Jim Hunter a savior of a hallowed place

A joke about Darlington Raceway used to circulate through the NASCAR traveling show.

"Hey, did you hear about the tornado that hit Darlington?"

"No. Really?"

"It did $5 million worth of improvements."

That's how dilapidated NASCAR's most tradition-rich track was, for decades.

That was before Jim Hunter got there in 1993.

He arrived as track president with the name of one other deeply Southern sporting venue in mind: Augusta National.

He wanted to make Darlington the Augusta National of NASCAR tracks. Honest.

His aspirations leapt that far, that high, for the old Lady in Black. He even considered painting all the grandstands and buildings green.

He never got that far along -- in 2001 he was called back to Daytona Beach, back into service as NASCAR czar Bill France Jr.'s right-hand troubleshooter for the crisis following the death of Dale Earnhardt.

But there is a case to be made that they wouldn't be racing at Darlington on Saturday night if it weren't for Hunter -- a strong possibility that Darlington would have gone the way of North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, off the Cup tour and into obscurity.

They're playing the Jim Hunter Memorial golf tournament Thursday at nearby Florence (S.C.) Country Club. They're rededicating the Jim Hunter Media Center at the track.

That's all nice. But somehow it just doesn't seem like enough -- not that there could be enough expression of gratitude and remembrance for the man who certainly revived Darlington and probably saved it outright.

Virtually everybody in NASCAR claims to love Darlington, but nobody ever truly loved it the way Hunter did. Nobody ever put as much effort into the place as Hunter did.

Georgian by birth but pure South Carolinian by upbringing, Hunter had two great sporting passions: golf and stock car racing. And so it was only natural that he modeled his dream for Darlington after Augusta National.

But early on in his Darlington assignment, Hunter realized and faced up to its limitations. In that rural market, International Speedway Corp. was never going to find it cost-effective to make the track a showplace.

But Hunter made damn sure it was no longer an embarrassment.

He never got $5 million worth of improvements in one shot, but he stayed on the phone to France -- then chairman of both NASCAR and ISC -- pestering him, pleading with him, getting a few hundred thousand here, maybe a million or so there.

Throughout Hunter's tenure, most of us thought Darlington was bound to lose one, maybe both of its annual Cup dates. But he never lost one. The Labor Day weekend race wasn't taken away until 2005, four years after he was called back to Florida.

Finding him was always easy -- you just looked for the biggest crowd of media in the garage area or the media center. He was always at the center of it, telling stories.

First-time Darlington reporters would always arrive stressed, tense, with assignments to do pieces on the history of the place they knew little or nothing about. And I would always point to Hunter and the surrounding crowd and tell them to just go over there and listen.

Invariably, in half an hour or so, they'd come back smiling, rich material gathered for their stories.

Hunter would start with the very night Darlington Raceway was conceived, in a poker game in a tobacco barn down the road, in 1949.

The backwoods genius and quintessential dreamer Harold Brasington had gone to the Indianapolis 500 and come home obsessed with the notion of a big, paved track -- but with the high banking of the Southern dirt tracks.

As the liquor was poured and the cards flew, Brasington turned to local landowner Sherman Ramsey and asked if he could build a racetrack on some of Ramsey's land. Ramsey thought for a moment and said sure, Brasington could take that fallow cotton field out west of town.

Ramsey's one condition was that his minnow pond be left intact as construction proceeded. That's why the track remains a true egg shape, with one end narrower than the other, to this day.

Brasington built the track by the seat of his pants on a bulldozer, piling up dirt wherever he thought looked like a good place for banking.

And that is why Darlington is sort of warped in places, entirely inconsistent, providing what drivers even today consider the toughest, most relentless challenge -- demanding focus literally every single second -- in all of NASCAR.

Bill France Sr., NASCAR's founder and first czar in the dynasty, hadn't really planned on taking his fledgling league to big tracks until Brasington announced he would hold Darlington's first race on Labor Day 1950.

But with other sanctioning bodies ready to take a chance on "Harold's Folly," France figured he'd better jump into the superspeedway gamble or forever be left behind.

They hoped for 10,000 spectators tops. They drew more than 25,000, with traffic so ill-controlled that the infield and surrounding areas were gridlocked.

NASCAR's future, on big tracks, was set.

Hunter understood all of this. He appreciated it more than anyone else. He thought it all worth preserving.

In the fall of 2009, Darlington held a weekend-long exhibition for classic race cars. I went down to conduct some sit-down interviews for ESPN with Hall of Fame candidates: Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bud Moore, Ned Jarrett …

Even eight years gone from managing Darlington, Hunter came back, and stayed all weekend.

But something was worrying him, I could tell. He was smoking again, although he'd been struggling to quit for the past several months.

I'd never seen Hunter look even remotely frightened of anything. But this time, quietly, deep inside, he seemed frightened.

Within weeks, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He fought it for a year, and died last October.

And so this will be the first Darlington race weekend without Hunter, in anyone's memory, probably for a good half-century. He'd come as a fan, as a newspaper reporter, as a publicist, as an executive, as a savior of a hallowed place.

This weekend the great expression of gratitude and remembrance will be by the track itself, more appropriately than ever the Lady in Black, in mourning.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.