Darrell Gwynn’s Legacy, More than Just a Drag Racer

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Darrell Gwynn is a winner, both on the racetrack and in life. Gwynn knows something about overcoming adversity to triumph. Mostly hard work is what it takes to achieve success, but a little luck never hurts. Gwynn was on hand at Homestead-Miami Speedway for NASCAR’s 2017 Championship Weekend. He hosted the Hot Rods and Reels charity fishing tournament Friday morning to raise money for the foundation that bears his name.

Like many in the motorsports community, Darrell Gwynn was a second generation driver. The son of NHRA Champion Jerry Gwynn, Darrell first sat behind the wheel of a dragster at the age of seven. The scaled down hot rod, built by his father, provided a taste of the sport Darrell came to love. Earning a racing competition license by age 17, Darrell set off in 1980 following his father’s footsteps. He became the NHRA Top Alcohol Dragster World Champion in 1983. The first father and son duo to earn NHRA Championships.

Gwynn’s career propelled him to the upper echelons of the drag racing world at the speed his dragsters powered him down the track. At 23 Gwynn turned professional and raced in the NHRA’s Top Fuel division. Competing against legends like Connie Kalitta, Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, and Joe Amato, Gwynn won 18 NHRA Top Fuel Events. However, in 1990 life took a staggering turn for the young driver at the high point of his career.

Tragedy Strikes

Gwynn traveled to Santa Pod Raceway in Bedford, England to run an exhibition race against Al Segrini a fellow NHRA competitor. In a practice run prior to the race Gwynn’s car suddenly veered right at half-track. Hitting the guardrail his car spun around, broke apart, caught fire, and slid down the track. Darrell lost his left arm and suffered paralysis as a result of the crash.

Such a horrific crash would have been enough to drive most people away from the dangers of drag racing. After his recovery, Gwynn operated his own race team competing in the NHRA Top Fuel class. Earning another 15 race wins as a team owner. He called it “therapy” and it kept him going despite the physical limitations resulting from the accident. Gwynn eventually sold the race team after the 2002 season. But, don’t call him retired.

Continuing to Lead

Having personal experience with a life-altering disability can leave some people bitter. Not Darrell Gwynn. Instead of dropping from public view, Gwynn chose to use his profile to help lead the fight against spinal cord injuries. He established The Darrell Gwynn Quality of Life Chapter of The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis.

In 1985, Barth A. Green, M.D. and NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti helped found The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis after Nick’s son, Marc, sustained a spinal cord injury during a college football game. Today, The Miami Project is the world’s most comprehensive spinal cord injury (SCI) research center, and a designated Center of Excellence at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. The Darrell Gwynn Quality of Life Chapter of The Buoniconti Fund supports SCI research at The Miami Project and education and prevention programs.

Gwynn’s charity also provides motorized and specialty wheelchairs to individuals who benefit from the gift with an improved quality of life. Hundreds of wheelchair donations mark Gwynn’s legacy of helping those less fortunate in life’s circumstances than himself. A remarkable testimony to the character of the man Gwynn truly is.

Hot Rods and Reels Fishing Tournament

Four generations of NASCAR superstars like Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Ryan Blaney, and Bobby Allison participated in Gwynn’s Hot Rods and Reels Fishing Tournament. Arriving beachside at the lake in the center of Homestead-Miami Speedway early Friday morning of the race weekend. The 7:30 am starting time deterred most fans. For the drivers, no problem. Except for Max Papis, the road racing star, who arrived just after the official horn blast to kick off the event.

During the driver’s time on the water, we had the opportunity to interview Darrell. His enthusiasm for the charity activity and the individuals it would help is clearly evident.

After a couple of hours of fishing, contestant boats returned dockside for the weigh-in to determine the winner. Last to arrive at the beach? Max Papis, fishing to the last possible moment. As it turned out, Papis had the largest total weight of eligible fish. After a friendly protest claiming Max had fished past the cut-off time, Darrell declared his catch legal and Papis took home the trophy. The real winners? The beneficiaries of Darrell’s charity organization.

Darrell Gwynn the Person

As the tournament participants headed back to their motorhomes or garages each stopped to share a word, a smile, and hugs for Darrell. A friend of motorsports, regardless of the type of competition, Darrell greeted each with good luck wishes. In a special and tender moment, Darrell grabbed Martin Truex Jr. to wish him well in his championship quest on Sunday. The next day he gave Martin a good-luck charm to enhance his chances in the winner-take-all final race of the season.

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Martin Truex Jr. is no stranger to adversity. In a year that marked Truex Jr.’s greatest on-track accomplishments, the off-track challenges continued to mount throughout the season. His long-time girlfriend Sherry Pollex continued her battle with ovarian cancer. Martin’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, lost his close friend Jacob Damen very unexpectedly. Damen contracted a bacterial infection and it took his life suddenly.

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Only a month before the Championship Final, Jim Watson, a road-crew fabricator for Truex Jr’s Furniture Row Racing Team suffered a heart attack at Kansas Speedway. Watson passed away on the Saturday before the Hollywood Casino 400. Somehow the crew pulled together and propelled Truex Jr. to the race win on Sunday. During the final weeks of the season team owner Barney Visser also suffered a heart attack. Successful surgery saved Visser, but he could not attend the races culminating in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship for his driver and team.

The Gwynn and Truex Jr. Connection

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After capturing the championship, Martin Truex Jr. celebrated in front of the grandstands at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Post race pictures, television and radio interviews delayed his appearance in the media center for a couple of hours. His friend Darrell Gwynn watched and waited, driving his motorized wheelchair into the interview room just prior to Truex Jr.’s entrance.

As the press fired questions, Truex Jr. addressed each with his normal jovial manner. Yes, he talked about the adversity the team faced. The remarkable manner in which everyone pulled together to deliver the season’s eight wins including the championship finale. He commented on the emotion of the night. The driver of the 78 car was only left speechless when told he had led 78 laps capturing the race victory. “Are you serious? 78 laps, somethings are just meant to be.”

Martin went on to say he had received a lucky rabbit’s foot from Darrell. The lucky charm had brought Gwynn two big weeks back to back just before he went to England. He had left the rabbit’s foot at home in his trophy case before that trip. It remained there for the last 47 years. Martin said Darrell told him, “If this works for you, you can keep it. If it doesn’t I need it back for my trophy case.”

Truex Jr. reached into the pocket of his driver’s suit and pulled out the rabbit’s foot. “It worked, you ain’t getting it back, sorry.”

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Steve Sweitzer
Steve is the Sports Editor for the Lasco Press and highlights our coverage of NASCAR and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Steve is a nationally published author of automotive related articles for industry trade magazines, a freelance technical writer, and a contributing author to a consortium that provides “how to” articles for eBay Buying Guides. A 25-year resident of Southeast Michigan, Steve’s passion for reporting on our community, it’s residents, and our automotive connections allow us to use his skills to cover a number of events. Steve’s ability to seek out the unique behind the scenes accounts that tell the often-overlooked aspect of a story makes for entertaining reading. Follow Steve on the Lasco Press with weekly NASCAR updates and featured articles.