Darrell Gwynn Darrell Gwynn will tell you that the reason he has been in racing for so long is that he doesn't know what else to do. A "desk" job is out of the question, so Gwynn has continuously lived a racer's life. In less than five Top Fuel...
Darrell Gwynn will tell you that the reason he has been in racing for so long is that he doesn't know what else to do. A "desk" job is out of the question, so Gwynn has continuously lived a racer's life. In less than five Top Fuel seasons, Gwynn earned 18 national event victories, tying him with Shirley Muldowney for the No. 26 spot on the all-time win list. An Easter Sunday accident in 1990 at an England exhibition race left Gwynn paralyzed from the chest down, forcing him out of the driver's seat and into an ownership role. Gwynn continues to be the owner of the NY Yankee Dragster that is now driven by 22-year Australian Andrew Cowin. The Gwynn-owned car opened the season with a track record No. 1 qualifying time of 4.490 seconds at Pomona, but has yet to win a round on Sundays -- something Gwynn knows will soon change. In this Q&A session, Gwynn talks about what it is like to be an owner now, and why he can't stay away from the nitro pits.
Q: Why is your family still so heavily involved with drag racing? What keeps you in the sports?
Gwynn: I don't know how to do anything else. I grew up around the sport. If I wasn't in drag racing, I would have to go get a real job. Sometimes I wish I had the 9-5 job because this sport can be such a grind. I've said this a lot lately because I am in the process of writing a book, but I get asked 'Are you still having fun?' and that is a difficult question to answer. The answer is no, I am not having as much fun as I used to have 20 years ago. It seems like in the last few years, every year there has been a little fun taken out of the sport. My fun meter is at an all-time low right now but I expect it to gain some momentum. I love the sport of drag racing and I don't want to be involved with anything else right now.
Q: Some drivers have said they could not make the switch from the cockpit to the ownership role. Do you understand where they are coming from?
Gwynn: That is a very good point. The team ownership role it the hardest part. You are worried all the time. You are dealing with everything from personnel issues to sponsor issues and the list goes on. Along with all that, you still are not getting the enjoyment out of driving the car. No matter how much you are enthused, no matter how much spunk you have, you can't show it. It's like with John Force. The motivation you see out of him comes from being in the cockpit.
Q: Does your low "fun meter" reading have a lot to do with the fact that the car is not performing well right now?
Gwynn: That has something to do with it, sure. This is probably the worst slump we have been in since I have been involved with racing. But it can only go up from here. So I am looking forward to that part of it. Having Wes Cerny (as an advisor to crew chief Todd Smith) now is a good thing for us. He is helping us make some adjustments and decisions on the car.
Q: You have a new driver, new crew members and Todd Smith is in a new role as the crew chief. Is the team just experiencing some growing pains?
Gwynn: That is a very good way to explain it. We are having some growing pains as we are all getting to know each other, and are working together for the first time. We are still learning how to read each other and that is not an easy thing for a young team to do. We are still trying to gain confidence in each other to make this team work as one collective unit.
Q: What is it going to take to get the team on the same page and get that first round victory?
Gwynn: I think we are on the up-hill slide now. We recognized that we needed some help and that is why we had Wes Cerny come aboard and give us some guidance. It helps every crew chief to have someone to bounce ideas off of and to be able to (brainstorm) with and that is why Wes is here to help us. It's important that we recognized the need to have him come aboard now, so we don't waste any more time than is absolutely necessary. We also don't need to waste an unnecessary amount of parts and equipment. It's already working because I have seen some positive changes to the team and car.
Q: Andrew Cowin has been racing a partial NHRA schedule since 1999, but is still only 22 years old. What do you think about having such a young driver?
Gwynn: Well, when Mike Dunn was driving my car, I was living my racing career through Mike Dunn because we are both the same age. With Andrew, I am going through my young career all over again because he reminds me of myself at 22 years old. I see a lot of similarities between us such as thinking about nothing but racing. Everything is all about racing. Which is not a bad thing, as long as you don't put it ahead of your family.
Q: There are several drivers who are in their 50's and won't be racing forever. Were you making a conscious decision to grab a driver who belongs to the next generation?
Gwynn: Andrew, for his age, and the experience he had, was doing a great job in the car he was driving. When you think about trying to put someone new in a car, especially one that was willing to relocate. There weren't too many other people that came to mind. He was 22, young, but he also had experience. That was a huge factor. It was also a matter of economics and putting everyone together, under one roof (at the Davie, Fla., home base). It was a matter of getting someone young who was willing to work on the car all day long and do whatever it takes to get the job done.
Q: What do you think about the future of your team?
Gwynn: I'm a loyal guy, as you can tell by all the people I have had working for me and by the little turnover we have had. I am willing to stick with it. I try to think about enough stuff on the front end so we don't have to make changes. As long as we are having fun and we can afford to do this and the sponsors are there, I'll be in drag racing.
Q: What are the major differences between when you first started racing and now?
Gwynn: Everything is different. Most of all, the level of fun we have has changed. There is so much more to worry about now. The amount of people you have to juggle and the logistics of the sport has changed. It's hard to explain it, but we hardly paid anyone back in the old days. We all slept on the floor and we had people standing in line just to be part of drag racing. Now, it is hard to find good people, you have to pay them a lot and they look at you funny if you try to put two people in a hotel room.
Q: Are the disadvantages of racing today worth the positive changes?
Gwynn: There has been some real positive growth in the sport. I don't know that the sponsorship dollars have kept up with the cost of racing, but there certainly been a lot of positive changes in the safety aspects of the sport. There have been a lot of good things that have happened and there are a lot of things that I wish were still like the old days. That is a difficult question to answer.
Q: What is one of the things you are most proud of about your racing career either now or then?
Gwynn: I have a lot of great memories of the sport. I only have one bad memory of the sport and that is the day of my accident. Drag racing is really good when it is good and it really sucks when it is bad. So, you just have to try and make the good times happen more often. I think some of my proudest moments include winning in front of my hometown friends and family at the (1989, 1990) Gatornationals. Having a dominating car in the late 80s and early 90s, that was a fun time. I have made a lot of friends out here during my career. The positive side to all of this is that you have to experience the bad times to appreciate the good times. We have been on both sides and I can't wait to get back on the good times side. This sport can be very humbling and we are ready to get back on the fun, winning side. Racing is where all the terms like chump to champ came from. You have to see the bad to get to the good.
Q: Do you have any regrets?
Gwynn: I wish I would have had a better business background. But at the time I was racing, and was successful at racing, I didn't need that. It might have actually taken away from the whole racing experience, but it would help now. Chemistry is a very important thing and in the early days, there was a lot of chemistry around and that is what we are trying to get back to. I'm very happy to still be involved in the sport that I have so many good memories from. We still have one goal in mind and that is to win an NHRA POWERade championship. I'm not going to let one day -- and that day is April 15, 1990 -- destroy that goal.
Q: You are headed into the Matco Tools SuperNationals in Englishtown, N.J., this weekend, the closest track to your main sponsor. What is it going to be like racing so close to Yankee Stadium?
Gwynn: We are going to be racing a special paint scheme, called The Spirit of New York. We have that with a young, Australian driver in New Jersey. There are New York Yankees fan all over the world, and we know that we are going to see a big fan base in the New York-New Jersey area which means that we are going to have more pressure to perform, but we will also be well-supported. Englishtown is a great race track and we need to take advantage of whatever home-field advantage we can get. The more races we have under our belt, the better off we will be. I look forward to this team turning it all around.
Q: What is the best thing about being a team owner:
Gwynn: Well, I will tell you one thing. (Three-car team owner Don Prudhomme) Snake gives me a little hope that being a team owner will turn out to be a great thing. He makes it look fun and easy. When I look around the pit area, I don't see too many drivers with their own Learjet, but I see a couple of team owners with them. So that is something to look forward to.