Voices of the 500: Dr. Jerry Punch

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Dr. Jerry Punch and Danica Patrick

Few members of the motorsport community are fortunate enough to earn nicknames during their time in the sport.

The Intimidator, The King, The Captain, Spiderman, Uncle Bobby, Wonder Boy, The Ice Man.  Each are respected in their particular discipline and have the accolades to back their larger-than-life personas, but few are held in as high regard as one particular individual – and he isn’t even a driver.

He’s known as Doc.

Starting Small, Packing a Punch

Gerald “Jerry” Punch grew up in a small town just outside Hickory, North Carolina.  By chance, his grandfather’s farm was situated just a stone’s throw away from the backstretch of the historic Hickory Motor Speedway where the likes of Ralph Earnhardt, Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson all won track championships before becoming NASCAR legends.

Tradition has it that the Hickory Motor Speedway track manager would hire men of a nearby church to serve as gate guards to the facility, knowing that his crew would be honest and trustworthy as the first line of defense.  Punch’s grandfather was a member of that group, and Jerry would spend many afternoons with his grandmother atop the concrete grandstand while his grandpa manned the Turn 4 gate.

Through the years his infatuation with machines and racing blossomed, and Punch would volunteer days working on his grandpa’s tractors before the time spent transitioned to race cars.  Before long, Punch began working with legendary short track racer Tommy Houston on the driver’s hobby stock team and later moved on to a crew led by Jerry Setzer, the father of Dennis Setzer.

Punch and Setzer would work on the car using a barn and a lantern, and son Dennis Setzer would jump in and help as he got older.  When Jerry won the model’s championship and didn’t have enough money to move up to the higher division, he decided to put Punch in the car for his first competitive laps.

Before he knew it, Punch had ended up in Asheville, North Carolina in a 1969 Chevelle racing in one of the most star-studded short track races in history.  The likes of Harry Gant, Jack Ingram, Bobby Isaac, Tommy Houston, Morgan Shepherd and other legends were in the field and only 24 of the approximate 35 entries would make the 200-lap feature.

In Punch’s first late model race, he was going up against the best of the best.  He would go on to qualify 23rd out of the 24 drivers and make the show, finishing an incredible 11th.  Punch would run the car for the rest of the summer between semesters as a student at North Carolina State University.

Eventually the aspiring medical doctor would transition to the broadcast booth.

Punch got his first real taste of broadcasting when Hickory Motor Speedway track promoter and legendary driver Ned Jarrett was to be absent one night while being inducted into the National Motorsport Association’s hall of fame.  Barney Hall, longtime lead announcer for the Motor Racing Network, was tabbed to fill in for Jarrett on the public address duties while Ned was out of town.

Much to Jarrett’s surprise, when he arrived to Darlington, South Carolina for the ceremony it was Hall that was assigned as the emcee for the evening!  Barney had crossed his dates, and now Hickory was without a P.A. announcer on “Ladies Night.”

Punch had been helping Jarrett run lights and other duties in the build up to this evening, so when Jarrett’s son Dale was too shy to step in, Punch was left with the call that evening.  After receiving more than a few positive reviews, Ned decided that Jerry could handle the Hickory announcing duties which started an illustrious broadcast career for Punch.

As time passed, Punch would finish up medical school and moved to Florida for a position at the Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Florida.  The North Carolina native had been in and out of NASCAR qualifying broadcasts with Jarrett for a short time period before moving to Daytona, and after building some contacts at the 2.5-mile speedway, Punch had ended up on the Motor Racing Network for the 1980 Daytona 500.

Of course, he started his career in the pits.

Dr. Jerry Punch

Punch would become an established NASCAR pit reporter before ever visiting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

During a successful stint with MRN, Punch would be called by hall of fame broadcaster Ken Squier while the medical doctor was working in the emergency room.  In an entertaining exchange, Squier asked Punch if he had ever worked on live television before.  Of course, Punch said no.

It became comedic when Squier asked if Punch had ever done tape delay television or any post-production studio work, which Punch slowly responded no to both inquiries.

Finally, Squier asked, “Doc?  Have you ever come out of the shower in the morning and take a hairbrush and turn it upside down and talk into the hairbrush like you’re a TV announcer?”  Punch again responded with a ‘no’ and conceded that this opportunity was about to pass him up.

That was before Squier asked if ‘Doc had a television in his home.

Punch said, “yeah, I’ve got three of them!” and Squier said, “you’re hired!  We’ll see you in Atlanta on Friday.”  The entire exchange occurred with Punch in a long white doctor’s coat with sterilized gloves on.

A few months later, a call from Terry Lingner changed his career and landed him at ESPN.  By 1984, Punch was working full time for the sporting giant on the weekends and then hurrying back to the E.R. to make his shift on Monday morning.

Twice in 1988, Punch’s medical prowess served to both his benefit and the benefit of competitors in the sport he was covering.  First, Punch helped keep an airway clear for NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace following a vicious crash at Bristol.  To this day Wallace credits Punch with saving his life.

The second incident came when ARCA racer Don Marmor ended up in a gruesome accident at Atlanta.  When Marmor hit the end of the pit wall at the old Georgia track, Punch began moving down pit road towards the accident.  Working the event on a television tape delay basis, Punch began to jog down the pit lane when he met an ARCA official to ask about the incident.

The official explained the head-on contact with the end of the pit wall and said, “he’s gone.”  Punch then took off running.

On arrival Punch met a paramedic already on the scene, and Marmor unconscious in the cockpit with multiple broken bones and the steering wheel impaled into his chest.  The driver was barely breathing when ‘Doc, a trama surgeon, arrived.

With minutes to work with, Punch inserted an airway into Marmor and in a risky maneuver, fed an IV straight into Marmor’s heart before extracting the embedded steering column.  Before long, Punch was alongside Marmor as they wheeled him into an ambulance.  Don Marmor said later that he survived that day with all of the credit to Dr. Punch.

The Start of an Era at Indianapolis

Growing up in the heart of NASCAR country, Punch still held a great deal of respect for the Indianapolis 500 and the brave men who participated in the race a few states north of the Carolina’s.

Despite listening to the race on radio as a young boy and watching it on television as he got older, Punch’s first opportunity to visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway didn’t come until 1982.  It was the first year that NASCAR’s Busch Grand National Series would visit the Indianapolis Raceway Park, and Punch was to emcee the announcement on behalf of NASCAR.

The trip was memorable for Punch in more ways than one, and it started with an aborted take-off when the plane carrying himself, Bill France Jr. and other highly-respected NASCAR officials couldn’t power up and made some dips in altitude over the Atlantic Ocean.  Finally, the plane emergency landed and Punch took a commercial flight to Indianapolis.

Following the announcement at IRP, Punch was taken to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time.  After rolling through the South Chute tunnel for the first time, Punch was taken to Gasoline Alley where the garage area had just been leveled.  The old wooden garages that had stood for decades were just about to be replaced with the current concrete structures that stand today.

Punch appreciates that memory, even in the location’s state of disarray.  “I’m glad I saw that (in 1982), because when I came back (as a broadcaster) in 1989 everything was concrete, and people people would refer back to the old, tiny garages and where they were situated, I sort of had an idea of what that was.”

Indeed it would be 1989 before Punch would return to the Speedway.  This time he was working for ESPN and was about to embark on his first Indianapolis 500 “Month of May.”

“Other than that brief visit in 1982, the first time I saw the Indianapolis 500 with my own eyes was when I did the race with ABC.”

Punch explained how he was “scared to death” in the build-up to the 1989 race, with the Indianapolis 500 near its pinnacle of popularity at that time.  “Every day in that last week (before the race) we would have a meeting in the morning, and I sat on one end as far away from the ‘heavy hitters’ as I could.  It was like the Last Supper,” Punch recalled.

The race’s directors would sit at that end of the table and tell Punch and everyone else in the room, each day, that all eyes would be on Indy on Memorial Day Sunday.  “Four days to the Indianapolis 500 and the world is going to be watching, they would say,” said Punch.  “The next day (an even higher-ranking executive) would come in and say, ‘the world is going to be watching, don’t screw this up.’  It got to be where you couldn’t even swallow, there was so much pressure in that room.”

The North Carolina native remembered being thankful that he was presumably far enough down the totem pole that, for better or worse, he would have very little impact on the race’s telecast.  He wondered how Paul Page would have the ability produce words on the broadcast with all of the suspense and tension that was mounting.

On race day, Punch’s assignments included the south end of pit lane and duties around the track’s medical center.

So while Dr. Punch’s goal for his first Indianapolis 500 telecast would be to execute his responsibilities quietly and efficiently, luck would have it that Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. would embark on one of the most exciting late-race battles in Indy 500 history.  Of course the duel ended with the two legends touching wheels on the penultimate lap and Unser Jr. careening into the wall while Fittipaldi coasted to victory.

Taking the accident into account, the weighted moment begins to build for the “rookie” Punch as he knows the spotlight is about to be on he and the man known as ‘Little Al.’

“Here is a legendary name, Unser, and if I am thinking right with the studying I have been doing (at the time) that his father and his uncle have both won this race.  It is his birthright to win this race, and he was just that far away from winning it,” Punch explains as the tension begins to build.

The suspense begins to build as producers from different reaches of the production begin to key into Punch’s headset, causing complete chaos.  In the end, Punch would handle the moment with class and execute an interview with Al Unser Sr. without imperfections that seemed to lock him into an Indianapolis 500 job for as long as he wanted one.

From that day, as it were, Punch and Unser Jr. would build a unique relationship that has transcended racing and lasted many years.  During some difficult times while Unser Jr. was battling alcohol abuse issues, Little Al was adamant not to do any one-on-one interviews with the many talk show hosts trying to court his time.  He waited until he was ready, and then called Dr. Punch to do the interview, as a trusted friend and respected colleague in the profession.

“Everybody wanted to sit down with him… all these legendary talk show people wanted to sit down with him and he asked them to have me to do the one-on-one with him, which I thought was such an honor,” Punch graciously explained.

“It was the trust that we had built over the years and the respect that I had for him, and hopefully vice versa, that I ask him the tough questions and the direct questions.  But they left him his dignity to answer the question how he wanted to answer it… he was so open and honest.”

At Indianapolis 500 race day in 2017, Punch and many of his close friends believed that last year’s 500 Mile Race would be his last.  In the motorhome lot, Unser Jr. approached the veteran reporter and gave him a hug.  Little Al said, “We have been through a lot ‘Doc.”  Punch looked at him and gave his appreciation as his wife watched nearby, in tears.

That is just the kind of respect Punch receives and deserves for his efforts and kind nature.

Highs and Lows of a Legendary Career

As Punch embarks on what is expected to be his final Indianapolis 500 telecast this Sunday, he remembers the family he has been added to as part of the IndyCar community and the Indianapolis 500 tree of drivers, team members, on-air personalities and more.

“From a stock car kid growing up, and this is not to be disrespectful to the Daytona 500 or Darlington, there is nothing like the month of May or Memorial Day weekend (at Indianapolis),” Punch explains.  “From 1982 to 2017, there is not a day I drive through that tunnel that I don’t get goosebumps.”

Punch would talk about this first month of May spent at the track in 1989 and how he knew hardly anybody as a byproduct of racing roots grown in stock car competition.

He recalls legendary IMS historian and press room director Bob Laycock taking him over to Bill Simpson’s garage, which Punch described as the “nerve center” of the Speedway garage area.  Here, legends from the old and current eras would play cards and have lunch in the garage.  He recalled it as “walking into a room at the Smithsonian Institute and suddenly all the characters come alive and talk to you,” with Indy’s most memorable personalities all in one place.

In the garage, Punch met Bill Vukovich Jr., who decided to give ‘Doc a tour of the place.

Wandering the garage area on his own after Vukovich Jr. and his son Billy Vukovich III had to depart for practice duties, Punch noticed Rick Mears exiting the Team Penske garages and tried to step aside to get out of his way.

In a humorous exchange, both the legendary driver and pit reporter move to one side, then back to the other, and back again in lockstep without being able to get out of each other’s path.  Punch explained it as a “walking game of checkers.”

The two finally separate and after they start to walk away from one another, Mears smiles and says, “Dr. Punch, how are you sir? I’m Rick Mears…  What are you doing up here?”  Punch explains that he is working his first Indianapolis 500 and he is “just as lost as an Easter egg.”

Following a chance encounter with Rick Mears in 1989, Dr. Punch has had the opportunity to interact with the best Team Penske has had to offer over the years.

Mears asks Punch if he has a few minutes to talk, and of course ‘Doc obliges.  Before he knows it, Punch is in the Team Penske garage and is sitting alongside Danny Sullivan, Emerson Fittipaldi and Mears.  The quartet talked about Indy, NASCAR and more for over an hour in what is known as the “Fort Knox” of garages at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Punch continues his reminiscing by mentioning 1992, the coldest Indy 500 on record and a day with countless accidents with driver injuries involved, and unofficially titles it “Andretti heartbreak day” with the difficulties that family faced on May 24, 1992.

“Mario is back (in the infield care center) with injuries, and and poor Jeff has injuries to both lower legs.  Then here’s Michael who leads 160 laps and has a fuel pressure problem with 11 laps to go… how in the world could that happen to one family?”

Punch notes the irony as he interviewed Michael in the infield care center while Al Unser Jr. wins his first Indy 500 by a hair over Scott Goodyear, and how just three years earlier it were he and Little Al standing today at the end of the 1989 race.

Through the years, Punch recalls all of the memories – good and bad – on a career spent at Indianapolis.

“Every year, there is a special story,” Punch states.

The southern native recalls Buddy Lazier and his tremendous story of strength, perseverance and bravery when Lazier triumphed in the 1996 Indy 500 by winning with a broken back.

“I was doing a live report on how they had packed all this padding in his seat as he is driving with a back with over 30 micro-fractures in his spine,” Punch remembers.  “I looked at the x-rays – and as an E.R. physician who has seen trauma cases – this x-ray looked like someone had taken a light bulb and placed it on the table and hit it with a hammer.  Pieces everywhere.

“Here is a guy that is going to driver in the Indianapolis 500, and son-of-a-gun if he doesn’t win the race!  When the race is over he is in so much pain that he can hardly sit up with that wreath around his shoulders.  I was there, I got to be a part of that.”

On the other side of the coin, Punch recounts the chilling memory of events following the crash which took Scott Brayton’s life that same year, and how he was outside the Menard garage as chaos began to unfold.

Being a medical doctor, the writing was on the wall for Punch who knew that the accident would be fatal.  He pleaded with ESPN to reserve making an announcement until Brayton’s family had been notified first of the tragic event, so that they would not have to learn about their husband and father’s passing on television.

Punch held the announcement until Becky Brayton was informed of the accident and she could tell Scott’s 2 1/2 year old daughter.  Finally, former Team Menard’s crew member Larry Curry gave ‘Doc the O.K. to discuss the incident and the world learned of the 1996 Indianapolis 500 pole sitter’s death.

During Brayton’s memorial service a couple days later, Punch describes the scene as a picture of Scott is at the front of the arrangement when his daughter, Carly, jumps off of Becky’s lap to run up to the photo.  Carly grabs the picture with two hands and begins kissing the photo of her daddy with no idea of the situation.

The drivers in attendance, colleagues and some of Brayton’s closest friends, watch the event unfolding in despair.  “Some of the most courageous men in the world are crying like babies… just weeping because she has no idea,” Punch describes in a melancholy tone.

It is the highs and lows of Indianapolis, and part of a spectrum that the veteran reporter has seen first hand.

Coming to a Close, with Grace

This weekend, ABC will broadcast its final Indianapolis 500 for the foreseeable future.  It will most likely be the last time Dr. Jerry Punch will hold a microphone for ESPN and it’s network partner.

Punch could be upset that he was released from ESPN last year as the company made budget cuts, as he still feels he has the wits and knowledge to be a high-quality pit and sideline reporter.

He could hold grudges to those making the decision to end a multi-decade tenure at the company that helped spring motorsport into its highest levels of popularity in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

But in typical ‘Doc fashion, he is gracious.  He gives thanks for the wonderful memories created, the people he has gotten to meet and the life he has been able to build for his family.

“People use the word blessed maybe way too much,” Punch starts.  “I was given the chance by Bob Goodrich and the people at ABC in 1989 to go to the greatest race in the world.  I got to be there for moments with Little Al, some unbelievable celebrations, heartbreaks.  To get to know legendary families owners and all of the roles I have played there, from just being the garage reporter to the hospital reporter to the pit reporter on the north end of pit road, halfway to Broad Ripple, to being the guy that covers the lead group on the south end.

“Standing beside T.J. and Bev Patrick and watching tears go down their face seeing their little girl lead the Indy 500, and to think she could almost win it … to the heartbreak of losing drivers and seeing guys step out of the car and know it is over.

“There is nothing I’ve done in sports in my career… that means more to me than being a part of this race, the Indianapolis 500.”

Punch, Reid and Goodyear

Dr. Jerry Punch with former Indianapolis 500 play-by-play man Marty Reid (left) and commentator Scott Goodyear (right).

Punch recalls interviewing Eddie Cheever during 1998 and asking him what the Indianapolis 500 can be described as.  Cheever, as punch referred to as the most cerebral driver in the paddock at the time, responded by saying Indianapolis was a “living, breathing organism.”

Punch said that simply sums it up.

“This is a living, breathing organism, and every year that organism does something different that you don’t know is going to happen.”

He rattles off the amazing memories he has been a part of, being in victory lane as Ryan Hunter-Reay tells him he is a proud American boy after winning in 2014, or the conversations he had with Alexander Rossi’s father as the family tried to figure out what they were going to do after the month of May.

Rossi would win the race as a rookie just days later and cement his place in the IndyCar paddock.

Punch gives praise to the emergency crews that saved James Hinchcliffe in 2015 following the savage accident which nearly took his life, and the wonderful comeback story to taking pole position the very next year.

“What they did with Hinchcliffe to save his life and how the trauma surgeon ran and jumped into the ambulance as it went by and he is on the phone with trauma one (at the hospital) to get the O.R. ready, and they have seconds to keep him alive.  I am an E.R. guy, and I have been in those trauma situations where there are moments of terror, and I am over-the-top impressed and thankful of the job they did.”

After 27 years of excellence at the Speedway, and stories just like those, Punch will be in Indianapolis this weekend to tell that tale of 500 miles one more time.  Ever the respectful and honorable individual, Punch gives thanks for the opportunities he has had and does not dwell on the ending.

“They say Indianapolis and the Indy 500 is a day that will change your life forever, and well I have had 27 of those days and every time I go there, it changes my life,” Punch says.  “I am so thankful that I have had a chance to do this.”

No Jerry, we are thankful to have witnessed your excellence and professionalism play out every Saturday and Sunday at a race track for over 30 years.  You have transcended the way motorsport is to be reported on television, and the entire racing community is in debt to you.

Open-Wheels wishes Dr. Jerry Punch a wonderful retirement, and one more ride at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this Sunday with the 102nd Indianapolis 500.

Images courtesy of INDYCAR Media.

Tanner Watkins

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