No. 32: Darrell Gwynn
Over the course of his 10-year career, from May 1980 to April 1990, only two racers won more NHRA national events than Darrell Gwynn: Bob Glidden and Kenny Bernstein.
Gwynn was at the height of his career, just a month removed from his last win, when he crashed at England's Santa Pod Raceway on April 15, 1990, changing his life forever. He'd never touched a guardrail until his Top Fuel dragster chassis, apparently weakened on its trip across the Atlantic Ocean, snapped behind the roll cage, and the rear of the car drove his half of it into the guardrail.
Gwynn was paralyzed and lost part of his left arm. At 28, he was already a 28-time national event champion.
In a story that captivated fans, Gwynn won the fight for his life and courageously returned to drag racing four and a half months later, at the U.S. Nationals, where 10 years earlier he had reached his first final and where one year earlier he had claimed his greatest victory. While he was battling back from his injuries, first in England and then at home in Miami, drag racing driving instructor Frank Hawley was named his replacement in the Coors Extra Gold dragster.
Hawley was runner-up on the weekend of Gwynn's triumphant return to the sport. Exactly 10 years earlier, after making a single test pass at Ohio's Dragway 42 days before qualifying opened for the 1980 U.S. Nationals, Gwynn also was an Indy runner-up, to Billy Williams in Pro Comp. He was 18.
By the middle of the following season, Gwynn, son of 1969 Super Eliminator national champion Jerry Gwynn, won his first major title, Alcohol Dragster at the Sportsnationals. He scored again weeks later, at the 1981 Summernationals, defeating future Top Fuel rival Joe Amato in the final, and again that October, making his quickest run, 6.41, in the final round of the inaugural Golden Gate Nationals.
In 1982, Gwynn, already known as "the Kid," won two more national events, and in 1983, another two, including the U.S. Nationals. He also outscored future three-time national champion Bill Walsh for the 1983 championship.
Following a three-win campaign in 1984, Gwynn left Alcohol Dragster for Top Fuel, and in just half a season reached his first final. Driving for his family's unsponsored team, he was Top Fuel runner-up at the 1985 Summernationals and U.S. Nationals, both times to "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, who nicknamed him "the Wolf."
Gwynn began the four-year run that forever established his place in racing by dominating the 1986 Winternationals with the first all-5.4 performance. He scored four times that year and was runner-up three times, twice to 54-year-old "Big Daddy." Gwynn became drag racing's quickest driver with a 5.34 in U.S. Nationals qualifying, but Garlits edged him in the final, 5.39 to 5.44. "Big" won all four of their final-round encounters and is remembered for his mastery of his young rival, but it was Gwynn who had the better head-to-head record, 6-5.
Racing for his first major sponsor, Budweiser, in 1987, Gwynn won four events, including the Chief Nationals, where he made the quickest run in drag racing history, 5.08. In 1988, he reached seven finals and won six, including three in a row, but didn't win the championship because he was upset in the first round of back-to-back races to open the season.
In 1989, after finishing second, third, and second in the Winston standings from 1986 to 1988, Gwynn finished fourth but was far closer to first-place Gary Ormsby than to the driver immediately behind him in the standings, Eddie Hill. For what to that point was his biggest win, Gwynn, a lifelong Florida resident, defeated Hill in the final round of the Gatornationals, thrilling Florida fans.
At the U.S. Nationals, where he had been disappointed in the final in 1985 and 1986, Gwynn enjoyed his finest hour, qualifying No. 1 with a 4.98, his first four-second pass, and backing it up for a national record with a 4.99 in Monday's eliminations. He defeated a broken Dick LaHaie in the final for his 26th and biggest win.
Gwynn lowered the record to 4.95 at the following race, the Keystone Nationals, which he also won. He ran a 4.94 and was runner-up two races later in Dallas, then set low e.t. at 1989's remaining races, the Fallnationals, where he was runner-up, and the Winston Finals.
Before the disastrous accident that ended his driving days on Easter Sunday in 1990, Gwynn made the quickest run in drag racing history that March, a 4.90, at the Supernationals in Houston. Weeks later, in what would be the final national event of his career, he won the Gatornationals over Hill for the second year in a row.
Gwynn has been a Top Fuel team owner since mid-1990 and has presided over 14 victories by drivers Hawley (two in 1990), Michael Brotherton (one in 1992), and Mike Dunn (11 from 1993 to 2001). Gwynn's team made the quickest run in the sport's history (4.50) en route to Dunn's 1999 Winternationals victory and the fastest (331.61 mph) in Dunn's win earlier this season in Houston.
All told, Gwynn who will turn 40 in September, owns 42 victories as a driver and team owner. He won exactly two-thirds of them himself - 10 in an Alcohol Dragster from 1981 to 1984 and 18 in a Top Fueler from 1986 to 1990. - Todd Veney