Old NASCAR lost its last giant

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The last bastion of the real NASCAR is gone. Hunter is dead.

Oh, plenty of legendary drivers, crewmen and owners are still alive. I'm talking about inside the actual governing body, NASCAR itself.

I'm talking about the very soul of NASCAR. Hunter was that.

In media accounts we referred to him as Jim Hunter, but never at the tracks. All you ever needed to say was Hunter.

First time I met Hunter was at a poker table in a smoky room strewn with half-gallon bottles of cheap liquor in a motel at Pell City, Ala., about 14 miles west of here. It was Talladega 500 weekend, 1974.

A former University of South Carolina football player, Hunter was by then a hard-drinking, quick-fisted sports writer for the Atlanta Journal. But not for long. He loved NASCAR so much he'd rather be in it than covering it.

He went to work as chief publicist for what was then called Alabama International Motor Speedway. Soon after, he flipped a pace car end-over-end into a field. The rescue workers found him in the trunk.

Hunter never had another drink.

And from there he rose higher and higher in the NASCAR establishment, holding myriad titles for the next 30-odd years.

But always I thought of his work this way: He was Bill France Jr.'s chief troubleshooter. First. Foremost. Always.

When the going got tough, really tough, the second czar of NASCAR always sent for Hunter.

Never was it tougher than in the aftermath of the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. NASCAR was caught in a national uproar over safety. Hunter was brought in from pasture, a nice job that included a lot of golf, as president of Darlington Raceway in South Carolina.

Hunter was ordered back to Daytona Beach to handle the Earnhardt crisis. He brought in reinforcements -- mainly his old Georgia buddy Jody Powell, former press secretary for President Jimmy Carter, who by then had his own public relations agency in Washington, D.C.

First time Hunter brought Powell into the NASCAR boardroom, Bill France Jr. went on a diatribe about how unfairly NASCAR was being treated by the damned media.

Powell leaned back, winked at Hunter and said, "I believe you need a plan. And in my experience, being pissed off at the media is not a plan."

France busted out laughing along with Hunter and Powell, and NASCAR was on its way to recovery from the Earnhardt crisis.

I got caught in the midst of the storm. One of the newspapers in the Tribune Co. chain for which I worked at the time, the Orlando Sentinel, sued for the release of Earnhardt's autopsy photos to expert scrutiny, in an attempt to determine if better head restraints, such as the HANS device, might save drivers' lives.

The newspaper editors didn't ask me if they should go to court. They didn't tell me they were going to court. They didn't even tell me afterward. I found out about it thirdhand.

Still, I caught much of the blame for the litigation in the garage area.

Hunter, being a former newspaperman, understood the situation. France, for the first and only time in his life, stopped talking to me. Hunter continued talking to me privately, explaining France's feelings about the situation.

France found out we'd been talking. He summoned Hunter to his office.

"You really think you need to be talking to that goddamned Hinton?" France asked.

"Yes," Hunter said. "I really do. Hinton's just doing his job."

France growled, "Awwright, Hunter. Do what you think is best."

That's just an inkling of how powerful Hunter was, how thoroughly France trusted his opinions.

In rapid succession after Earnhardt's death, it seemed like all of our longtime acquaintances in the garages and media centers just kept on dying out or retiring. Suddenly even Bill France Jr. was gone.

Hunter and I were the last two cigarette addicts left around from the 30-year reign of RJR and its Winston brand as NASCAR's primary series sponsor.

He would come up behind me in some media center, nudge me and whisper, "Let's go smoke." We would walk outside, where we talked about the times of Petty and Pearson and the Allisons and Yarborough, and the tough old corps of reporters we'd come up among.

Entirely new generations of drivers and media had arisen, and often, Hunter would exhale a long drag from his Salem and say, "Hinton, you and I are the last of the breed."

When he turned 65 he went to the Mayo Clinic for a thorough physical exam, and the doctors told him he was fine except for the smoking.

"One of them asked, 'Why don't you just quit?'" Hunter told me, and he grinned. "I said, 'Because I like 'em.'"

In 2008, ESPN and ESPN.com aired and published stories somewhat critical of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, for not doing enough. NASCAR's now-burgeoning PR offices were all worked up, until Hunter got back into the office.

Fair journalism and commentary were always acceptable to Hunter, "fair" being the key word.

"I told everybody, 'What are we all getting so worked up about?'" Hunter told me later. "I told them, 'Everybody calm down.'"

In September of 2009, Hunter and I were at Darlington's classic racing celebration, where he was facilitating sit-down TV interviews I was doing with candidates for NASCAR's initial Hall of Fame class: Junior Johnson, Bud Moore, Ned Jarrett, Cale Yarborough …

After a particularly gut-wrenching interview with Moore about his record as a highly decorated hero in World War II, Hunter and I walked outside to smoke.

He didn't joke about it this time. Something was wrong.

"You know," he said, "I've tried to quit for six weeks now. And I just …"

A month later, Hunter was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was Talladega weekend. I couldn't remember the last time he'd missed a race.

It was small-cell lung cancer. The worst kind. He fought it for a year, fought it as hard as a man can fight. Friday night he died. On Talladega weekend. He was 71.

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