• 18 Top Fuel victories
• Set nine NHRA & one IHRA Top Fuel records
• 1983 Top Alcohol Dragster Champion
• NHRA Lifetime Achievement Award (2009)
• Named one of NHRA’s 50 Greatest Drivers (2001)
• Active philanthropist via the Darrell Gwynn Foundation
The second-generation wheelman was named one of the NHRA’s 50 Greatest Drivers All-Time in 2001 for what he accomplished in a tragically abbreviated career. Gwynn began in Alcohol Dragster in 1980, securing 10 wins in four years including the 1983 Top Alcohol Dragster World Championship. He moved to Top Fuel in 1985, where he captured 18 victories overall and never finished lower than fourth in the championship between 1986 and 1989. He set nine NHRA and one IHRA Top Fuel record. An accident during a 1990 exhibition in England resulted in paralysis and the loss of his left arm. As an owner, Gwynn has fielded TF cars for such drivers as Frank Hawley and Cory McClenathan. A supporter of The Buoniconti Fund long before his accident, he started the Darrell Gwynn Foundation in 2002 and, in 2014, opened The Darrell Gwynn Quality of Life Chapter of The Buoniconti Fund. Gwynn was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2002 and received the NHRA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
By Jon Asher
Drag racing’s first superstar was Floridian “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. In the decades before the 24-hour news cycle and the internet it was monthly magazines like Hot Rod that spread the news of Garlits’ exploits.
So why mention Garlits in a story about Darrell Gwynn? Because in some ways their stories seem related. Maybe it’s as simple as they're both being Floridians, or maybe it’s because when Gwynn first began to win races, many viewed him as Garlits’ heir apparent. Whatever the reason, Gwynn’s far-too-brief career was chronicled on an almost hourly basis by the modern world’s light-speed communications, garnering the handsome young man a national following in 1/20th the time it had taken Garlits’ name to be known outside the Sunshine State.
The Gwynn family was drag racing royalty even before Darrell emerged as a
superstar. His father, Jerry, was an NHRA World Champion with his supercharged roadster, and his mother, Joan, was a founder and longtime officer of the Drag Racing Association of Women, the sport’s impactful charitable organization.
The younger Gwynn is the epitome of someone who became involved when he was knee-high to a racing tire. Pictures exist of Gwynn-the-toddler helping push his father’s car in the pits at various tracks.
Due to his single-minded interest in racing, plus his burgeoning personality, he was
quickly adopted by his father’s peers, a scenario that would prove helpful when he began driving. By listening as his dad’s buddies talked racing, young Darrell absorbed valuable lessons in everything from the mechanical aspects to what to do if the tires started spinning.
Gwynn’s driving career lasted 10 years, during which he won 28 NHRA national events in a combination of Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Fuel competition. Had that career not been ended by a wreck during a 1990 exhibition in England that left him paralyzed, many believe he would have ultimately erased every single win list record, this writer included.
How good was Gwynn? Listen to tuner Ken Veney who, upon arriving at the top end to pick up his driver during one of their first outings, asked, “Why’d you shut if off?” “It was goin’ to smoke the tires,” Gwynn replied.
Going to smoke the tires? When Veney checked the computer, he saw the driveshaft speed just beginning to spike. Gwynn’s “feel” for the car was so sensitive that he caught it before it happened. “I never asked him about shutting off early again.”
The crash obviously changed everything, but as his mother would say, “He’s still Darrell,” acknowledging that while he would never walk again, he was still the remarkable individual who’d earned millions of fans, fans who had voted him to the Car Craft All-Star Drag Racing Team five times. The publication broke tradition in 1999 by naming Jerry, Joan and Darrell as recipients of the prestigious Ollie Award for their career-long contributions to the sport.
As a kind-of proof that he’s “still Darrell,” Gwynn has successfully immersed himself in numerous charitable efforts, most of them involved in efforts to end paralysis, including the Miami Project and the Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis.
Gwynn may never walk again, but he stands straight and tall in the eyes of everyone who’s been fortunate to have come in contact with him. Truly a giant among his peers.
Jon Asher is the former editor of five drag racing-related magazines. In 55 years of writing and photographing he’s received two Special Recognition Awards from the All-Star Drag Racing Team, the Founders Award from the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame and AARWBA’s Straight Shooter Award.
MSHFA 1989 Inductee Don Garlits