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Thursday, December 10, 2009
NASCAR's Hunter in the fight of his life

By David Newton
ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The crusty voice on the other end of the phone was strong, almost defiant.

"You can bet your ass I'm fighting," Jim Hunter said. "I have too much to live for."

If you follow NASCAR, you may have noticed Hunter's name a few thousand times. He's not a driver or a crew chief. He's not one of the major decision-makers like chairman Brian France or president Mike Helton, although many of us in the media believe he should be.

Jim Hunter and Juan Pablo Montoya
Juan Pablo Montoya, left, has checked in with golfing buddy Jim Hunter regularly since the cancer diagnosis in October.

But when the decision-makers have a message to relay, more times than not, particularly in moments of crisis, they relay it through Hunter. He is their public relations extraordinaire, and most who cover the sport consider him as much a pillar as four-time Sprint Cup champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt Jr., too.

And Hunter is a fighter.

Usually the fights are for NASCAR. Today it is about him.

Hunter, 70, was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer in his right lung the weekend of the October Chase race at Talladega Superspeedway. He hasn't been to the track since, missing the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the first time and the season-ending banquet for the first time since his father died in the mid-1970s.

Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications, says the chemotherapy treatments are going well and that the prognosis is positive even though the long-term survival rate for this disease isn't good. He was strong enough on Tuesday to drop by his Daytona Beach, Fla., office for a few hours and to play golf on Wednesday.

He didn't hit the ball far, but as the man known for wearing golf shoes in the garage reminded me, "I never did anyway."

I was made aware of Hunter's illness a few weeks after the Talladega race when he sent an e-mail explaining his situation. As usual, he chose to meet it head-on and not cover it up.

I was reminded again of Hunter during Sunday's Fox NFL pregame show when, just before signing off, the words "Jim Hunter, keep fighting" blared through the television screen.

I was reminded of him yet again that day as my wife and I put up the Christmas tree. Stumbling upon a heart-shaped ornament with Mr. and Mrs. Claus on one side and "Our First Christmas" on the other, I asked where it came from.

"Jim Hunter," my wife said.

It was a wedding gift received almost a year ago to the day.

So here I am writing about Jim Hunter. He deserves to be written about, in many ways as much as many of the heroes of the sport. He's done more for NASCAR behind the scenes than most ever will know and knows more about the sport's history than any of us can hope to.

And he's respected.

He hasn't gone a day since the diagnosis without a call or e-mail from Helton. Johnson has e-mailed him numerous times. So has his golf buddy, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Tony Stewart, Brian Vickers, J.D. Gibbs, Felix Sabates and … well, you get the picture.

Many of the drivers might not be where they are today if not for Hunter's intervention at times when their sometimes-volatile personalities or career-threatening habits were about to get the best of them.

No group has harassed Hunter more than track officials who jokingly tell him to "get your ass back to work."

"They knew it was eating at me not to be there," Hunter said.

Jim Hunter
Jim Hunter met the media to discuss the condition of Jack Roush after the team owner was critically injured in a plane crash in April 2002.

When the NASCAR Hall of Fame opens in May, Hunter won't be one of the first five inductees, but there should be a place for ambassadors such as him. And maybe there will be.

A voting member for the Hall's inaugural class, it was Hunter who stood up among the 50 voters and put at ease everyone who was nervous about speaking their minds with France and other high-ranking officials in the room.

"No one in here will take [anything] personal, including me," Hunter told the group.

Later that day, I approached Hunter for advice on a story about how Mark Martin's greatest achievement was overcoming alcoholism early in his career. A former alcoholic himself, he offered the perfect insight. Hunter has a way of putting everything into proper perspective, whether it's at a news conference to announce that Jeremy Mayfield violated NASCAR's substance-abuse policy or a behind-the-hauler chat after an incident between two drivers.

He's repeated rule 12-4-A, "Actions detrimental to stock car racing," out of the not-so-thick NASCAR rule book more times than Richard Petty has said "You know what I mean."

I met Hunter when he was the president at Darlington Raceway from 1993 to 2001. Having lived the first year of my life only a couple of blocks from the historic track, having worked for the same Columbia, S.C., newspaper where Hunter once waxed eloquent, and grown up in same state, there was an instant connection.

He didn't even hold it against me that I berated his beloved University of South Carolina, where he lettered three years in football and two in baseball. He understood that no writer could make up all the bad things that happened during my years as the Gamecocks beat writer.

He also understands journalism in a way few public relations people do.

"So many damn people in the business, especially in the PR business, they take it too serious," Hunter said. "They forget what the media is supposed to do. The media are not supposed to further our PR goals. Hopefully, they will, but that's not what the media is there for."

That doesn't mean Hunter won't passionately defend his territory. Outside the media center at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last season, he was so irritated by my line of questioning that he vowed never to talk to me again.

Thirty minutes later, he had his hand on my shoulder, laughing and saying he understood I was just doing my job.

I never heard Hunter laugh so hard as the afternoon we spent playing golf with Montoya during his rookie season three years ago. There was a gut-buster after nearly every "f------ moron" shout by the Colombian star following an errant tee shot.

The laughter was loud enough to drown out a stock car engine on the ride back to the clubhouse. Trying to retaliate for the violent bump draft Montoya gave us with his cart, Hunter rammed the cart ahead of him on the winding path.

There was just one problem: It wasn't Montoya's cart.

"No, he flew right around us and didn't stop," the unsuspecting victims said as they climbed out rubbing their necks.

When I asked Montoya whether he had a message for Hunter in his battle with cancer, he responded, "Tell him I have never seen somebody try so hard to play good golf and not been able to pass 150 yards with the drive."

I've commiserated with other people [in these fights], but I don't want folks worrying. It is what it is. I'm gonna do everything I can to get healthy.

-- Jim Hunter

Translated: Keep fighting.

And Hunter will. As he reminded, he had a great role model in former NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr., who battled lung cancer from 1999 'til his death in 2007.

"I had a great teacher when it comes to pragmatism," said Hunter, who has two grown children with wife, Ann.

One of my favorite Hunter lines came years ago while I was writing a story about Darlington, where Hunter normally would be this time of the year if doctors didn't have him under house arrest in Daytona.

"If I ever choose to retire or if somebody retires me, this is where I'll be," said Hunter, who in 1968 got his official start in NASCAR as Darlington's public relations director. "I love this track. I love this town. I love the people here. It's me."

Darlington is Hunter. Too tough to tame.

"I cannot believe those food preservatives caused this," Hunter jokingly said of the cancer. "Of course, they zeroed in on my smoking right away. I said, 'Hold on a second. I've got a theory. I'm blaming it all on the preservatives they put in food.'"

I suggested he blame the red dye in the famous Martinsville hot dogs.

He laughed.

It was good to hear his voice so strong and crusty enough to remind that the marathon banquet continues to be too long, keeping him up well past his current bedtime of 9:30 p.m. as he watched on television. It was reassuring to hear the fight in his words despite what he calls the "worst thing I've ever encountered."

"It's a bitch," said Hunter, who takes his laptop to read during each chemo session. "They're giving me a pretty strong dose of chemo because I can handle it and they think they have a good chance to whip it. Of course, I've got a good attitude."

He then referred to the old Doris Day song "Que Sera, Sera," which when translated means, "Whatever will be, will be."

"That's always been one of my favorite songs," Hunter said. "When I mention Doris Day singing it, though, people say, 'Who?'"

People, particularly those who follow NASCAR, shouldn't say "Who?" when they hear Hunter's name. They should know he is a big part of history of the sport and, God willing, will continue to be.

They should know he is fighting the battle of his life.

"I've commiserated with other people [in these fights], but I don't want folks worrying," Hunter said. "It is what it is. I'm gonna do everything I can to get healthy."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.