DARRELL GWYNN - Navigating Roadblocks

It might seem odd, but perhaps no one has described Darrell Gwynn’s approach to life better than a cosmetics entrepreneur from Texas.

Darrell Gwynn is moving ahead with life;

Racing is behind him now

It might seem odd, but perhaps no one has described Darrell Gwynn’s approach to life better than a cosmetics entrepreneur from Texas.

“When you come to a roadblock, take a detour,” Mary Kay Ash once said. Ash, who founded the cosmetics company that bears her name, was talking about business setbacks, not the type of obstacles that Gwynn faces every day. But since the day of his near-fatal crash in 1990, Gwynn has faced some of the most difficult roadblocks anyone can imagine, yet whenever he faces a roadblock, he continues to take detours to do what’s best for himself and his family.

In the late 1980s, Gwynn was on top of the drag racing world. He started driving Top Fuel cars at age 23 and before he turned 29 Gwynn had already recorded 18 national event wins and was widely regarded as one of the best young drivers of the times.

When Gwynn had a near-fatal crash in 1990 that ended his driving career, took his left arm and left him paralyzed from the chest down, he detoured into life as a Top Fuel team owner. 13 years later, when owning a team was no longer financially viable for him, the 46-year old Floridian detoured into a life away from the drag strip.

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Today Gwynn is no longer active in drag racing and rarely visits a drag strip. Instead, he has launched careers in real estate management and motivational speaking, in addition to his work with the Darrell Gwynn Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to help people who are paralyzed.

“I’m not bitter about drag racing or anything,” said Gwynn. “It’s just that my life is going in a different direction.” He said that after nearly 20 years in the professional ranks as a driver and team owner, the economics and grueling schedule had taken their toll.

“When we were racing, I made it look easy. I thought nothing of getting up at 4:00 a.m. to catch an early flight to Pomona,” he said. But, as he got older, the strain of maintaining a team owner’s schedule got harder and harder for him. “We were at a race one time and I told my dad ‘If we spent this much time and effort on a plant nursery, we’d be making a fortune’,” Gwynn said.

Gwynn never did open that nursery, but he has gotten involved in several other business ventures.  He said that while he has to work to earn a living, “the good news is that when I quit racing, I didn’t have to go get a nine-to-five job. But I do have to go something for income. I am not independently wealthy so that I can’t just sit on the beach.”

“There were a couple of reasons I quit racing,” he says, mentioning sponsorship battles and the difficulty of making money as a team owner, in addition to the schedule.

“There are a lot of people out there who are pretending (to make money),” Gwynn said. “I am not a pretender.” For example, he said, there are team owners who quietly fund their racing operations with their own money rather than ask sponsors for the full amount of money they need in order to be competitive. In public, Gwynn said, those same team owners would act as if their racing operations were paying for themselves or even earning money.

Gwynn said that several years ago he lost a sponsor to another team owner who promised to campaign a car for half what Gwynn was receiving. “They told me that I was asking for $2 million and another team said they could do it for half that amount,” Gwynn said. “I told them ‘They can’t do it for half’. They’re putting their own money into it and I can’t do that.”

Unable to find a sponsor and unwilling to fund a team with his own money, Gwynn sold his equipment and began to work on building the next phase of his life.

“I’m trying to work smart and not hard,” he said. “I am doing some real estate work locally. I own some trailer parks with some partners and have some other things going on.”

In addition to his real estate work, Gwynn is also building a career as a motivational speaker for companies and organizations. “I’m not out there competing with John Force or Jeff Gordon (for appearances and endorsements),” he said. “I can’t compete with them. What I am and what I am doing is basically being who I am.”

Sixteen years after his crash, Gwynn has accumulated a great deal of experience in living life as a paraplegic. That has led him to re-engineer many of the products he uses every day. For example, he says, he had some problems with the shower seat he was using so “I used my mechanical abilities and made it better.”

“I feel somewhat of a responsibility when I see a product that is not quite up to snuff,” he said, adding that his wife, Lisa, has encouraged him to develop products for the disabled as a business. In fact, he has served as a consultant for companies that want to make their products easier for the disabled to use. “When it comes to designing wheelchair accessible motorhomes, they come to me,” Gwynn said.

Since he disbanded his racing team, Gwynn has not attended many drag racing events. “I really don’t go to drag strips that much,” he said. “I go to Gainesville every year but I really don’t go to watch the racing. I go there to see my friends.”

With NHRA having only one event in Gywnn’s home state of Florida, his opportunities to attend more events are limited because of the difficulty he has traveling and the amount of planning that is required for each trip.

Earlier this season, Gwynn, his father, wife and daughter traveled to the NHRA national event in Denver. “It’s not like when I was racing and had everything I needed on the motorhome,” Gwynn said.  “To go to Denver, I had to send two pallets of stuff ahead of me. When it was over, we were flat worn out. I said to my dad that we got out of racing at just the right time.”

While Gwynn does not get to go to many drag races these days, he does have an ongoing project that keeps him linked to the sport. “I’m restoring my first Top Fuel car. It’s the 1985 silver car,” he said. “It just says Darrell Gwynn on it.”

Gwynn recently got his first Top Fuel car back after a friend of his traced it to a shop in California. “He tracked it down and told the owner that if he ever wanted to sell it, I would want it,” Gwynn said. It wasn’t long after when Gwynn was making arrangements to get the car back in his garage.

“He (the owner) wanted me to have it.” Gwynn explained. “Unlike a lot of the restorations that people are doing now, I have nearly all the original parts. I have everything but the motor.”

Gwynn said he is not sure what he is going to do with the car when the restoration is complete. It could end up in Don Garlits’ museum, he said, but that would happen after he has shown the car for a period of time. “I’m going to enjoy it for a while,” he said.

When it is done, the car will be a reminder to Gwynn of the times he enjoyed in drag racing. “I miss the good parts of it a lot. I don’t miss the bad parts at all,” he said. “The biggest part I miss is the driving.”

But, Gwynn said, he does not miss being a team owner. “It wasn’t as much fun as when I was driving and at the top of my game,” he said. “There are a lot of people that I used to talk to on a daily basis that I miss.”

Gwynn says that while he misses the friends he has in drag racing, he does not miss the grind of being on the road. “It’s been great, not being on airplanes all the time and spending time with my family.”


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