President & Chairman
Darrell Gwynn Foundation
Darrell Gwynn grew up watching and helping his father, Jerry, a former National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) world champ, who drove Alcohol Funny Cars. While Darrell obviously got his love of the sport from his dad, he didn't even attempt to drive Funny Cars. He went directly to dragsters. At 7 years old, Darrell Gwynn was piloting a scaled down dragster designed and hand built by his father, Jerry. By 19, he had earned his first professional competition license, and within 10 years, by 1990, Darrell had worked his way through the ranks to become one of America's hottest NHRA Top Fuel drag racers.
When Darrell Gwynn began his racing career in 1980 in the Alcohol Dragster category of the National Hot Rod Association, he attacked the sport with fierce determination. The fire burned in his eyes at the mere thought of his next round of competition. There was always another barrier to overcome. It finally got to the point where Gwynn would not just overcome barriers, but actually knock them down. As his sportsman victories began to mount, people, especially competitors noticed. Big time sponsors noticed. Everything fell into place for the “kid”. Darrell was winless that First year; however he did place runner-up at the U.S Nationals. Gwynn won three times in 1981. He added two wins apiece in 1982 and 1983 and three wins in 1984. Not only did Darrell have 10 wins as an Alcohol Dragster, he also was the Top Alcohol Dragster World Champion in 1983. The competitive spirit he developed then still burns today.
At the tender age of 23, Gwynn turned professional as he moved up to the Top Fuel category. While he didn't win a race in his 12 starts, he did qualify number one once, and made it to the final round in two races, including the biggest race of all, the U.S. Nationals. However his sixth place finish in the Winston Championship did not go unnoticed. The following year, in 1986, Gwynn was the talk of Top Fuel. The kid had even the most seasoned veterans scratching their heads by winning three races in the first half of the season. He was in a dogfight with legendary Don Garlits for a championship. Garlits would ultimately prevail, but Gwynn's four wins, three runner-ups and string of record-setting runs marked him as a quickly rising star in a sport that featured the likes of Garlits, Kalitta, Muldowney, Ormsby, LaHaie, Amato and Hill.
Over the next three years, Gwynn would win another 13 races, but never get the gold ring. He finished third, second and fourth in points, but couldn't call the championship his own. 1990 would be the year that everything changed. The barriers would grow taller. Overcoming them would be his greatest challenge. Gwynn started his campaign that year in familiar fashion; winning the Gatornationals at a track he considered his home track, in his only final round appearance in four starts. It would be his 18th and final win as a driver.
Fate took Gwynn to England in April that year. In an exhibition race at Santa Pod Raceway his dragster suddenly broke and veered left into the retaining wall at halftrack at approximately 240mph, causing major life-threatening injuries to the 28-year-old driver. A terrific battle of faith and determination allowed Gwynn to survive the ordeal, he was left paralyzed and he lost his left arm. Given this unfortunate event, one thing that never changed was his willingness to meet challenges head-on and to live life on his terms. The competitive spirit he developed early on still burns today. You can still see it deep within and raging in his eyes.
In 2011, Darrell Gwynn got back behind the wheel of a race car for a special racing series called “Garlits vs. Gwynn: Match Races for a Cause” as part of the NHRA’s 60th Anniversary celebration. Gwynn competed against his legendary rival “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in a DieHard Battery power Electric Dragsters built by Mike Gerry, Brad Hadman with graphics by Eric Reyes under the supervision of Jerry Gwynn. The two rivals competed in the electric dragsters at five NHRA events including the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals where Gwynn defeated Garlits in a best of tree and earn his first Wally Trophy since 1990.
Racing Team Owner
Since that time, Gwynn changed roles from star driver to team owner. He employed Frank Hawley, Mike Brotherton, Mike Dunn, Andrew Cowin and Cory McClenathan to handle the driving duties. Dunn was Darrell’s primary driver, driving for Darrell Gwynn Racing for nine years. Jerry Gwynn, the biggest influence on Darrell's career decisions, was a vital part of the team as manager. Despite all the changes, Darrell Gwynn was still the driving force that kept the team focused and directed toward a championship.
Gwynn's signature style of barrier busting continues both in front of and beyond the reach of the public eye. In 2001, at the biggest event in NHRA's 50th anniversary year, the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Gwynn demonstrated his willingness and ability to live life to the fullest. At the site of his most prestigious racing win, Gwynn shocked and wowed a capacity crowd by driving a custom-built, hand-controlled dragster down the Indianapolis Raceway Park quarter-mile track in a special exhibition run. The dragster was built in secrecy by a former crewmember, Mike Gerry as a surprise 40th birthday gift. Gwynn was presented the unique present hours before he took it to the track to delight all in attendance. Though traversing the quarter-mile at a snail's pace compared to his Top Fuel days, the symbolism contained within the on-track return of the once fallen racing champion was felt far and wide.
Businessman & Darrell Gwynn Foundation
Beyond such dramatic feats of a no-barriers lifestyle, Gwynn continues to make his presence felt in both business and civic arenas. As a businessman, Gwynn presides over Darrell Gwynn Collectibles. In 2002, Gwynn launched the Darrell Gwynn Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to provide awareness, prevention and support and ultimately a cure for paralysis. That endeavor finds Gwynn active in fund-raising and educational programs. The foundation's quality of life initiatives include programs such as national wheelchair donations to financially underprivileged paralysis victims, an education and prevention program, several fundraising events annually and the successful creation of Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Week (SCIAW) in November each year.
Although the DGR NHRA Race Team had a tremendous amount of sentimental value to Darrell, at the end of 2003 with travel becoming increasingly more difficult Darrell chose to sell the team. Darrell decided helping others through the Darrell Gwynn Foundation and spending more quality time with his little girl and wife would be a greater reward than any race won. In the meantime, from Darrell’s racing days through the foundation he has unknowingly found himself a role model to an international following of respectful admirers.
Darrell, with his wife Lisa and daughter Katie, now reside in Weston, Fla.
Questions for Blacktie
Going back to when you first started with your organization to now, what has been your proudest personal accomplishment? How committed our donors are to supporting our foundation.
What do you enjoy the most about your work? Changing people’s lives. I use to have great moments when I won a race. Now I replace those great moments every time we donate a wheelchair to someone.
Do you have a mentor; someone who has been there to guide you or consult with you when you needed their input? My foundation board of directors has a lot of people who are business leaders, not-for-profit experts, etc. When I have questions about how I should handle something or if I should do something, they are always a great resource to me.
What program with your organization do you get the most excited about? Our Wheelchair Donation Program
Is there a charitable event(s) you really look forward to attending each year? Any event that takes place at a racetrack. We do several events at NHRA and NASCAR races and that’s when I’m in my element. Our foundation is far from a “motor sports” foundation, but many of our donors and supporters come from that area so we capitalize on it by getting involved with many races around the country. I’m a race car driver. That passion for racing never went away. I love being at the races.
How have things changed for you through the years?
I’d say so (laughs). My accident changed everything in my life. I became a member of a club I never wanted to join. But it taught me that the first chapter in my life was to be a champion racer. The second chapter in my life was to help as many people as I could. My PR guy likes to say “God has a plan for all of us.” I think I’ve learned that over the years. I get a great deal of happiness from helping people.
What is your greatest strength(s) that makes you such an asset to your organization? I have a lot of great contacts in the car industry. And car people are good people. Whether its people into car collecting or people into motor sports, we’re very fortunate that we’re able to get people excited and engaged in what we’re doing. It’s really helped take the foundation to another level.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
First and foremost, everything well at home with family and at the Darrell Gwynn Foundation makes me a happy man.
What is the most important thing you have learned through the years?
Do what you think is right.
How do you relax?
I go to my home in Islamorada, Fla. in the Keys with my family.
Do you have a favorite vacation spot?
What do you wish you could have a never-ending supply of?
If you found a treasure chest – and you could keep it, what would you want to be in it? Duh…money! (Laughs)
What can make you laugh?
What can make you cry?
My daughter not feeling good
Are you where you hoped you would be at this point in your life?
That’s a tough question. Before my accident I would have had a very different idea of where I wanted to be in my life. But I count my blessings and am very happy with the life I have today.
What do you still hope to accomplish?
Balance in my life.
Is there a fond childhood memory you can share with us?
Anything. I love telling stories. People who know me know that. Where do you want to begin?
What is your vision and hope for the future?
I want to continue to grow my foundation. I want there to be much more awareness of what we do so the full potential of our Wheelchair Donation Program and Education Prevention Program can be achieved. There are so many people out there that need new power wheelchairs but they don’t know about us and vice versa. We know our Education & Prevention Program in Florida is preventing spinal cord injuries before they occur. Every high school student in the country should have the opportunity to learn how to prevent injuries from our program. What we do is unique. As far as we know, no one else in the country offers these programs. In the future we’d like to expand them tremendously.
Do you have a motto, or some words of wisdom, that has guided you through your life? Hard work creates good work.
Who is the most interesting person you have ever met?
What word best describes your life right now?
What charitable organizations are you involved with at this time?
Darrell Gwynn Foundation, Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, Speediatrics, Craig Hospital and my wife and I attend and support several charity events annually in our South Florida community.
Is there a non-profit event you really look forward to attending each year?
Any DGF event at a racetrack
What is your fondest childhood memory?
Going racing with my dad.
If you were to write an autobiography, what would the title of it be?
I actually do have a book. It’s called “Darrell Gwynn: Full Throttle”
Who is your hero?
My Dad and Johnny Morris
What is your idea of a perfect vacation?
Alone time with my wife and my daughter
What’s been the key to the success and growth of the Darrell Gwynn Foundation?
A lot of people pushing in the same direction.
When does someone know when it’s time to move on?
When it’s no longer fun. I’ve always said when this job isn’t fun anymore. That’s when I’m retiring.
What are your favorite leisure time activities or hobbies?
What is your favorite sport?
Motor Sports (NHRA, NASCAR, Anything…)
You are evidently a very capable and talented man, what other talent do you wish you had been born with? My leadership skills have helped me a lot.
What’s the best movie you have ever seen?
World’s Fastest Indian
What three things are always in your refrigerator?
Water, Hummus and Bloody Mary Mix
What is your most treasured possession? My Family
What is your greatest indulgence?
What magazine do you look forward to reading each week/month?
Sports Business Journal
What is your favorite restaurant?
If your house was up for sale, and a potential buyer did a walk through, what would your home say about you?
Attention to detail
What is your pet peeve?
If there were a movie being made about your life, what actor/actress would best play you?
What is a moment you will never forget?
Birth of my Daughter
If you were going to be on a Space Shuttle for about a year, what one item would you have to take with you?
What is your biggest fear?
Not staying healthy
Darrell, A nice article on Black Tie. Ginny and I serve on the Pinion Inc.Board together(Special Olympics of Broward). We are the fund raising group whose funds raised benefit these athletes.
So happy that life has certainly progressed upward for you. Due, in part, by your determination to succeed with it all.
Your dad,mom and I went to Miami Jackson together. They have attended some of our Class Reunions (Jerry class of'57 the same as me) How are they doing? Please give them my best.
Wishing you continued success.
Patti Hoover Kearson
Patti Hoover Kearson
Darrell, I am inspired by your outlook on life and how you are helping so many people~