NMPA
c/o Bridget Holloman, Exec. Secretary
P.O. Box 500
Darlington, SC 29540
Phone: (843) 395-8811

Columns/Daily & Internet
Third Place
Kenny Bruce, SceneDaily.com

 

Paying tribute to Jim Hunter

            DARLINGTON, S.C. – The electronic sign, flashing red letters on a black background above legendary old Darlington Raceway, was impossible to miss against the damp gray skyline.
            “Jim, we’ll miss you.”
            No one had to ask “Jim who?”
            They came together Wednesday, a standing-room-only crowd, in the Darlington Presbyterian Church to pay tribute to a man who was equal parts Darlington cheerleader, NASCAR executive, proud father and loving husband.
            It wasn’t a memorial service, but a celebration of life, we were told. And while Amazing Grace played to perfection on bagpipes created a sorrowful sound, it was a sound that Jim Hunter, who passed away Friday at 71 after a yearlong bout with cancer, would have appreciated.
            Up front, a pair of Saddle Oxford golf shoes, golf club and familiar yellow NASCAR 1948 ball cap framed a photo of the man most of us knew simply as Hunter.
            He didn’t make the rules, determine the amount of money in the purse or decide which races would be run when and where. Yet legends of the sport of auto racing mingled with stars of today as the crowd gathered inside the Pearl Street church to pay tribute.
            “He was an athlete, fan, promoter, PR man and a counselor. He was the face of NASCAR, and in many ways, NASCAR was his face,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said in his opening remarks.
            “It didn’t matter if you knew him for 50 years or just five minutes, Hunter made you feel like your issue was all he had to pay attention to. It didn’t matter if you owned every major newspaper in every major market or if it was your first day on the beat, if you owned half the state or if you were a 12-year-old scrapping to become a race car driver, Hunter treated you the same.”
            He got along especially well with those who covered the sport, in part because he had been there himself. But he left his work with daily newspapers and eventually became president of Darlington Raceway from 1993-2001.
            Eventually, he headed south to Daytona where he took on a larger role overseeing the sanctioning body’s communications department. His depth of knowledge regarding the history of the sport and his folksy manner, however, made him just as valuable inside the garage. Whether it was counseling up-and-coming drivers, helping settle disputes between veterans or explaining a NASCAR decision to the media, Hunter handled it with professionalism and honest-to-goodness enthusiasm.
            His thoughts were never far from the sandy soil of Darlington, however, where he made an impression on the community, and the community left its impression on him.
            “I knew as soon as I met Jim, ‘I like this guy.’ Because it was obvious to me right off the bat that Jim was comfortable in his own skin,” Rev. Dr. Olin Whitner told those gathered inside the church.
            “Not because he was the president of Darlington Raceway but because he was just comfortable being Jim Hunter. And he had nothing to prove to anyone but himself.
            “Jim did not have to make sure that the raceway was involved in this community in order to sell more tickets to the races. He did what he did because he was concerned about people, about making a difference. He loved NASCAR, all of us know that, but if you knew Hunter, you knew he loved people more.”
            And he loved no one more than his family. Ann, his wife of 48 years, son Scott and daughter Amy. And the grandkids? He adored his grandkids.
            So it was only fitting that it was a heartfelt opening prayer from 14-year-old grandson Hunter McKernan that began Wednesday’s service.
            “Thank you for his happy and joking attitude that made him loved by everyone,” the youngster said, and there wasn’t a dry eye left in the church. “Thank you for what he meant to our family and what he meant to all of his friends. I have 14 years of memories … he always was the most generous man I knew. He was truly a role model to me and I always looked up to him. ….”
            After that, what more really needed to be said?

This soldier's journey leads him to faraway lands and then blessedly Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Sgt. Chris Dempsey says, “We were fighting guys as close as that TV,” and you can’t help but notice that the TV he’s talking about is located just across the room.
            It’s not a big room, by any means.
            “We were coming out of the mountains and we got trapped in a ‘kill zone.’ You’ve heard of a kill zone, right?” he asks.
            “Most kill zones last only four to six minutes. Most people just push through a kill zone. We stayed in the kill zone for almost 40 minutes.”
            It’s raining outside and you know the weather delay is going to scramble the day’s schedule at the track, you’ve got stories to chase down and you haven’t checked your e-mail in a while … and then you run into someone like Chris Dempsey. And suddenly you are reminded of the sacrifices others have made – without being asked, without complaint and without regard for their own safety.
            Dempsey is 44, lives in Yuma, Ariz., he’s married and he has five daughters. He’s the kind of guy you’d want beside you in the worst of circumstances. And you’d probably be glad to have him there during the best of times, too.
            He was also one of five entrants, all with military connections, named as finalists for this year’s Crown Royal “Your Name Here” promotion. The winner, Heath Calhoun of Clarksville, Tenn., will have his name attached to this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway. The Heath Calhoun 400 is scheduled for May 1.
            Dempsey wasn’t disappointed to learn he wasn’t the overall winner. He says he was as genuinely happy for Calhoun as he would have been if his own name had been called.
            “Heath, I’m really proud of you,” Dempsey said, his voice trembling. “In my and Heath’s world, you either leave from the front …” and he can’t finish, but he really doesn’t have to because you understand the alternative to that.
            “You never ask a soldier to do something you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself,” he says. “And you never leave a fallen comrade.”
            Calhoun, a retired member of the Army, lost both legs in an explosion in Iraq when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Humvee in 2003.
            Next month, he’ll be in Vancouver, British Columbia, to compete in the 2010 Paralympics in the Super Giant Slalom and slalom events.
            Dempsey says he flew to Daytona Beach on the same plane with Calhoun, “and I sat down behind him and I was so proud of him I just started crying.
            “He’s just phenomenal.”
•••
            You want to describe Dempsey? Try courageous. Four times he’s been deployed to the Middle East. In 2007, he was sent to Afghanistan as part of a provisional reconstruction team and soon became part of a maneuver element.
            “Basically,” he says, “that’s the infantry platoon that protects the outside of the base.”
            In military terms, it’s known as living outside the wire.
            Attached to the 82nd Airborne, his outfit “moved into a place called the Alsay Valley, which is supposedly the birthplace of the Taliban. It’s a real nasty place,” he says.
            Which brings us back to the kill zone.
            “We were trapped and couldn’t get out,” he says, and compared his unit’s situation to “putting 13 people on a football field, giving everybody in the stands guns and telling them to kill the guys on the football field.”
            Between 100 and 120 Taliban fighters surrounded Dempsey and a dozen or so others. Three U.S. soldiers were “on the big guns,” he said, and thus couldn’t leave the trucks while three drivers had to remain with the vehicles as well. That left only a handful of men on the ground.
            Somehow, the unit fought its way out without suffering the first casualty. It had become a common occurrence. A unit that was involved in nearly 100 firefights became known as the “Blessed Platoon.”
            “Guys would say, ‘C’mon brother, how do you get into all that … You average 7-8 firefights a week, nobody’s dying, a couple of Purple Hearts, what are you guys doing that everybody else is doing different?’"
            Dempsey, a recipient of the Bronze Star and Army Commendation for Valor, says his answer was simple: “We don’t know. We’re just alive.”
            On another occasion, his unit had just finished a daylong firefight. “Tired, shot up and some of us were bleeding,” he says.
            “I was looking at my soldiers and I was thinking, ‘This is one of those moments where someone like [Gen. George S.] Patton … gets up and says something cool.”
            So Dempsey freely admits he “stole” some verses, and nearly three years later, he sits in front of a room full of reporters and repeats the verses without fail.
            “For those who shed their blood with me today, I shall call a friend forever. And when the clouds of misery descend upon you and darkness creeps into your thoughts, fear not, for the light which separates heaven and earth will guide you home. And worry not, because on this day, we stood together as one. On this day, this time and this place.”
••• 
            “Hey, I’m gonna give Matt something. You wanna come with me?” Dempsey asks and it’s hard to tell if he’s more nervous or excited about the prospect of approaching Matt Kenseth.
            Kenseth, whose Roush Fenway Racing Ford is sponsored by Crown Royal, is working his way through an assortment of hats, programs and other memorabilia, signing each item for the finalists.
            “I’ve only ever had two of them,” Dempsey quietly tells Kenseth, carefully handing him the slender, blue box. “The first one I gave to my mom.”
            Inside is Dempsey’s Bronze Star, a military award presented for bravery, acts of merit or meritorious service.
            “I just don’t know how to say thanks,” Dempsey says, almost apologetically. “It’s just something for you to remember us.”
••• 
            The rain continues to fall, and the day’s race schedule is practically a wash. The stories are waiting and the e-mail inbox is full.
            And then you run into someone like Chris Dempsey. And realize that just saying “Thank you” isn’t nearly enough.

A memory lapse for Jimmie Johnson?

            INDIANAPOLIS – Jimmie Johnson says it’s so tough to win races today, and you wonder if he’s forgotten that he’s already won five times this season.
            Hard to believe that would be the case. His Hendrick Motorsports team is only two races into its latest “slump,” and while he might be a new father, he’s still a couple of months shy of 35 and his mind should be pretty sharp.
            When he strolled into his weekly meeting with members of the media here on the grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Friday, he was wearing blue jeans and a golf shirt with the appropriate Lowe’s markings. Then again, maybe all his shirts are stitched accordingly, and it’s hard to make a fashion faux pas when that’s the case.
            Who knows? When you win multiple races for multiple years en route to becoming a multiple champion, the multiple darling of many and the multiple enemy of others, maybe the memory does start to play tricks on you. Maybe he’s forgotten that even though he’s third in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series point standings, his five wins and eight top-five finishes would make him the No. 1 seed in that all-important “if the Chase started today” category.
            Maybe he’s forgotten that he’s still the guy with the bulls-eye on the back, the guy everyone wants to beat every week, but you’d think after four years, he’d be more likely to forget his anniversary than forget that.
            The competition get its chance here again Sunday, when the Brickyard 400 gets under way, and it’s not likely their memories will be foggy. They know Johnson has won the last two times the Cup series has come here, and three of the last four.
            Tony Stewart won the only one Johnson didn’t during that span, but the owner/driver heads into the race winless on the season and has only recently begun putting together a stretch of solid finishes expected from a team of his caliber.
            Kevin Harvick, points leader for 10 consecutive weeks, is a former Indy winner as well and always seems to be a contender here, but his two wins have come at restrictor-plate tracks this year and thus far, NASCAR’s made no mention of bringing out the plates for this weekend’s race.
            Denny Hamlin’s surgically repaired knee is no longer an item of interest, and although he’s managed to win a career-best five races this season as well, the Joe Gibbs Racing team has yet to prove it can master Indy’s technically difficult layout.
            It may be up to Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon to derail Johnson this weekend. After all, he’s second in points and the only thing between Johnson and Harvick, but Gordon has spent the better part of this season building an impressive resume of races he’s failed to win.
            It’s a pretty clear picture for those guys, and a handful of others – beat Johnson and there’s a good chance you’ll end up in the winner’s circle. Here and most anywhere else.
            Johnson says his team’s not simply idling through the remaining races and “waiting to turn it on” when the 10-race Chase arrives.
            He calls it a “fragile environment” and says the closeness of the rules keeps any advantage from lasting more than a month.
            But by then, he says, “everybody in the garage has it, and you’re off trying to find the new thing again.”
            Maybe so, but looking at his team’s track record you get the idea that his “month” has stretched out for the better part of four years.
            “When we've been on a roll and we go into the media center and see everybody, you don't realize how hard it is [to win],” he says. “And you guys roll your eyes and say, ‘Oh, yeah, sure.’ We're serious.”
            You think he’s on the level after all, but it’s hard to tell, because you’re too busy wondering if he ever wears all four championship rings at the same time.

Induction ceremony took NASCAR history from exhibit walls to live on stage

            CHARLOTTE – Maybe it wasn’t the greatest thing ever to happen to NASCAR, but all in all, I thought it was pretty doggone cool.
            I can’t help but think that if you’re a NASCAR fan and you missed Sunday’s inaugural Hall of Fame induction ceremony, then you missed an all-too-rare opportunity to get a living, breathing history lesson on the evolution of stock-car racing and, specifically, the evolution of NASCAR.
            Knowing that legends don’t walk among us forever – as evidenced by the fact that three of this year’s five-person class were inducted posthumously – the opportunity to see and hear some of the men who built and shaped the sport was … well, for a lot of folks, it was about as good as it gets.
            How often are we afforded the chance to hear larger-than-life folk heroes provide us with a small glimpse of what their world was like as they worked their way, unknowingly, toward becoming legends in the sport?
            What’s amazing is that as you listened to them, or those speaking on their behalf, you realize that those folks are larger-than-life to everyone but themselves.
            Bill France Jr. had a simple message for every driver that ever stepped out of line: The sport’s bigger than you, it’s bigger than me, and it’ll be here long after we’re gone. He might have said that to make sure he had the driver’s attention, but France knew it was the simple truth, too.
            Richard Petty will tell anyone and everyone that without the fans, there wouldn’t be a NASCAR and there wouldn’t be a Richard Petty.
            And Robert Glenn Johnson III, son of Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, said upon presenting his father that he’d been taught two things: to be honest and to respect the fans.
            France Jr., Petty and Johnson were inducted along with NASCAR founder William H.G. France and seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt in a ceremony that three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip called “a humbling experience.”
            Team owner Rick Hendrick noted that “everybody here was celebrating our sport and recognizing everybody was on the same team today.”
            It was more, however, than a celebration of the sport’s history.
            “I know that we’ve talked so much and you’ve heard from other people that it’s a celebration of the past and all the milestones,” Brian France, NASCAR chairman, said. “And it was.
            “But I think today marked a little bit about the future, too, because of how … everybody came together in an amazing way to mark a lot of accomplishments.”
            I’ve been impressed with NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. It may not meet everyone’s expectations, but I doubt if anyone can spend a couple of hours in the place and not find something that interests them. I don’t know if it will be a huge success or if it might struggle to meet some pretty lofty expectations that have been placed before it. But I think Winston Kelley and his group got it right. They have done an unbelievable job of locating and preserving artifacts and presenting glimpses of the sport along with the people who helped bring it to life.
            There was a time when NASCAR, for whatever reason, shunned its moonshining background and its rough-and-rowdy beginnings. The fact that you can see an honest-to-goodness moonshine still housed in the hall today tells you that’s no longer the case.
            That Johnson, who once served an 11-month stretch for his involvement with the legendary libation, was among the inaugural class was fitting.
            And that’s the one glaring difference between the hall of fame and the hall of fame induction ceremony – the ceremony took it one step beyond. History wasn’t positioned behind the glass on Sunday, it was standing right there in front of everyone.
            NASCAR functions such as the season-ending awards ceremonies are often heavy on hype and lean on substance. Sunday’s event didn’t fall into that category. Instead, it was an afternoon of celebration, of laughs, tears, recollections and reflections.
            I don’t want to “god it all up,” but as I said earlier, it was pretty darn cool.
            NASCAR needed its own hall of fame. But more importantly, it needed folks like the Frances, Johnson, Petty and Earnhardt.

A fine mess for NASCAR without full disclosure

            News that NASCAR has allegedly fined at least two drivers for derogatory comments, without disclosing the names of the competitors or the alleged incidents that brought about the fines, is a black mark against the sanctioning body and the sport itself.
            With attendance dwindling and TV ratings stagnant, negative news is the last thing the sport needs right now. Yet there’s no way to put a positive spin on the latest revelation that speaking one’s mind can put a hefty dent in the wallet.
            NASCAR has no business hiding behind closed doors when any infraction that results in the loss of points or money is handed down. Yet that’s exactly what officials are doing. All for the good of “protecting the brand,” we’re told.
            Comparing it to a meeting with officials in the NASCAR hauler, the details of which are seldom revealed, carries absolutely no weight. If officials have a problem with comments made by someone in the sport, and choose to meet and discuss those concerns privately, that’s one thing.
            But the moment a meeting such as that results in a monetary fine, it becomes something much different. A penalty has been issued, and that’s no different from any other punishment that’s been doled out for various other offenses.
            For example, NASCAR doesn’t announce every occasion when someone in the garage is asked to submit to a drug test. But when someone runs afoul of the substance abuse policy, the results are made known.
            That news of this “policy” comes while officials are preaching to teams that it’s in everyone’s best interest to mix it up on the race track and show emotion makes it even more ridiculous. Talk about your mixed messages. Apparently NASCAR officials want drivers, owners and crewmen to open up and spread the gospel according to NASCAR, but only when they have something positive to say about the sport.
            If NASCAR wants to fine a driver for speaking out, that’s the organization’s option, but failure to disclose such fines is doing a disservice to the sport and to its fans. Yes, similar fines have been handed down in other sports when athletes or coaches speak ill of officiating or the governing body itself. But in each of those instances, the infractions and fines were made public.
            Officials aren’t doing drivers, owners or crewmen any favors by keeping such incidents hidden from view. If fines aren’t disclosed, how are others to know what’s deemed acceptable and what isn’t? How are teams, and fans for that matter, to know that each organization is treated equally? Simply because officials tell us that’s the case? Somehow, that doesn’t exactly sound like the best way to run a professional sport that generates huge sums of money.
            As it stands, only those who make the decisions know where the line lies between what’s considered a derogatory comment and an honest opinion. Which leaves teams to wonder what they can and can’t say without fear of retribution.
            It won’t be surprising, however, if we learn that drivers have chosen to toe the company line and insist they don’t have a problem with such incidents being kept quiet. Why would they say otherwise? The last thing a driver would want under such circumstances would be for everyone to know about it.
            The knowledge that such a policy exists makes it even less likely that drivers would speak out against it – after all, doing so could possibly result in a fine.
            Of course, under NASCAR policy, we’d never hear about it.
            I realize, and am often reminded, that a lot of people make a good living off the sport. But that is no reason to always paint a picture that everything is rosy and things are wonderful, because, unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
            It’s NASCAR’s job to oversee the sport and determine what is within the rules and what isn’t. It is not, however, the sanctioning body’s job to make judgments that impact teams and to do so without disclosure.
It’s a sport in which everyone is supposed to be playing by the same rules.
            But if everyone doesn’t know what the rules are, how can they abide by them?