Monday, March 7, 2016

Jerry and Bobby

(NOTE: I wrote this story in 2013 for the Hickory Daily Record.)

Punch remembers his day with his hero sadly

By Tom Gillispie

Jerry Punch and Bobby Isaac weren’t blood kin, but Jerry called him Uncle Bobby.

Bobby’s son, Randy, went to Newton-Conover High together, Punch explained.

Also, “(Isaac) was Junior Setzer’s uncle, and Junior took me to the races when I was a kid,” Punch added. “So we both called him Uncle Bobby.”

And Jerry was a huge fan of the 1970 NASCAR champion, who was a native of Catawba.

His biggest memory of Isaac was Bobby’s quick exit after a race.

He’d be out of his (race) car and gone,” Punch said with a laugh. “He was the best escape artist before (Dale) Earnhardt came along.”

In August of 1977, Punch was a second-year medical student at Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, and Bobby was planning to run a Late Model Sportsman race at Hickory Motor Speedway.

Bobby didn’t have help that weekend, and he didn’t have tools. He’d given his tools to some crew guys,” Punch said. “I went to Cattle Sale and bought a rusted toolbox with some rusted tools.”

Punch remembers that most drivers were racing Firestone tires, but Isaac was insistent on using Goodyears. It meant he’d lose a 10th of a second or more, but he didn’t care. He wanted Goodyears.

(Driver) Butch Lindley pulled in; Mike Beam was his crew chief,” Punch said. “Mike said they had an extra set of Firestones that we could put on Isaac’s car.”

It was a humid day — no big surprise in August — and Isaac wasn’t feeling well. He wound up lying down in the back of the hauler.

The big problem for Punch is that Isaac had no help, and Jerry normally helped track owner Ned Jarrett in the tower. He’d handle the scoreboard, keep notes and do some announcing when Jarrett was away from the tower. It wasn’t a lot of money, but a second-year medical student needed all he could get.

He was torn, but Isaac told him to go up to the tower.

The race started, and Isaac was running fifth or sixth, Punch recalled.

He was running with Butch (Lindley) and Harry (Gant), and on the backstretch, he got erratic, like he’d forgotten to turn,” Punch said. “He almost stopped on the frontstretch, and the caution came out.”

I was sitting in the tower, watching the race, and they restarted in and ran five or six laps,” Punch said.

The race stopped again for Isaac.

They carried him behind pit road, and restarted the race,” Punch said. “Then they called from the pits and said, ‘We need an ambulance.’ I told Ned, ‘I gotta go; I’m the only one with him,’ and he said to go.”

So Punch rode with Isaac in the ambulance to Catawba Memorial.

Isaac was pale lying on the stretcher.

I didn’t think it was a heart attack, since both of his arms hurt,” Punch said. “But, in hindsight, it probably was a heart attack.”

They started an EKG, and Isaac told them that his arms hurt, and he was exhausted. Suddenly, he began shaking.

I was sitting on him, doing CPR,” Punch said. “We worked 30 or 45 minutes and never got a (sinus) rhythm going again. He was my racing hero, and it was to be a special day. I was going to spend it with one of my heroes. He was gone, and I was the last one to see him, to talk to him.”

Finally, around 1:30 or 1:45 in the morning, Punch called Jarrett, and wife Martha answered. She got Ned on the phone.

I said, ‘Ned, we just lost Bobby. We just lost Bobby Isaac,’” Punch said.

Jarrett made arrangements for the funeral, and Punch says “everyone was crying like a basket case” at Isaac’s wake.

Cale (Yarborough) was a tough man, but he broke up,” Punch said. “It was a tough few days.”

Punch finished at Bowman Gray and became an emergency-room doctor in Daytona Beach, Fla. His racing background led him to doing radio broadcasts. He went on to doing auto racing and college football with ESPN, and he eventually quit trying to doing medicine and TV at the same time.

He says that Isaac’s death haunted him for a while.

I did a lot of soul searching after that,” he said. “I felt responsible for what had happened; I couldn’t save my hero. I didn’t know what to do.”

He eventually he did it.

Contact: I can be reached at or Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

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