Punch’s near miss led to safety gear for ESPN’s NASCAR pit reporters

Dr. Jerry Punch at the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

One of the most common questions from fans about ESPN’s NASCAR coverage is why do the network’s pit reporters wear firesuits?

Most don’t know that an incident at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 19, 1989, led to the apparel.

Dr. Jerry Punch, one of ESPN’s pit reporters, was working that day for a race that was airing on ABC. Punch was wearing a blue blazer and tie.

As Richard Petty’s car was being serviced during a pit stop, the car backfired, igniting fuel that had spilled on the car’s left rear during the refueling process. The fire quickly spread.

“Suddenly you could hear this big ‘whoomph’ and you could feel the air just being sucked to the fire as it erupted,” said Punch, who was about 10 feet away when the fire started.

“The gas man’s wearing an apron, and it’s on fire. He drops the gas can on the ground and there’s fire all over the can and on the ground,” he said.

“He realized it could ignite the whole car, so he then picks it up and throws it over the wall, and then there’s gas behind the wall and it’s on fire where we’re standing. Then the gas man leaps back over pit wall.”

Punch, an emergency room physician, and his pit spotter quickly sprung into action and wrapped the gas man in a rubber mat to extinguish the fire. Punch attended to the injured crew member until paramedics arrived, then attempted to do a report for the telecast.

“As I’m doing a report on camera, my moustache that I had back then is all singed, the hair on the back of my hand is gone and my microphone windscreen is melted and is dripping down across the microphone,” he said.

“And the sleeve on my polyester blazer is all melted into a goo.

“People in the [TV] truck and watching back at ABC in New York are just aghast that I was in the middle of this,” he said.

“Our coordinating producer of motorsports at ABC was Geoff Mason and he immediately called the truck and asked why our people were not in fire-protective gear. He made the call right then that we’d wear it from then on.”

Punch said that not only did the incident lead to safety gear for ESPN’s reporters, it also led to improvements in pit stop safety.

“We all dodged a big bullet on pit road that day.”

The NASCAR Nationwide Series will be returning to racing on Friday night, April 13, at Texas Motor Speedway, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

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