There is no more recognizable NC State alumnus in motorsports than Jerry “Doc” Punch, a one-time walk-on quarterback for Wolfpack football coach Lou Holtz, a short-track racer and an emergency medical physician who twice in 1988 dropped his broadcasting microphone to treat life-threatening injuries of drivers involved in crashes.
A native of Newton, North Carolina, Punch graduated magna cum laude with a degree in zoology from NC State in 1975 and a medical degree from Wake Forest’s Bowman Gray School of Medicine in 1979. He paid his way through both schools with his winnings at North Carolina short tracks, putting half his money in a tuition fund and half into maintaining his race car.
He fell in love with racing by spending every Saturday in the stands of Hickory Motor Speedway with his grandmother because the track owner only hired deacons from the local churches to work the gates, and his grandfather happened to be a devout church leader.
It was Punch’s intelligent country twang—“educated redneck,” he calls it—that put him on the radio and on television in the 1980s. He hooked on as a pit reporter for cable network ESPN in 1984 and is now the seventh longest tenured broadcaster at the worldwide leader in sports.
Though he grew up in NASCAR country, Punch crossed over to broadcasting other sporting events, including Indy car racing and college football. Sunday, he will be in the broadcast tower for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, marking 25 consecutive years of Punch covering auto racing’s greatest event for ABC.
We asked Punch five questions about his time with the Wolfpack, his time at short tracks and super speedways and NC State’s impact on the sport of racing.
Auto racing has changed greatly since you were a driver on North Carolina short tracks while you were an NC State student. What is the greatest evolution of the sport?
When I graduated from NC State, a lot of what happened in motor sports did not include computers. There were three or four guys sitting around in the pits looking at tire wear and spring wear and interviewing drivers. It didn’t require any data acquisition. Then Richard Childress hired an NC State graduate named Bobby Hutchens, who had a mechanical engineering degree. He started designing cars with computer engineering, using his NC State background. He was also a short-track driver and he was trying to develop models for proper weight distribution. The drivers didn’t much like it, and Richard Childress didn’t much understand it. One time at practice at Daytona, Dale Earnhardt looked over and saw a laptop in his car. He pulled it up and threw it out the right-side window and told Bobby Hutchens, “If you want to know something about the car, ask me and I’ll tell you.” You don’t need all this other junk. That was 30 years ago. Now, every race team has an army of engineers, with at least two engineers in the pit box sitting beside the crew chief who is also an engineer. They collaborate looking at all kinds of data, from fuel to tire wear to track temperature. All of that information is directly downloaded from the car. They build cars based on computer-aided design models. In the wee hours of a race morning, you will find the crew chief staring at two or three different computers with all kinds of advanced analytics. It’s all computer technology. There’s hardly anything to do with going out and guessing which springs or tires go on the car. That’s why the engineering applications that NC State graduates are bringing to the track are so valuable. If you walk through a garage, you will be hard-pressed to find a team that doesn’t have two or three NC State engineers.
How did your experiences in racing get you into broadcasting?
I started going to going to short-track races when I was maybe 6 years old. My grandfather was a deacon at the local church and the promoter of Hickory Speedway only hired deacons to work the gates, because he thought they were the most trustworthy. He would then make donations back to the church. I would sit up there with my grandmother in the stands with our homemade pimento cheese sandwiches watching Richard and Lee Petty, Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett and all those guys. As I got older, I worked for several local crews building engines. While I was at NC State, I would come back home during the summer and do some driving. I remember one year playing in the spring game as a backup quarterback, leaving Carter Stadium and going to Charlotte to race a 200-lap feature at Metrolina Speedway. When I went to medical school, I drove one of two late-model cars a friend of the family owned. The other driver was NASCAR champion Bobby Isaac. They used to tell us in med school to take a few hours off to clear your mind every week. So I did that by running the scoreboard and doing the statistics at Hickory on the weekends. I got to know Ned Jarrett, the promoter at Hickory Motor Speedway, really well and one day had hired an announcer to do a race in Darlington and his announcer didn’t show, so he asked me to do it. Ned got me on the Motor Racing Network as his assistant for a while and then he suggested I go to television. ESPN had just started and they wanted me to do some shows. One day, ABC’s Wide World of Sports called NASCAR and said they were looking for an announcer to work with Keith Jackson, who didn’t know a lot about racing. “But we don’t want some redneck,” they said. The NASCAR executives told them they had the perfect educated redneck who grew up around racing, built engines and worked with all these guys when they were dirt poor. He went to college, med school and he understands the sport. The next thing you know I am at the track in Daytona broadcasting with Keith Jackson for the Wide World of Sports. It evolved from there.
How did your experiences in the emergency room help you with broadcasting?
Well, I always just tried to ask people questions that allowed them to maintain their dignity when they answered. Try to respect people and leave them their dignity. No one comes into the emergency room because they had a great day. It’s a heart attack, a stroke, a broken bone or something. People who had to leave the track midway through the race, I would have to talk to them. They had had a bad day too. You only talk to one guy every week who had a good day, and that was the winner. Same thing with college football. You talk to a lot of guys throughout the week, but there are a lot of them that are having a bad season or a bad half. You really have to be careful how you pose a question so that you are not implying or inferring guilt or questioning their coaching or driving ability. The biggest difference is that in the emergency room, I have to ask direct questions. On the race track, I usually ask the hard-working, open-ended questions. You want a more lengthy, in-depth answer, so you can get it out there before they get mad and stomp off.
The medical profession, auto racing, college football, the media are all such different things. How do you mix and mingle them all?
I’m back doing a little more college football now as a play-by-play announcer as opposed to sideline reporter. I enjoy the relationships I have with coaches. I enjoy spending time with head coaches and assistant coaches. The same way with team physicians and trainers. I do a lot of speaking on sports subjects, about sports media, about what to say and what not to say. I’m also involved in some studies with head and neck injuries and helmet development. I still do medical speaking. So I always try to treat the coaches, the doctors, the trainers, the media as if we are all one big family. Everyone is a little different, but I think it all goes back to having good relationships with everyone. Some of the younger football coaches don’t know me well enough to trust me yet, but others who know who I am are very open to me being around their programs. Things have changed through the years, but I have created lots of great memories both in auto racing and in college football.
You got your start with stock car racing, but you’ve done a lot of Indy car racing for ABC and ESPN. How are the two things similar and different?
Growing up a stock car boy, I thought there was nothing better than Darlington and the Southern 500, with the track and the pageantry and the parade and the excitement in Darlington and Florence. Then you go to Daytona and see everything that happens there. It’s the Super Bowl of racing to start the year. Then in 1989 I got the chance to go to the Indianapolis 500 and broadcast the race the first time I ever saw it. With all due respect to stock-car racing, there is nothing like the Indy 500, the largest single-day sporting event in the world. For the drivers, you win that one race on that one day and it will change your life forever. Their legacy is assured. You win the pole and they know your name for a week or so. If you win the race, they know your name forever. With this year being the 100th anniversary, they have sold out every seat, every suite and the infield and it will be amazing. I’ve stood beside Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, Cy Young Award-winning pitchers, four-star generals, the Secretary of Defense and watched them shiver with emotion when the cars come around the track and 400,000 people roar. It is a bucket list item, even if you are not a motorsports fan. Even if you are not a sports fan. If you just want to go somewhere for one day and see something that is unlike anything you have ever seen before, the Indy 500 is just that.