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Darrell Gwynn Lowbred himself into his Top Fuel dragster, Coors Extra Gold, as he had many times in the five years he had competed in the ultimate National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) class. The car was a glistening gold stiletto, 30 feet long, capable of propelling him from zero to almost 300 mph in less than five seconds—280.46 mph in 4.909 seconds to be exact, a time that made Gwynn the quickest man on earth over a quarter mile from a standing start. The massive, 500-cubic-inch supercharged engine produced 4,000 horsepower and a roar that shook the ground. Painted on the car's magnesium fuselage were the words MOM DAD.
Jerry Gwynn strapped his son into the explosive machine. A former drag racer himself, Jerry had taken Darrell with him to the races when Darrell was a boy, and now, on March 18, 1990, at 28, Darrell was the hottest Top Fuel driver in the country, challenging for the Winston World Championship. Darrell scrunched into the cockpit as Jerry tightened the five wide straps of the safety harness. "Just do your usual deal," Jerry said to his son.
Lined up beside Gwynn, demanding attention with sharp bursts from the throttle of his own "rail," was Eddie Hill, who in 1988 had become the first driver to crack five seconds in the quarter mile. He and Gwynn were facing off in the final round of the Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., where Hill had won in '88, Gwynn in '89.
Hill spun his rear tires on the asphalt in an angry burnout, burying his bright yellow car in a billowing cloud of smoke. Gwynn responded in kind. The chest-beating display raised the fans' excitement to a bursting point. The cars stood poised at the starting line. The yellow lights on the "Christmas tree" blinked down to green, and then, in less time than it takes to read this sentence, the two cars were side by side at 280 mph. Gwynn beat Hill to the finish line by a car length, in a time of 5.011 seconds. The Gwynn team van retrieved the winner and brought him back to the starting line to the cheers of the 80,000 fans lining the strip. "When I got out of the van, they jumped to their feet and the place went wild," Gwynn says. "I almost fell down, it felt so good."
Six months later, on Sept. 13, Gwynn received another standing ovation, this time from 11,000 fans spilling out of the 7,200-seat Municipal Stadium in Reading, Pa., home of the Double A baseball Phillies. This crowd was cheering him for being a different kind of hero. And it felt good to Gwynn in a different way. Gwynn had motored out to the pitcher's mound, where he was handed a Softball. He flipped it to Jerry to start a memorable all-star game between NHRA pro drivers and their NASCAR counterparts—65 drivers who that evening played Softball the same way they drove, putting up 41 runs on 45 hits, with 10 errors. The hot-rodders nipped the stock car drivers at the wire, 21-20 in the bottom of the ninth. It was a good way to celebrate Gwynn's 29th birthday, because the affair raised $180,000 to help pay his medical bills, a debt that could run upward of $2 million. For Gwynn had made his way to the pitcher's mound in a battery-powered wheelchair.
Anyone who has been paralyzed can tell you that the key to emotional recovery—the first step in shaking the anger and despair—is finding a reason to continue living. Darrell Gwynn, probably the most famous of the approximately 12,000 American men, women and children who were paralyzed last year, never had to ask himself that question. The day after his dragster crashed during an exhibition run on Easter Sunday last year at Santa Pod Raceway in Bedford, England, as he lay in a hospital bed unable to move any part of his body below his broken neck, Gwynn drew strength from his commitment to his sport and to the people who had helped him become a champion.
To the drag racers who have been around for a long time, and there are a lot of them, Gwynn is known as The Kid. He's one of their own, having been raised by the extended family of the NHRA circuit. Jerry, a maintenance superintendent for Chevron oil in Miami, raced in the Alcohol Funny Car class on the NHRA circuit part-time. He could top 200 mph in the quarter mile, and he won a number of divisional championships in the 1970s. He brought Darrell along with him to the races, first as a gofer, later as a mechanic and then as a 17-year-old crew chief.
When Darrell turned 20, he and his dad traded racing jobs. Four years later, after winning two Alcohol Dragster championships, Darrell moved up to the Top Fuel class, and in February 1990 Jerry retired from his job with Chevron to manage the Darrell Gwynn Racing Team full-time.
Clean-cut and likable, Darrell appeared younger than his age. In an attempt to look older he grew a mustache, but it came in thin and sandy. He was polite and respectful, and the hunger to win wasn't as obvious in Gwynn as it was in the other young guns. There was mostly warmth and friendliness showing in his blue eyes, though those close to him could see those eyes turn icy calm when it came time to be strapped into his dragster.
"I was always the driver who knew where he was at, knew how far I could push it," Gwynn says. "I always knew what the limit was, and when to lift. I never drove over my head, I was sensible. I'd been scared—you get sideways at 280 miles an hour and it scares you. But in England I honestly didn't have any idea I was headed toward the wall, it happened so fast."