Monday, November 16, 2009

So Why Do ESPN Pit Reporters Wear Firesuits Anyway?

They may look a little goofy, but there's a good reason those ESPN pit reporters wear firesuits - and it's not because they're out to make a NASCAR fashion statement.

The reason behind their race day attire dates all the way back to the late 1980s and involves Dr. Jerry Punch, the King and a fiery mishap on pit road.

On March 19, 1989, Punch, who is now ESPN’s lap-by-lap announcer for NASCAR Sprint Cup coverage, was working as a pit reporter at Atlanta Motor Speedway. As was standard ABC practice at the time, Punch was wearing a blue blazer and tie.

As Richard Petty’s car was being serviced during a routine pit stop, the car, which was racing with a broken header pipe, backfired, igniting fuel that spilled from the fuel filler can during the refueling process. The fire quickly spread.

“Suddenly you could hear this big ‘whumph’ 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 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 are standing. Then the gas man leaps back over pit wall.”

Punch, an emergency room physician, and his pit spotter, Nelson Crozier, quickly sprung into action. Crozier grabbed a rubber mat from the Petty pits and he and Punch wrapped the Petty team gas man in the mat to extinguish the fire. Meanwhile, quick thinking by Petty’s crew chief, Dale Inman, led to Petty speeding away from the pits, allowing the car to be sprayed and the fire on the car to go out. Fireman and crew members from other teams quickly grabbed extinguishers and took care of the rest of the fire.

Punch attended to the injured crew member until paramedics arrived, then attempted to do a report for the telecast. But he quickly learned that the blaze had impacted him as well.

“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, my microphone windscreen is melted – it’s just dripping down across the microphone,” he said. “And the sleeve on my polyester blazer is all basically melted into a goo – and all you can see is these brass buttons hanging there.

“They had had high cameras on all of this and I don’t realize as I’m giving a report that people in the (TV) truck and people watching back at ABC in New York are just aghast that I was in the middle of this. Our coordinating producer of motorsports at ABC was Geoff Mason – Geoff was watching back in NY and he immediately called the truck and asked why in the world are our people 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 and ABC’s reporters, it also led to improvements in pit stop safety.

“It’s not that he (the gas man) was sloppy; that was the nature of pit stops back then,” he said. “You’d always see gas trickling down the side of the car and the car would leave and there’d always be a puddle of gas on the ground behind the car. They’d just put a little speedy dry on it and sweep it up.

“After that, it became much more sophisticated with really, really tight dry breaks,” he said. “It made it harder to gas the car. That led to a lot of safety innovations.

“But boy we dodged a big bullet there on pit road that day and so did I,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much so until later. And to this day, I’m so appreciative of Geoff Mason just stepping in and absolutely making a great call for safety first.”

Photo info: Wearing her firesuit, Jamie Little interviews Ryan Newman at Talladega

1 comment:

  1. It's good, I guess, that everyone suffers in kind. I remember Monica Palumbo, one of the Sprint Cup girls, posing all day in a firesuit during the Coke Zero 400 -- out in 90-plus temps all afternoon doing photo ops next to a Sprint Cup car. Guess they have to suit up too since they're in Victory Lane. I asked her once through Twitter who was the stinkiest driver to emerge from a car after a hot race but she declined to reply. Everyone's ripe, climbing out of those suits. Cheesecake, beefcake, they're all overdone in those suits.