By Mike Davis
I remember like it was last week: the racecar driver, exhausted from a grueling 500-miler, fielded questions about his ballsy winning pass to the outside, covered in smoot as if his car was a coal mine. Who knew racing at Darlington could be so dirty?
"On that last turn, did you know you could make the car stick like that?" the TV broadcaster asked the driver, having just emerged into a throng of cheers in Victory Lane.
"I knew it all along," he said, one arm draped around his crew chief. "Harry put on special tires."
"What's special about them?" the broadcaster asks, turning to the crew chief.
Harry shrugged. "Nothing in particular." The driver was dismayed. He'd been lied to.
"Sounds like Harry has a little bit of explaining to do," quipped the broadcaster, Dr. Jerry Punch, playing himself in the critically acclaimed movie Days of Thunder, which premiered in theaters 30 years ago but still airs often. At least in my house it does. It did last week.
Fast-forward to today when Dr. Punch was in our studio as this week's guest on The Dale Jr. Download. Dale Jr. asked a relatively vague question about Punch's role in Days of Thunder with nary a clue it was more than a cameo. How much more? What if I told you that producers were considering actresses like Kim Basinger to play the role of Dr. Claire Lewicki, but it was Dr. Punch's recommendation that a neurosurgeon wouldn't normally look like Basinger. Punch was, after all, a trauma physician first and a racing TV broadcaster second. Who on the planet was better suited to be a source for authenticity than Punch?
"You need someone who is a bit more pasty -- someone who looks as if they are indoors all the time," Punch told writer Robert Towne. The next day they had a new idea -- an actress named Nicole Kidman. When Punch approved, the producers set course on a new direction.
Punch's Days of Thunder insights are fascinating to anyone like me who grew up on that movie, because if you grew up on that movie, you grew up on 1990s NASCAR. And if you grew up on 1990s NASCAR, then you grew up with Punch in your living room every Sunday afternoon. Being a member of the broadcast team, he was as central to NASCAR as the drivers themselves. Into that mix you can add Ned Jarrett, Ken Squier, Eli Gold, Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons, Buddy Baker, Barney Hall and Dick Berggren, to name a few. Dr. Jerry Punch helped shape our NASCAR experience for 30 years, whether we realized it or not.
What I couldn't have realized as an outsider was how he shaped people on the inside, too. Did I say shape? In some cases... saved. He kept Rusty Wallace alive in 1988 when the driver stopped breathing. He saved ARCA driver Don Marmor when he flipped at Atlanta, Punch's mic hot the entire time. And he treated Richard Petty's crew members when a fire broke out in the pits during the Motorcraft Quality Parts 500.
How Dr. Punch was able to be an exceptional TV broadcaster and a life-saving trauma doctor at the same time is extraordinary. He was -- no, is -- our real-life Moonlight Graham, the character in the 1989 film Field of Dreams who, despite being in a game he loved, could emerge as a doctor to save a life when the situation required it.
Only Dr. Jerry Punch is no movie character. Except the times when he is.
-- Dirty Mo --