Posted: Friday, March 29, 2013 1:51 am | Updated: 1:53 am, Fri Mar 29, 2013.
By Tom Gillispie Special To The Record
HICKORY, N.C. -- The old Hickory Speedway dirt track was an integral part of Dennis Punch’s weekend when Punch was maybe “six, seven, eight years old.”
His grandfather was working with a men’s organization that parked cars, sold tickets and manned the concessions at the speedway. His granddad worked the fourth-turn gate.
“That’s where they’d bring the ice truck, the bread truck, supplies for the track,” said Punch, now 64.
“Trucks were constantly going through that gate for a Saturday night race.
“Each Saturday my grandmother would make us sandwiches and make a jug of ice tea, and I’d go with my grandmother and grandfather and sit with her in the grandstands in the fourth turn. It was a Saturday night ritual.”
He remembers watching Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson, Ralph Earnhardt, Dink Widenhouse, Richard Petty and others.
“It was a wonderful time to go to the track, looking back at it,” he said.
One of Punch’s favorite memories is of men sitting in the trees and watching the racing free.
“Quite a few of these guys enjoyed an adult beverage, and invariably, not every week, though, you’d hear somebody fall out of there,” he said with a chuckle. These men “probably lost their balance after having too much to drink. You’d hear their screaming and hollering above the sound of the cars. Watching them fall was quite a sight.”
Dennis Punch didn’t race at Hickory but his younger brother Jerry raced a bit. Jerry Punch got his medical degree at Bowman Gray School of Medicine at Wake Forest and worked at several Florida hospitals as well as announcing races with the Motor Racing Network. His career led to ESPN and ABC, where he has announced racing, football and other sports for about 20 years.
Dennis, too, has made a living in racing.
In 1983, he joined Ned Jarrett working with the Busch Beer brand of Anheuser-Busch, Inc., which became the title sponsor of the Busch Grand National (now Nationwide) Series and also sponsored pole awards.
“There was more Busch involvement in NASCAR, and Ned coordinated many of the Busch motorsports programs in NASCAR for Anheuser-Busch,” Punch said. “Dale (Ned’s son) was racing in that series as well. I wrote releases and worked with Dale and helped with Busch Beer promotions of the series.”
Over the years, Punch has done public relations and marketing for various sponsors and NASCAR race teams and even has worked with a Grand-Am Rolex Series sports-car team.
His main personal involvement with HMS came in the 1980s and ’90s when the Busch Series would visit the track and he was working for the sponsor.
Punch was born in 1948 and was one of many future racing folk —such as Jerry Punch, Dale Jarrett, Andy Petree and Dennis Setzer — who attended Newton-Conover High. Punch graduated in 1966, then played baseball, mostly first base, at N.C. State (where Jerry played a little quarterback for Lou Holtz).
“On our ’68 team, I was a sophomore, and we won the ACC championship and the Eastern Region and went to the College World Series,” Punch said. “We finished third in the nation.”
Here’s one bit of Punch trivia: Dennis and Jerry share the same birthday, Aug. 20, five years apart.
Punch is quick to tell stories, and one of his favorites is about Jerry’s birth. He was five and having a birthday party. His mother was about to give birth, and Dennis was told that his mother was going to give birth to a brother or sister.
“It didn’t interest me,” Punch said. “I wanted a bicycle for my birthday. I guess I was just a typical five-year-old kid."
When Jerry was born, Dennis’s dad came home and said that he had a brother.
“I asked, ‘Is mother OK?’ (and) once Dad assured me that she's fine, I said, ‘Where’s my bicycle?’ I wanted a bicycle and got a brother,” Dennis said. “Little did I know at the time that my brother, born during my birthday party, would make this birthday my best ever.”
He had to wait an interminable time, until Christmas, to get his bicycle.
Punch says he gets back to HMS now and then. He might take his two grandchildren, and he gets to visit with old friends.
“Yeah, I do, probably four or five times year,” he said. “Once or twice a year, I’ll get to a regular Saturday night show. I’ll also go to special events, like UARA(-Stars).”
He attends races to watch the sons of drivers he’s known or worked with, young drivers like Coleman Pressley (Robert’s son), Kyle Grissom (Steve’s son) and Brandon Setzer (Dennis’s son).
“They were guys I worked with and palled around with in the Busch days, and now they’ve got sons,” he said. “I remember them when they were little sapling kids. Now they’re taller than I am and driving race cars.”
He says HMS is still special to him.
“You hear people talk about their ‘NASCAR roots’ and their ‘NASCAR family,’ ” he said. “NASCAR has a very large family tree, and Hickory Motor Speedway is one of their most important roots.”
Tom Gillispie, the co-author of “Then Junior Said to Jeff…,” writes about racing at Hickory Motor Speedway for HDR Sports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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