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Paralyzed former drag racer Gwynn still passionate about racing, fishing

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Paralyzed champ stays busy running foundation, fishing tournaments

Weston – As a champion drag racer, Darrell Gwynn was unstoppable.

Despite a devastating accident during a 1990 test run that left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair, Gwynn hasn’t slowed down.

A National Hot Rod Association world champion with 28 NHRA national event victories and a member of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, Gwynn also oversaw a successful race team.

He now keeps busy running the Darrell Gwynn Foundation (, a nonprofit that Gwynn started in 2002. The organization provides wheelchairs to children and young adults who can’t afford them, funds research for a cure for spinal cord paralysis and improves the quality of life of those with spinal cord injuries.

Gwynn also runs the Hot Rods & Reels fishing tournaments at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Daytona Homestead and Halifax Hospital in Daytona Beach.

In his spare time, Gwynn goes fishing.

“My whole life, my two passions are fishing and racing,” Gwynn said. “Hot Rods & Reels. That describes me because I have such a passion for both and such an appreciation of both.”

Family fostered both passions.

Gwynn, 47, grew up in North Miami, where he fished for bass. His grandparents lived near Lake Toho in Central Florida and visits there featured fish fries with the bass, speckled perch and catfish that he and his grandfather caught.

Gwynn got his love of racing from his father, Jerry, who raced while holding down a full-time job, yet was good enough to be an NHRA world champion. (Gwynn’s title in 1983 made him the first second-generation NHRA world champion.)

“When I grew up, I wanted to do it for a living,” Gwynn said, smiling at the memory. “My family looked at me like I had a third eye. Back then it was difficult to make a living racing. It was the fun of racing, not the business of racing.”

But Gwynn made drag racing his career, and it was a good one, as he won races and numerous accolades from 1980-90.

In April 1990, he was racing at a track in England when his dragster broke in half and hit the wall. Gwynn, who was in the hospital in England for five weeks and at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami for five months, lost his left arm and was paralyzed. He couldn’t race, so he focused on running his race team.

“Fortunately, I wasn’t just a driver, so I had something to fall back on when I got hurt,” Gwynn said.

He kept the team until 2003, selling it because he said the traveling was too much. Besides, he had started his foundation the previous year and it was taking up more and more of his time.

“It’s doing very well,” Gwynn said. “We’re able to help a lot of people.”

The foundation has had notable achievements, such as getting the Legislature to recognize Florida Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Week, which is Monday through Nov. 16. The week features public service announcements, educational talks about spinal cord injuries at area schools, decals on all the cars racing at Homestead and the giving away of power wheelchairs, which cost about $10,000.

Gwynn’s wheelchair features a rod-holder for when he’s fishing in the Keys. He has a custom-built Star rod with an extra-thick handle that fits snugly in the rod-holder and an electric Penn spinning reel that he activates with the push of a button.

He and his wife, Lisa, are building a house in Islamorada and his 25-foot Tracker pontoon boat will be at the dock, which will have a light in the water underneath it.

“I’m looking forward to sitting on the dock with my daughter Katie, putting out a chum bag, turning on the light and having a ball,” Gwynn said.

When in the Keys, Gwynn likes to fish the backcountry from his boat for snook, redfish, sea trout and mangrove snapper. His boat is on a lift, which makes it easy for him and someone else to go fishing.

“It’s very accessible for me,” Gwynn said of the Tracker, a standard model bought from Bass Pro Shops. “I can just drive right on it.”

Behind his house in Weston, where Gwynn has lived since 1997, he has a custom pontoon boat named USS Katie that he sketched out himself one day. He brought the sketch to Custom Fabrication in Pompano Beach “and the next thing you know, they built me a boat.”

The boat has a ramp that Gwynn’s assistant, Mike Alfano, lifts up and puts on the ground so Gwynn can drive onto the boat. Alfano then lifts the ramp and puts it down on the deck and Gwynn moves forward as Alfano drives the boat from the stern.

Gwynn’s lake has an abundance of fish, including largemouth and peacock bass, catfish and Mayan cichlids. He fishes by trolling a Rapala crankbait behind the boat.

On this day, Gwynn catches and releases one peacock and one largemouth. Later, he and Alfano are headed to the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, though they won’t see any vessels quite like his.

Made of aluminum with a railing around it that has rod-holders and cup-holders and powered by an electric trolling Motor, the boat is almost as wide as it is long and extremely stable.

“My chair weighs 500 pounds,” Gwynn said. “I couldn’t be out here without this boat.

“I built this boat for safety. You could wrestle a 20-foot alligator on this thing if you had to.”

Knowing the unstoppable Darrell Gwynn, that gator wouldn’t stand a chance.

By Steve Waters
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Steve Waters can be reached at 954-356-4648.
Copyright © 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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