Eva Hunter holds a picture of herself from her days as a model. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
The Energizer Bunny couldn’t keep pace with Johnson City’s Eva Hunter; she just keeps going and going, and at a seemingly faster and faster speed.
Speaking of speed. Did you know the Keep Johnson City Beautiful coordinator, Johnson City Public Art Committee member and Johnson City Youth Ballet technique and performance coach was the first woman ever to grace the cover of Stock Car Racing magazine?
After years of modeling and promoting various racing organizations and tracks, she got a call that would put her “racey” frame on the cover of a national magazine.
“Around 1981, I had made a such a splash as a trophy girl, the crowd was chanting my name,” Hunter said.
That’s when Dick Berggren, a well-known motorsports announcer, magazine editor and writer, came to Kingsport to interview and write about her.
“That was a huge opportunity for me,” Hunter said about one of many milestones in her still-motoring career.
Born in Portsmouth, Va., she came to Johnson City when her father retired from the U.S. Navy.
“I’ve kind of been on stage my whole life,” she said. “On Sunday afternoons, we used to go to what was called the Old Soldiers Home. I was 4, and my job was to wave at the veterans. I started giving recitals, began modeling and did promotional tours.”
The Science Hill High School alumnus danced every day after class at Holloway Dancing School and began teaching classical ballet at the school’s Kingsport location upon graduation. She had done a bit of modeling in high school, and began developing her portfolio at 20, honing her communication and promotional skills.
“At 23, I went to Oak Ridge to teach ballet and landed some modeling jobs there and in Knoxville,” she said. “Robert Smawly, promoter of the National Dirt Racing Association in Kingsport, asked me if I’d done any modeling. I said ‘sure.’ He said ‘be in Wytheville, Va., on Saturday.’
“That chance meeting played out in an eight-year career in auto racing. From there, I was in every trade magazine going. I went to all the tracks, starting out on the dirt tracks. I then went to the asphalt tracks and the All-Pro circuit. At that point you had people like Rusty Wallace and Davey Allison honing their skills to go on to NASCAR.”
Hunter attracted sponsors and she was in high demand at tracks everywhere, signing autographs while sitting in the middle of a row of future racing legends. She played second fiddle only to Linda Vaughn — a person racers young and old should recall — in track appearances in the eastern half of the country.
“When I first started, I not only donned a bathing suit and brushed my teeth, I also sold tickets and was in the pits every day with the drivers,” she said. “I got to know the drivers’ wives and families.”
She carried the titles of Miss NDRA and Miss All-Pro. She also garnered various sponsors, including Total Seal Piston Rings, Southern Racing News and a ton of local sponsors, who paid her to wear their logos and endorse their products.
“I’ve walked on more dirt tracks in high heels than any other woman, and then carried that dirt to the asphalt tracks, where I appeared at (American Speed Association) and NASCAR events,” she said. “At Bristol Motor Speedway, around 1982-83, I rode in the pace car at the start of NASCAR races. More than once, the driver had to reach over and grab me by the ankle to keep me from falling out. The centrifugal forces wanted to yank you out.”
She got to know drivers such as Wallace, Allison, Dick Trickle, Neil Bonnett, Tim Richmond and many others, all the while keeping her passion for ballet alive.
Hunter and her former husband formed a race team based out of Orlando, Fla., where he raced late models in the NASCAR division. They also raced in the International Motor Sports Association, participating at Daytona, Fla., in the annual 24-hour event with Red Lobster as their sponsor.
“It went very well,” she said. “It was at a time when the driver, crew chief and mechanic didn’t have the communication systems they have now. It was a fun and exciting time.”
Today, Hunter is as energized as ever. She works hard to promote and campaign for recycling events and the arts in Johnson City. She also has stayed fast with her greatest passion, teaching youngsters as a master instructor of classical ballet technique, specializing in the Vaganova technique. Oh yeah, she works out an hour every day.
This summer she will graduate from East Tennessee State University with a degree in business and physical geography, and she’s seriously considering a master’s degree in business or communications.
Words of wisdom?
“Always be true to yourself in your morals and integrity,” Hunter said. “Keep reaching for your goals. And when you accomplish that goal, set another and another.”
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