to unprecedented levels. The sport enjoyed a level of recognition that founder Bill France Sr. could have only dreamed of. In the midst of it all was the ever humble Jim Hunter, wearing his trademark vest and yellow cap with NASCAR 1948 adorned on it. He was so loved by those who worked for him and by members of the media that a shipment of bobbleheads, complete with vest, golf shoes and yellow NASCAR 1948 hats showed up in 2006 and found their way onto desks and into trophy cases all across America.
Jim Hunter fought a courageous battle with lung cancer; it was a battle he lost in 2010 at the age of 71. NASCAR, as it always does, moved on. But it did so without Jim Hunter. He left many memories however and people eager to share them.
“Some of my favorite memories of Jim Hunter go back to the days when he was at Darlington and Humpy Wheeler (former long time president of Charlotte Motor Speedway) was here at Charlotte,” said Scott Cooper vice president of communications at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “He and Humpy would pick up the phone and call to pick at one another whenever one of them had pulled off a good PR stunt to generate some publicity for their respective tracks. You could almost hear Humpy laughing all the way down the hall whenever he was on the phone with Jim.”
“Jim Hunter was always such a pleasure to be around and never seemed to take himself or our business too seriously,” Cooper added. “He was so smart but in such a down-to-earth, common sense kind of way. He never came across like he was the smartest guy in the room, although most of the time, he was. “
Jim’s shadow has been always present in NASCAR. His son Scott can be seen at some races wearing the famous yellow hat. Scott works for NASCAR as the director of graphic design at NASCAR Productions. However, there has been a hole since Jim Hunter’s passing. An emptiness in the media centers at NASCAR tracks across America. The atmosphere isn’t quite as jovial and the days away from the track at a golf course aren’t quite the same.
That may all be changing however.
Every NASCAR weekend there are usually a small group of young people who work in the media center. These are the interns, perhaps the lowest rung on the public relations ladder. Some will continue to work in the field of NASCAR, while others will move on to different things.
At this year’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway a quiet young man could be seen working among this group. He handed out press releases, shuttled people on golf carts, did the “grunt” work that all interns do.
This young man however had a smile that seemed somewhat familiar. At first it seemed a bit odd that he wore that yellow cap with NASCAR 1948 adorned on it. Until he introduced himself, and then it all made perfect sense.
Dakota Hunter is the son of Scott, and the grandson of Jim . The 20 year old is currently enrolled at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte studying communications, public relations and journalism. His love of NASCAR was fostered in part by his father, but in large part by his grandfather, the man young Dakota simply called “Jimbo”.
“My earliest memories of NASCAR go way back when I was about 4 years old,” Dakota said. “Jimbo used to hold me while he made small announcements in the Darlington Media Center. I also used to play with my monster truck on the stage. When we went to the Talladega races every year we would stay in his motor coach. He would let me drive the golf cart for him when he needed to get somewhere when I was only about 10. I do not remember too much about the actual racing because I was so young and wanted to play with the other kids.”
Dakota provides insights into the private life of Jim Hunter. His love for family was something he shared openly and it gave his grandson plenty of memories and left an impression on his grandson.
“The most memorable times I have of Jimbo are holidays,” Dakota said. “Mainly Christmas. You will never find him smiling and laughing more than when he spends quality time with family. Not even a great photo finish at Darlington could make him happier. We would all get up in the morning and he would have his morning Starbucks and a quick smoke. He would tease “Go-Go” (Ann Hunter) by making comments like “where’s the food” or “when can we open presents” knowing he was going to get in trouble for it. After Christmas we would go to the Atlantis in the Bahamas. Every Concierge, Bell-hop, and driver new his name.”
“He treated everyone he met the same,” he added. “Whether it was a homeless man on the street or George W. Bush. The same respect was given. He was such a family man. He valued family at the very top of his list and I know he wished he could have spent more with us. I feel that his personable characteristics have been passed down through my Dad and on to me. If it weren’t for his impact on NASCAR and his personality, there is no way I would be who I am today.”
Dakota said he didn’t realize the legacy his grandfather had in the sport of NASCAR, although it influenced him to work in the motorsports arena. He is starting at the bottom and wants no favors because of grandfather. In fact, he confesses that he didn’t want to use his famous grandfather to gain any sort of advantage.
“When I applied for the internship I told myself that I would not mention his name because I wanted to enter racing just like he did,” Dakota said. “I knew if I could make it without mentioning my relations to him I would be successful. Although, when I started interning for the Speedway my last name brought the attention to some people like Lenny Batycki (Charlotte track announcer) and Scott Cooper who knew him very well.”
It was the Bank of America weekend at Charlotte when Dakota began to understand just how much Jiimbo meant to NASCAR. As people began to realize who he was, and saw that famous yellow hat.
“I had many conversations with reporters and NASCAR executives who all had an influential story about Jimbo,” he said. “Hearing the stories and praises of Jim motivated me to be the man he was.”
His work has also impressed his boss, Scott Cooper.
“His grandson has a lot of Jim’s personality in him,” Cooper said. “Dakota is outgoing and friendly, and willing to do anything to help out and get the job done. He’s ambitious and learning a lot with us about promoting and publicizing events. It was a true pleasure to see him wearing the yellow NASCAR 1948 cap during race week that his grandfather always wore so proudly. Dakota’s got a bright future in this sport and he’s already making good impressions on everyone he meets.”
Dakota isn’t sure of his future just yet. His internship at Charlotte Motor Speedway ends in December. He does know that no matter the path he takes, his grandfather’s influence will follow.
“I hope that one day I can have as large of an impact on a sports community as he did,” Dakota said. “It may not necessarily be NASCAR, but I will be a large part of a motor/action sports program one day. My overall goal is to have as high of a credibility to influence others as he did. That when I die, they will have so many stories to carry down to my friends and family about how I helped them get where they are.”
Dakota Hunter has a great history to look back on, and a bright future to look forward to. His credits his dad with the motivation to have fun no matter what path he takes. He said since he was 13 he’s wanted to work in racing, mainly by observing his dad. However, the legacy of his grandfather and that yellow NASCAR 1948 cap will always be with him.
“Although Jimbo is not with us today,” he said. “I still have him to show me the ropes of racing.”