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Sat, 1 Sep 2001, 03:01 PM

Yankee Dragster Owner Gwynn to Make Quarter-Mile Pass
Courtesy of Scott Sebastian

In Electric Dragster During U.S. Nationals

DAVIE, Fla. -- For the first time since the life-threatening racing accident 11 years ago, which left him paralyzed and a partial amputee, Gwynn/Steinbrenner Racing owner Darrell Gwynn will return to the driver's seat. During Friday qualifying activities at this year's 47th annual NHRA U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park (IRP), Gwynn will make a solo pass in a high-tech electric dragster built by friends and former employees in celebration of his upcoming 40th birthday.

Built by former Gwynn Racing employee Mike Gerry and Jeff Whittle of the Recreation Development Company (RDC) in Las Vegas as a surprise gift, the Super Comp-styled dragster, by Dennis Sarmento, is a one-of-a-kind electric dragster designed specifically for Gwynn. Carrying the paint schemes of Gwynn's former and current primary racing sponsors, the state-of-the-art vehicle is of such standards, that if not for the detachable roll bar feature, which allows Gwynn access to the dragster it could pass National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) safety specifications for competition.

The 222-inch car is a hybrid between a rear-engine dragster and an electric golf cart. Built from chromemoly tubing, the car is equipped with a customized hand controlled throttle, steering and braking unit, allowing Gwynn both comfort and handling. Resting on 30-inch Goodyear tires, the dragster also features special front tires designed by Amerityre, inscribing Gwynn's name. The six eight-volt battery-powered dragster can reach speeds over 20 mph, a virtual crawl compared to the top speed of the New York Yankees Top Fuel dragster Gwynn co-owns, already in the record books as the world's fastest dragster (331.61 mph).

"I've been associated with the Gwynns since Darrell began driving in the Sportsman ranks as a teenager," said project designer Mike Gerry. "I helped build some of his first chassis' including the "Miami Vise" dragster he ran in the 80's. He has been such an inspiration to so many people, we decided to give him the greatest 40th birthday present possible, and that is the chance to make another quarter-mile pass down IRP during the U.S. Nationals."

A former U.S. Nationals Top Fuel champion in 1989, Gwynn's success at IRP was impressive at such an early stage of his driving career. The Indy Top Fuel runner-up to legendary driver Don Garlits in 1986, Gwynn also captured the 1983 Alcohol Dragster overall championship in dominant fashion. To return to Indy at the site of drag racing's most historic race as a driver makes this moment in his life even more special.

Gwynn, 39, of Weston, Florida, was recently recognized as one of the NHRA Top 50 all-time greatest drivers. The son of 1969 Super Eliminator world champion Jerry Gwynn, he was affectionately known as "The Kid" as he blistered opponents to 28 career national event wins by the time he was only 28-years old. Turning professional in 1985, Gwynn's Top Fuel rookie accomplishments include two runner-up finishes (both to veteran legend Don Garlits) and being the first newcomer to qualify at every event he entered. However, Gwynn's driving career was cut short after an on-track racing accident on Easter Sunday in 1990 in which his dragster broke nearly in half and collided into the guardrail at nearly 280-mph during an exhibition run at Santa Pod Raceway outside London, England.

Even prior to his tragic accident, Gwynn was a leading advocate for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and its ongoing research to cure paralysis, a role he still plays today. Now, as an active advocate and spokesman for both patients with spinal cord injuries and for spinal cord injury-cure research, Gwynn has helped raise awareness through his partnership with Colorado-based Sunrise Medical and Quickie Design in providing over $70,000 in high-end powered wheelchairs to under privileged families at select race venues this season. His dedication in finding a 'Race For A Cure' has branched out to include mobility-sensitive corporate partners including GM Mobility, and Winnebago Industries.

For Gwynn's father Jerry, also a former NHRA world champion, the return to the starting line with his son behind the wheel certainly will be one filled with emotion. With their celebrated 'father-son handshake' ritual preceding each of the younger Gwynn's runs down the race track, the sight of the them together again will be a fitting tribute to two of the sport's greatest competitors.

"I'm sure it will be emotional," said Jerry Gwynn, "we've had so many great times together when he was racing, that to see him behind the wheel will bring a lot of those memories back. I'm so proud of what he has accomplished since his accident that it's wonderful that he has the opportunity to take another pass down the quarter-mile," he added. "The fact that it'll be going really slow is irrelevant, it's just the idea of going past those filled grandstands is what it's all about."

Gwynn/Steinbrenner Racing fields the New York Yankees dragster in NHRA Winston Drag Racing's Top Fuel division. The team is led by a partnership including Darrell Gwynn and his father, Jerry, along with Hank Steinbrenner and his father, George, baseball's famed New York Yankees owner. The team's race car is driven by veteran Mike Dunn and tuned by award-winning crew chief Ken Veney. Major associate sponsors include MBNA America Bank, GMC, Winnebago Industries Inc. and MAC Tools.

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