KNOXVILLE (WATE) – You won’t find many who have been as close to the action at the Indianapolis 500 as Dr. Jerry Punch.
The longtime pit reporter is entering his 26th year covering the race, but he’s been around cars his entire life. Before he held a microphone, Punch had his hands on the steering wheel. His first race car was a 1956 Chevy.
Punch was 11 years old when ABC first broadcast the Indianapolis 500 in 1965. It was around that time the young boy from Newton, North Carolina made plans for the future. He remembers sitting on his father’s back porch and having his father asked him what he dreamed about being when he was older.
“I told him, ‘Well Dad, I wouldn’t mind being a small town doctor. I wouldn’t mind being involved in sports because I love sports, I love auto racing, working on these guys’ race cars in a barn down the street and I said Daddy, you’re going to laugh, but someday I’d like to fly on an airplane. I’ve never been on an airplane,” Punch recalled.
Punch says to be careful what you wish for, because now he lives on airplanes, covers the greatest races in the world and is a medical doctor. The doctor has been living out his dream at the Indy 500 since 1989.
Now 63-years-old, Punch said he remembers his first race as well as his last.
“The first race I ever saw in person, I was broadcasting on ABC in ’89 so talk about intimidating,” recalls Punch.
Al Unser Jr. was on the verge of winning his first Indianapolis 500, but while fighting Emerson Fittipaldi for the lead, the two touched wheels and Unser spun out, hitting a wall and ending his chances.
“I was told by all of the executives at ABC and in my earpiece as I’m waiting by the hospital for Al Unser Jr. to come out that I have to ask the right questions,” Punch remembers. “I just pulled the earpiece out thinking to myself, ‘look, if I don’t know what to ask, I shouldn’t be here.’”
Punch said he had nothing to worry about though. When he put his earpiece back in everyone was high-fiving and saying “atta-boy,” so he said apparently he did okay.
He has been asking the right questions at Indy for 25 years and counting. From Danica Patrick becoming the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 to Alexander Rossi last year, Punch has cemented himself in the history of the Brickyard.
However, he says the Indianapolis 500 is what it is today because of the drivers who have won and the difficulty they faced. He says the race and the atmosphere are like no other sport.
“You don’t have to be a race fan. You don’t have to be a sports fan. It is an event you need to put on your bucket list and go just to see what it’s like,” recommends Punch.
This the 53rd year ABC will broadcast the race. Watch Sunday on WATE 6 On Your Side.