NASCAR broadcaster/ER Dr. Jerry Punch reflects on his unique life and careers — from saving Rusty Wallace’s life to decades of NASCAR memories
BROOKLYN, Mich.-- Many people have have a couple different careers in their lifetime.
However, emergency room doctor and NASCAR reporter are rarely the combination you see.
In fact, there’s probably only one guy who can really say that he’s done both for decades – Dr. Jerry Punch, who NASCAR fans know from his race coverage both now and in the early days of NASCAR.
I recently sat down with Punch at Michigan International Speedway and talked about everything from his unique life – which has seen him save lives both at hospitals and at the racetrack, and bring the sport we all love to so many people over the past few decades.
History in NASCAR
Dr. Jerry Punch has been around NASCAR for a long time.
He started covering the sport on radio in 1979, and then made the move to television on ESPN in 1984.
Punch said the move to having a regular presence on TV was one of the biggest boosts to the sport in that era.
“Television allowed people on a national basis to see what had been a regional sport. It gave people a glimpse inside NASCAR -- what it was like to be in Bristol Tennessee on a Saturday night.”
Prior to that, Punch said, TV coverage was spotty – only clips here and there on highlight shows like Wild World of Sports.
“When I first started, there were a few races that were covered in highlight form on Wide World of Sports. I remember working WWOS at Daytona with Keith Jackson and Donnie Allison. We did a part of the race, and the first pit stop. I called Richard Petty’s pit stop and next thing you know Keith Jackson was throwing it to Oslo Norway for the Midnight Mile and Jim Lampley. And I looked around and they were winding up cables. I said what are we doing? They said basically we’re done. Next week’s it’s going to be highlights. That was the coverage you were thrilled to get.”
ESPN’s coverage took it to a whole new level, showing the TV audience NASCAR locales they had yet to see, and bringing details to the public in new ways.
“When ESPN came on board, we took people to Rockingham, Darlington, and a lot of places. We developed a lot of things. CBS had onboard cameras, we pared it down to different views. The crew cams. The last few years, the High-def onboard. You can count if there’s a piece of gravel.
In those days, before the big TV deal was announced in 2001 that would bring NASCAR to network TV full-time, ESPN did about 20 races per year, with TNT, CBS and ABC picking up a few each to round out the season.
The role of ESPN in the growth of the sport should not be underestimated, Punch explained.
“To put racing on a network that is already a destination for sports fans. Nothing against other channels, because I love to hunt and fish. But putting NASCAR on a channel where people are deer hunting before you and fishing after, that just propagated the good-old-boy network. Just a bunch of shade-tree southern rednecks. Putting NASCAR on a network where there’s football basketball, NHL, MLB, suddenly NASCAR gets considered a major-league sport.”
Shut out in 2001
Punch recalls being stunned when ESPN was shut out of the 2001 agreement.
“I was surprised in 2001 that NASCAR didn’t stay to some extent on ESPN. We were really good partners with NASCAR. We grew together. On ESPN 2, we put Busch races and qualifying. We covered modifieds, late models at Martinsville, Truck series. We grew and NASCAR grew. Suddenly at the end of 2000, we were shut out. The kid we grew up playing catch with in the back yard, hoping he would someday be a major leaguer, not only weren’t we allowed to play with him anymore, we weren’t even allowed in the ball park.
“We had to sit out in the parking lot, or the helipad to talk to drivers. That was very frustrating for a lot of us.”
Still, he recognizes the good that came from that deal – network coverage.
“I also think network coverage was another for NASCAR. At the time, cable didn’t have the exposure network had. Now it’s a different animal.”
Dr. Jerry Punch is a doctor for real, not just a guy with a bunch of degrees calling himself doctor. He was an emergency department director for years, and was hospital chief of staff for two terms.
For part of his career, he traveled on weekends to cover NASCAR and did his medical work during the week. He no longer actively practices; because “you have to do it every day to do it.”
Punch still does some other types on occasion, too -- “speaking on different topics, consulting on sports medicine, consulting on head and neck injuries, motivational seminars
He never had any grand plans to be a media type, but it started out as a backup plan while in medical school.
“My design wasn’t to be a broadcaster. In medical school, they tell you that the pressure and stress level and the suicide rate among physicians is pretty high. They told you things like that to frighten you.
“They tell you, “You’ve got to have an out. You got to have family time, you got to have mental time. Whether you go play golf or tennis. I grew up in a rural area in western North Carolina. My family was peripherally involved in NASCAR and local short track racing. I could drive a short track (he drove some “limited sportsman late models”).
“I stopped driving when I got into medical school, did some announcing for Ned Jarrett, promoter at the local track (Hickory Motor Speedway). That’s how it all developed. Regulars at the local track were Harry Gant, Morgan Shepherd, Dale Earnhardt, and other legends,” Punch explained.
He said Ned Jarrett is one of his mentors.
“Ned was like a second father to me. That was my hometrack. The track was not far from my grandfather’s farm, across the pasture. When I was working on the farm, I could hear cars testing on the track so I could go over and see.”
His medical abilities have come in handy at the racetrack at times.
When Ernie Irvan nearly died after wrecking at MIS, Punch didn’t get involved medically, but he did go on ESPN and discuss what was happening, and later went to the hospital with Benny Parsons – both were friends of Ernie – and spent time with Irvan’s family as they anxiously awaited news on his condition.
With Rusty Wallace, though, Punch did save his life. He explained the details of how that happened.
”Rusty somersaulted and flipped and rolled at Bristol. The top of the car was compressed. he wasn’t breathing. he had blood trickling out of both sides of his mouth. I managed to get an airway open while they cut the roof of the car off. We were able to suction him out, get him to an ambulance and get him resuscitated so he could breathe.”
He also helped save the life of Don Marmor, an ARCA driver from Chicago.
It was a taped race, no cameras. The race has been red-flagged. Punch was told there was a bad wreck. He ran to the accident as soon as he heard about it.
“The steering wheel was basically compressed, impaled on his chest. I get an IV and put a line in his heart from inside the racecar. We get him out and I go with him to the infield hospital and run a trauma code while I’m on the phone with the helicopter from the trauma center in downtown Atlanta. We’ve got lines in. He’s got a closed head injury. Multiple fractures and we’re keeping him alive. He’s alive today. I don’t think he ever raced again.
“About two years ago, I got a call from Don Marmor’s son. The family called to personally thank me, and that meant a lot. And the paramedics did a great job.”
After saving Rusty’s life, it’s somewhat ironic that the two work together now. He joked about what other drivers would tell him in the weeks after he saved Rusty.
“I always pick on Rusty, because for weeks after that, Earnhardt and other drivers would come up to me and say, “You saved Rusty Wallace -- why? Why would you do that?“ Punch joked.
He also had some kind words for the way Rusty ended up his career.
“We’re great friends. I think the world of him. Not many drivers in this sport have the courage to walk away when they’re still on top. Rusty was one of the very few. He was still competitive when he said ‘I’m going to go out on top’ That takes guts to do that.”
Punch also had a reunion of another sort at ESPN, that goes back to his childhood days.
He went to the same high school as Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree (Newtwon-Conover High School). The trio worked on Jarrett’s first racecar together; went their own ways in the racing business (driver, crew chief, announcer), and now are all working together as announcers on ESPN.
Drivers lashing out
Punch got some publicity he probably didn’t want last year when he and his camera crew were on the end of a tirade by Kurt Busch, which is part of the reason Kurt ended up losing his ride at Penske. In the tirade, Kurt called Punch’s cameraman a “m-----------“, and it went viral on YouTube. Not long after, Kurt was out of a ride after sponsors got wind and Penske had to make a move, especially considering Kurt’s cantankerous history with the team.
Still, Punch holds no grudges. He said part of that ability to forget and forgive comes from his years in the ER.
“I feel that’s where being a trauma/ER doctor helps me more than anything. Unlike a doctor who has an office, no one who comes in the ER wants to be there. No one’s a happy camper. They’re not happy. I dealt with that every day. The disappointment, the anguish, anger, frustration. You’ve got to be understanding. I have a job to do. I say, ‘Let’s make the best of it’
He said the media and drivers do have a mutual respect and know each other are just doing their jobs. And he understands their frustrations at times. He also said it’s often better if they don’t say anything to the media when they’re mad, because it usually doesn’t help them at all.
“Drivers know I have a job to do. They’re out there risking their life and they’re under a microscope. At the Glen, Kyle Busch had driven his tail off, slides in oil and loses. He comes out of the hauler. 2 years ago, he would have come out and blasted everyone. But, I also know he’s matured so much that the best thing he can do -- and I’m quietly hoping -- is he just looks and walks away. Nothing he can say is going to come across well. Everything he can say is going to be taken out of context. Don’t say anything.“
Punch said that Tony Stewart learned when to keep his thoughts to himself in 2001, and a year later he was a champion.
He recalled a similar situation with Darrell Waltrip many years ago during an all-star race.
“Those drivers know that my job is to ask the question. Years ago, DW comes out ready to talk, I said to DW: “Just remember. What comes out of your mouth, you can’t ever get back. If you want to say it, that’s fine. But remember, you can’t get those words back.”
Punch said he tries not to give leading questions, and remain objective, and that drivers appreciate that.
“I pride myself in asking respectful questions that don’t back them into a corner. I don’t accuse or imply things. Most of the drivers appreciate that and will give you a good answer. Too many times they get asked a question that implies wrongdoing or guilt on their part, and there’s an agenda.”
He said after the Kurt Busch incident, he was asked to comment on what happened. But he took his own advice and said nothing.
“I said to everyone, “Nothing I say is going to help the situation. I’m not going to kick this guy while he’s down. I respect his talents and abilities. We talked on the phone. When he does well, I’m the first to congratulate him. I said in offseason, I would love nothing better than for him to succeed in the 51 car. We need talents like Kurt Busch in a racecar. I harbor no ill will toward him.”
ESPN is now back in the sport, of course, and Punch said he’s honored to be back on the NASCAR beat for the past several years.
“I’m very proud, honored to be a part of this network. I’ve been here for 27 years and we have people who work around the clock with creative juices to find ways to bring fans closer and closer inside what’s happening in the sport. To cable cameras flying across the track, to dual-path cameras, in-race reporter.
“I hope we’re back for a long time ... I want to be a part of this for 30 more years.”
He recalled one time that Carl Edwards wanted to talk to the broadcast crew while driving under green. Even though ESPN told him they couldn’t allow that for safety reasons, he started talking anyway.
“We told him he couldn’t,” Punch said. “He just opened the mic and started talking. We did a lap and a half.”
Punch believes ESPN is the network that can keep fans of all ages tuning into the sport.
“It’s really important for NASCAR to hold on to their grassroots fans, but also grab the younger demographics, and I think ESPN is the perfect place for that to happen. We reach so many different demographic groups. We are able to take NASCAR and spread it across so many platforms, and that’s special. We can put practice and qualifying between two college football games or the X-Games.
“How can a network now take a sport that grew exponentially in the 1990s and grow it again. That’s the challenge.”
He applauded the role of social media in the new era of NASCAR.
“The fact we’re able to put Twitter handles on and label who’s saying what. If I see a driver’s wife tweeting, I can go online and see what she’s tweeting. Kyle’s wife, Delana. They are fabulous. Younger crowd can watch races on their phones”.
While we all know him for his connection to auto racing, Punch has a history with football too.
First, as a player. He was “a backup to the backup to the backup” at NC State.
“I was a walk-on QB at NC state when Lou Holtz was the coach,” Punch said. “He was fabulous, intimidating. I’ve never been intimidated by a smaller man in my life. You’re intimidated because you respect him and he cares so much about you and the program and the players. Great motivator; his record shows how he can turn around programs “It’s just coaching, but it’s more than just coaching.”
He was very involved in ESPN’s college football coverage during the ESPN hiatus from NASCAR, but he stopped doing it once NASCAR came back to ESPN.
Eventually, if he ever decides to slow down and travel less, he said he might want to return to doing one college football and one college basketball game a week.
During one of his stretches on ESPN, Punch worked with Bob Jenkins, Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons. “That was a special group,” he recalled.
On MRN, at one point it was Ken Squier and Barney Hall and Jack Arute in the booth. Mike Joy in Turn 2. Eli Gold in Turn 3. Dave Despain in Turn 4. On pit road would be me, Ned Jarrett and Dick Berggren.
“That’s a pretty good radio broadcast crew,” Punch said, in what is likely the understatement of the year.
Punch said the overall family feeling at ESPN is what he loves the most.
“I like being a part of our ESPN team. We’re a family. We’re telling stories about our families. We all care about each other. And that’s what we did back in the day.”
He said he still goes by a restaurant in Talladega where he used to go with Benny Parsons and Bob Jenkins, even though it is now closed.
“This spring, I drove to the parking lot, got on my phone and texted Bob Jenkins. “I can see you and me and Benny walking out right now. Great memories”.”
Punch recalled having a great time doing segments for that show with drivers away from the track.
“Back in RPM 2night, I used to do house calls on Tuesdays. I’d go out on the boat fishing with Dale Earnhardt. You’d just go take it behind the scenes of things. Every Tuesday, we’d get on a plane and go hunting, it was a lot of fun.”
Among his other favorite memories from his time covering the sport.
— The 1992 Hooters 500, and interviewing Alan Kulwicki in Victory Lane; reintroducing Richard Petty for the final time. “And it’s Jeff Gordon’s first race. Pretty special day.”
— Also: “Being here at Michigan, interviewing a kid from my hometown -- Interviewing Dale Jarrett when he first won a Cup race; his dad in the booth calling the race; me on pit road. All of us Newton North Carolina boys ; to see dale with tears in his eyes”
— “Seeing My buddy Dale Earnhardt winning the Daytona 500”
— Rusty’s 50th win at Bristol
Among the biggest disappointments he has experienced.
“Nothing will compare to the loss of Dale Earnhardt , the sadness there.”
“I’ve lost some friends, close friends” – Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Neil Bonnett
And there is one special memory he’ll always remember, his last moments in the garage with a true friend, Benny Parsons, not long before Benny’s passing.
“Standing with Benny Parsons at the last race he ever went to, at Homestead, in 2006, when the cancer had taken over. He had been told he should stay home. He was in the garage with his little cart and his oxygen bottle. He couldn’t breathe. I had things to do and I didn’t care. Seeing all these drivers in the Chase get out of their cars to give Benny a huge and talk to him. I said Benny, why are you here. ... he said, where else would I be doc, this is my life?. What am I going to do, go home and wait to die? I need to be right here. This is my what my life is about.”
“I said, you’re right BP. He leaned over, gave me a big hug and I hugged him back and he said “Love you Doc. I always will. There’s great, great memories of celebration and tough memories of loss.”
Looking back at all his successes, Punch said he is a very happy man.
“I’ll put it this way. I’ve been very blessed to grow up as a country boy on a farm in the backwoods of North Carolina; to be able to chase a dream of going to medical school; play college football for a big-time coach; drive a racecar; I got to be in racing and be around some of the all-time greats; I get to talk about some of the all-time greats. I count my blessings every day. Life is good.”