Dr. Jerry Punch understands the slogan, “There’s racing and then there’s Bristol.”
For him, the IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway isn’t just another stop on the NASCAR tour. Punch ranks it at the very top of his list of must-see sporting events.
“I tell people if you are a sports fan, and you develop any kind of a bucket list, you come to Bristol Motor Speedway,” he said. “You will tell people for one night, ‘Boy, I had an experience like nowhere else.’ “The Kentucky Derby is special and the Indy 500 is special in so many ways. There’s the Super Bowl, Wimbledon and Augusta National for The Masters. This is a place of its own. For our racing, there is no place like it and I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like for college football.”
Punch will admit there’s a little bias towards the place. He grew up a couple of hours away in Newton, North Carolina, and he met his wife, Joni, then a nursing student at ETSU, while broadcasting a college basketball game in Johnson City.
For the last several years, they have resided in Knoxville with son Logan, who is is the starting center on the Knoxville Catholic High School football team. The father said it’s been hard to tell which his son has been more excited about, the team’s season-opener tonight against Chattanooga Notre Dame or coming to Bristol for his night race on Saturday.
Certainly in the Punch household, there is a deep appreciation for both racing and football.
Jerry Punch was a former quarterback at N.C. State under coach Lou Holtz. After graduating from N.C. State, he earned a medical degree at Wake Forest and became an emergency room physican.
Still, the allure of sports remained and he used his talents to serve in a variety of roles from pit reporter to lead analyst.
Over the years, he’s seen Bristol grow from a place with concrete bleachers and grass hills in the turns to the 160,000-seat stadium it is today.
Much of that growth is credited to the track’s exposure on ESPN. Punch said it has been a partnership that has greatly benefitted both the speedway and the network.
“In the early years, Bristol was a little, bitty track in a valley in East Tennessee,” he said. “The people who owned it had dreams of it becoming one of the meccas of motorsports. ESPN, at that time in the early 80s, was a fledging network. We had dreams of being the destination for the sports fan.
“We locked arms and grew up together. Bristol got bigger and we got bigger. We showed people how special it was to be at Bristol and all that was happening, the contact, the energy and excitement. We made it together. Bristol became one of the all-time greatest venues in sports and ESPN became the destination for people who want to watch sports.”
Punch has been in the middle of some of Bristol’s most famous moments .He has a three-foot tall photograph at home showing him waiting to interview Rusty Wallace following NASCAR Hall of Famer’s 50th career victory.
He also remembers Dale Earnhardt coming to the winner’s circle after a 1987 victory and barely being able to catch his breath because of carbon monoxide poisioning. Earnhardt was so overcome with fumes that Punch actually shut the car off for him. Using both his sense as a doctor and common sense, Punch had ESPN go to extra commercial break before conducting the victory lane interview.
While it can create that great toll on man and machine, Punch again emphasizes what a special place Bristol is, and what a special event the night race is.
He even quotes one of American’s most well-known broadcasters when discussing the sheer magnitude of the event.
“That place is unequivocally my favorite place to go watch a race or go work a race,” Punch said. “Brent Musburger said years ago, if you’re a sports fan, not even a racing fan, you have a top 10 bucket list of places you want to go. That night race at Bristol has got to be on that list”comments powered by Disqus