Between 1975 and 1986 I served as a regional sales representative for the Mr. Gasket Company in the Michigan, Indiana and Ohio area. During the early years of that period the NHRA had only eight events on their national tour. Two of the best however, Indy and Columbus, just happened to be in my territory.
Just like their tour today is a far cry from 1975 standards so is the manufacturer’s midway. Unlike today’s endless string of displays, things were a lot different in the late 70s. One of the real pioneers of that era was Mr. Gasket with their Performance People trailer. The Performance People trailer was a mobile repair center and parts storehouse that attended every NHRA national event.
As a hard-core gear head I was always quick to volunteer to help out on the Performance People trailer when it came to an event in my area. Someone else that liked to hang around the Performance People trailer was Darrell Gwynn and this was where I first met him. Even before he began his driving career he always eager to learn all that he could.
>From the beginning it was obvious that he was something special. His infectious humor and inquisitive nature made him a joy to have around. Obviously his driving career and later team ownership days are well known to most, including myself. What I never knew about Darrell was the story of his growing up years before he started coming to the track. I also never knew (and never asked) what happened that fateful day in England.
Erik’s new book now fills in the entire story. It covers all parts of Darrell’s life in 160 pages and more than 225 photos. Below is an abridged version of Easter Sunday, 1990. The complete recap of that day, as well as the rest of Darrell’s life, can be found in the book:
The trip in the spring of 1990 was to be nothing more than a business venture for Darrell and his father, Jerry. It would be the third year the father-son combo would gather a couple of car buddies and make the transatlantic flight. The plan was to meet New Jersey drag racer and race promoter Harlan Thompson at England’s famed Santa Pod Raceway for the Easter Thunderball, a traditional holiday feast of European hot-rodding.
The deal was simple. The Gwynns sold Thompson their Top Fuel dragster from the previous season, hawked a handful of hats and T-shirts, and applied the money made toward new equipment for the current racing season. Between the car, a small appearance fee and souvenir sales, the annual trip netted the Gwynns somewhere in the neighborhood of $75,000.
“The bottom line was that it was good for the team,” Darrell says. “I could start out the year with all-new parts and have an outlet for getting rid of my old ones. It was just another business transaction for me. I never thought about the possible consequences of racing over there. It was all business. We flew over, checked into the hotel and headed straight for the track.”
It was the 15th of April -- Easter Sunday -- when Darrell, Jerry and the guys began preparing the Coors Extra Gold dragster for a short exhibition run at the Pod. Darrell was alone on the track in the left lane, with plans to make a little noise, get down the track and shut it off.
”The place reminded me of a lot of the tracks we ran in the 1960s,” Jerry says. “It was at the end of a long winding country road. The pit areas were only partially paved, with ruts and potholes all over the place. The bleachers were made of wood. It just looked old, but the track itself was decent.”
There were plenty of reasons for Darrell to wave off the run that day. It was only an exhibition, and the weather was certainly becoming a factor as a light mist began to coat the surface of the track. Darrell also was lacking some of the safety equipment he normally insisted on, having lent his gloves and arm restraints to Al Segrini, a fellow drag racer who had made an exhibition pass in front of Darrell in one of the Gwynns’ old Budweiser-sponsored cars.
“But we had a commitment,” Darrell remembers. “There were a lot of fans in the stands and we didn’t want to disappoint anyone. We never planned to make a full pass, so it never should have been a big deal. I felt like we at least owed the crowd an attempt to get down through there.”
Once in the car, Darrell donned his neck collar and Jerry tightened the restraint system so tight that Darrell and the car became one and the same. The only thing missing was that restraining system of straps, connected to D rings on Darrell’s shirtsleeves, that attached to the seat belt system. The straps allowed just enough movement for Darrell to steer the car and activate the parachutes needed to stop the 4,000-horsepower machine at the end of the 1/4-mile strip.
Strapped in and ready to go, Darrell and Jerry were being hurried along by race control, but Jerry wanted to wait for Segrini to bring back Darrell’s equipment. Darrell didn’t wait, telling Jerry, “Don’t worry about it, Dad. We won’t be going that fast and I’m just going to shut off at three-quarters track.”
As Darrell accelerated off the line in his Coors Extra Gold rocket, the car shook the tires -- just a little. “About a million things were going through my mind,” Darrell says. “But I felt like, ‘These people are here to see a show, so I need to get back on it and try to make a decent run out of it.’ So, I got back in the gas, drove it for a few hundred more feet, and right about the time I felt I was going to shut it off, the car broke in half and veered toward the wall.”
The car’s front end crumpled upon impact with the rail, breaking the car in half and spinning the front end of the dragster counterclockwise, the back end of the driver’s compartment slamming into the rail again. The 240-mph whiplash snapped Darrell’s neck at the C5 and C6 vertebrae, causing a burst fracture of the fifth vertebra, splintering bone and bruising the spinal cord. Instantly paralyzed, Darrell’s hands came off the steering wheel and without the restraints he normally would have been wearing, his arms waved out of control and out of the cockpit.
As the car erupted in a ball of fire and skidded on its side to a stop, Darrell’s left arm was dragged along the asphalt surface of the track and pinned under the frame rail wreckage. His face, left vulnerable when the whiplash flipped his visor out of position, was stinging with first-degree burns.
Jerry watched the nightmare unfold from the starting line. But he had seen numerous accidents over his twenty-five-year racing career, and this one didn’t appear as horrific as it was to become. When Jerry made it to the car, he wanted things to move faster. “When I got down there, he was bleeding profusely from his arm, and they were trying to get an inflatable tourniquet on him,” Jerry remembers.
“It was then that I realized that the track wasn’t prepared for this kind of accident. He was trapped in the car and there was nothing to cut him out with. There was no backboard to put him on. There was no neck collar.”
Conscious through the entire ordeal, Darrell felt only the pain on his face. Disoriented and confused, he had yet to realize the magnitude of his injuries. Then Darrell, still feeling only the pain from the burns, looked over and saw his 6-foot, 3-inch, 250-pound father leaning against the guardrail, slumped over, head in hands. Says Darrell, “That’s when I knew things were bad.”
In closing his preface earlier in the book Darrell says, “we can never completely control the path of our lives. But we surely can strive to make the most of what we’re given.” Good advice from someone who has suffered more than most and made the best of it. Darrell Gwynn At Full Throttle is an inspirational book and it would be a good choice on anyone's Christmas list whether or not they are a racing fan.
Darrell Gwynn: At Full Throttle ($24.95) is in bookstores now, or can be purchased directly from David Bull Publishing by calling 1-800-831-1758. Also available: The Publisher's Edition ($79.95), which is a hardcover, individually numbered and signed by Darrell, with additional photos, memorabilia, and Darrell's Top Fuel career record. Limited to 300 copies. Visit www.bullpublishing.com for more information.