Nobody didn’t want Jim Hunter around. He spent a lifetime in jobs that make others want to duck for cover — journalist, public relations man, NASCAR executive — and yet none of the usual rules applied to him. You always enjoyed it when Hunter strolled along and joined the conversation because you knew everyone was going to end up smiling. He had a million stories, all of them beauties, most of them funny.
Hunter died last Friday. He’d been in failing health for some time, but the news was still jarring.
Yet before long, you caught yourself grinning. It is impossible to think about Jim Hunter without thinking about those stories.
One of the best was from Atlanta in the 1960s, during the noontime break on a practice day. Discussing lunch were Dale Inman and Maurice Petty, the mechanical wizards behind Petty Enterprises. They were joined by Tiny Lund, the 1963 Daytona 500 winner. Then Hunter, one of the earliest beat writers in stock-car racing — he started with The State, a daily out of Columbia in his native South Carolina, and later joined the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — ambled up.
“There was a factory in Hampton,” said Hunter. “Everybody used to go over there to eat lunch because there was a cafeteria.”
Hunter offered to drive, and the four of them climbed into his Corvair. Lund rode shotgun, with Inman and Petty in the back seat. Naturally, a routine ride was out of the question. Hunter remembered approaching “this real sharp curve,” and seeing Lund’s left leg ease over from the passenger side. The Corvair, rear-engined, had no transmission tunnel to ward off this sort of hooliganism.
“Tiny reaches over and puts his foot on the gas,” Hunter said. “I’m hollering, ‘You’d better let up!’ But he’s just laughing.”
With his own leg, Hunter tried to shove Lund’s away from the accelerator. Forget about that. Lund was a mountain, 6-and-a-half-feet tall and 275 pounds, all muscle. The foot stayed where he’d planted it.
They overshot the corner by a mile and spun to a stop. The four men scrambled out to assess the situation — the three passengers laughing uncontrollably, the driver catching his breath — and discovered that a tire had blown.
Hunter had a spare, but not a jack. No problem. “I will never forget Tiny, Dale, and Maurice picking up the rear end so we could change the tire on that little Corvair,” he said.
By day’s end, everyone in the garage area knew about it. Somebody waved Hunter over to where a small group had gathered. Inman, Petty, and Lund were in the mix.
“They presented me with a steering wheel,” Hunter recalled. “They said, ‘You need to practice. It’s obvious that you writers can’t drive.’”
Everyone laughed, Hunter loudest of all.
There is a temptation to write off a tale like this as something that could only have happened in the good old days, when the barrier between racers and media was low and blurry. But Hunter left writing for a string of PR jobs — with Firestone, Chrysler, Talladega, Darlington and finally NASCAR — and never seemed to stray too far from whatever fun this sport and its people offered. He golfed with Juan Pablo Montoya, played poker with Tony Stewart, talked racing with a thousand reporters. They had their jobs, and he had his, but that was no reason they couldn’t enjoy one another’s company.
He will be missed whenever, and wherever, a stock car’s engine roars.
Lots of people can tell a great story. Jim Hunter lived one.