Jerry Punch celebrated his 60th birthday Tuesday.
It’s been a charmed life, mirroring moments of Forrest Gump. Punch is no well-meaning dimwit, though. He’s a smart man and has a magna cum laude degree from North Carolina State in 1975 to prove it.
But the fortuitous twists and turns? You bet.
He’s been a backup walk-on quarterback for Lou Holtz at N.C. State, an emergency medicine physician, a NASCAR pit-crew reporter and a college football commentator on ESPN. He also appeared as himself in the 1990 movie Days of Thunder, as well as working as a technical adviser in the development of the movie.
And he’s saved a few lives at the track, too.
He’s the Renaissance Man of NASCAR, a guy adept with his hands, quick on his feet, and blessed with the skills to articulate and explain the complicated nuances of restrictor plates and fuel-mileage strategy.
“Do I love NASCAR?” he asks rhetorically. “I live and breathe it. For some people it’s a job. For me it’s a passion.”
Punch was well on his way to doing the Doc thing with his life, working at Halifax Hospital in Daytona Beach as part of his residency program. But he kept looking out the windows and seeing Daytona International Speedway, which drew him back to his first passion. Growing up in a small rural community, Punch loved racing his grandfather’s car at the Hickory Speedway in Newton, N.C.
Punch, still smitten by a need for speed, began chatting up Big Bill France, one of the founding fathers of NASCAR, and eventually got a job as a broadcaster with the Motor Racing Network. NASCAR had not evolved to the point of meticulous caution regarding safety standards, which allowed Punch to share his medical expertise with drivers who gravitated toward him for advice.
Rusty Wallace once came down with a bad case of food poisoning after making an appearance at a lumber yard in Bristol, Tenn., on a Friday night. He tried roughing it when the drivers were asked to jump in their cars to try to help dry off a wet track the day before the event at Bristol Motor Speedway. Wallace, still feeling woozy and vomiting, crashed on Turn 3. He turned to Punch for help.
“It wasn’t a hangover because of too much Miller Lite,” Wallace said on Monday. “He had me drinking a bunch of coffee, working like hell on some remedies. We went out and fixed the car, and the next day I won that damn race.”
Punch did Wallace one better another time. Once again at Bristol, in 1988, Wallace crashed on the front stretch. Dale Earnhardt got to him first, managing to kick open a window in the car, only to find Wallace unconscious.
Punch, working along pit road at the time, rushed to the scene to revive him by clearing an obstruction in his airway.
“You saved Rusty Wallace’s life,” Earnhardt deadpanned later. “Why would anybody do that?”
Punch — affectionately called “Doc” by his NASCAR family — continues to pile on stories to tell as he works as a pit-road reporter with ESPN. That will come to an end eventually because NASCAR decided not to extend the ESPN contract and will move into a partnership with NBC after the 2014 season.
He doesn’t know where the next adventure will be, or even if there will be any opportunities elsewhere. And he’s fine with that.
“I used to tell people being in an emergency room there are moments of terror,” Punch said. “You have to think on your feet, and if you don’t make the right decision somebody is not going to take another breath. That’s pressure. I think about the joy and excitement and being there. It’s something Keith Jackson once told me: ‘Live for the moment.’ That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”