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NASCAR executive Hunter dies at 71

Jim Hunter, a NASCAR executive who spent portions of six decades in the industry, first as a newspaper reporter and later as a public relations official with the sanctioning body, has died after a yearlong battle with cancer. He was 71.

Hunter died Friday night in Daytona Beach, Fla., NASCAR said.

He was at Talladega Superspeedway when he was diagnosed last fall, and a race will be held there Sunday.

"Jim Hunter was one of NASCAR's giants," said NASCAR chairman Brian France. "For more than 40 years Jim was part of NASCAR and its history. He loved the sport, but loved the people even more. It seems as if everyone in the sport called him a friend.

"Jim will forever be missed by the NASCAR community."

Beloved in the NASCAR garage area for his quick wit and knack for building personal relationships, Hunter played a critical role in helping the sport adjust to additional public scrutiny in the wake of Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001.

"Jim was a uniquely talented man that cannot be replaced," NASCAR President Mike Helton said. "He was a great friend and mentor to so many in the sport. His influence will remain with and be carried on by so many of the people he touched. This is a sad day for Jim's family and his extended, NASCAR family."

Hunter helped shape NASCAR's image during its mid-2000s popularity boom, but his influence went well beyond media relations.

He was a member of late NASCAR chairman and CEO Bill France Jr.'s inner circle and had a hand in most major decisions of the sport.

"He not only helped bring the sport of NASCAR to a national level, he also had a profound influence on the lives of everyone he met," said Lesa France Kennedy, CEO of International Speedway Corp.

"His charm, sharp wit and incredible sense of humor will be remembered by everyone who had the pleasure of meeting him. We'll also greatly miss his warm smile and sage advice."

Hunter was often a buffer — and occasional peacemaker — between NASCAR's leaders and drivers, team owners and track promoters. He took time to counsel NASCAR's newest drivers, particularly Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya as they adjusted to the sanctioning body's strict ways.

"If it wasn't for Jim Hunter there is a good possibility that I might not have ever made it through my first 2 years in NASCAR," Harvick posted on Twitter, referring to the tumultuous start he had in NASCAR's top series. Harvick fought with NASCAR officials and other drivers as he was thrust into Dale Earnhardt's team following Earnhardt's death in 2001.

Hunter was known to seek out drivers and help them navigate their way with NASCAR's old-school style of leadership. And he was patient with the media, even while fielding the hard questions in times of crisis. He took time for fans on Facebook and Twitter, and made the bulk of every day about promoting his passion for NASCAR.

"Jim Hunter will be sorely missed because he knew more about pure media relations and particularly how it relates to the fan than anyone in motor racing," said longtime promoter Humpy Wheeler, who was teammates with Hunter on South Carolina's football team.

"He was best in crisis always giving sage advice behind the scene. He also knew when to interject humor when everyone was ready to crack. There is no doubt that he stands as one of the best PR practitioners not only in racing but in sport. I will miss calling upon him for advice for it was always the best and most practical."

After playing football for the Gamecocks, Hunter would spend the rest of his life in sports.

His early career stops included a stint as sports editor of the Columbia (S.C.) Record and as a writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He wrote several books, including a biography of driver David Pearson.

Hunter also worked as the public relations director at Darlington Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway before joining NASCAR in 1983 as vice president of administration. Clad always in golf shoes — the game was his passion — and a yellow 48 hat that signified NASCAR's start, he was known throughout the industry as "Hunter" and to his three grandchildren as "Jimbo."

In 1993 he became president of Darlington Raceway and a vice president of the International Speedway Corporation. He remained at Darlington until 2001 when he accepted an offer from France to return to the NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., to lead the expanded public relations effort.

Hunter is survived by his wife of 48 years, Ann Hunter; his children, Scott Hunter and Amy McKernan and his three grandchildren.

Hunter's death comes two weeks after longtime Bristol Motorspeedway president Jeff Byrd lost his battle with cancer, and just days after the death of Ed Shull, a longtime public relations figure in NASCAR, most recently as a representative for Gatorade.

"The past few weeks have been some of the saddest I can remember," Talladega Superspeedway chairman Grant Lynch said. "Quite honestly, I don't know what to say about Jim Hunter that would even begin to describe him. He was just a larger than life figure in our sport. It wasn't because he sought the spotlight either, but because he was genuine and real. He was someone that people wanted to gravitate to.

"It's going to be with incredibly heavy hearts that we move forward with our race preparations, but I know it's what Jim would want and expect," Lynch said.

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AP Sports Writer Chris Jenkins contributed from Talladega, Ala.