This is a story that begins on Easter Sunday, 1991. On that day, Darrell Gwynn, the popular NHRA drag racer from Florida, was doing exhibition runs in England when his Top Fuel dragster spun out of control and slammed into the wall at 240 mph.
The violent crash ended Gwynn’s career. Most of his crushed left arm was amputated; worse, he remains paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
He was only 28 then.
Three weeks after Darrell Gwynn’s brutal crash, Joey Coulter, a NASCAR truck series driver with lofty aspirations, was born.
So Joey Coulter was not that familiar with Darrell Gwynn’s drag racing record. But Gwynn was a racing person from Florida, and Joe Coulter, Joey’s dad, was a racing person from Florida.
Racing people tend to run in the same circles, especially when they are from the same neck of the woods — or everglades. And that mostly explains why the Coulters, when Joey was first starting out, ran their racing team out of the same shop where Darrell Gwynn had operated his Top Fuel dragster team.
It also explains why the No. 18 Toyota Tundra of Kyle Busch Motorsports, for whom young Coulter now drives, had these Darrell Gwynn Foundation decals splashed across its quarter panels at Saturday’s Smith’s 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“I met (Darrell) probably when I was 6 or 7,” said Joey Coulter, now 23, of Miami Springs. “When I was 15 or 16, me and my dad were at Homestead (Speedway in Florida) and started talking racing and told Darrell we were looking for a race shop, because we were looking to start Coulter Motorsports.
“Darrell said, ‘Just race out of my shop.’
“So we raced out of his drag racing shop down in Fort Lauderdale. He’s been one of the people I go to for advice as far as my career goes and things like that.”
So that’s why Coulter slaps those decals on Kyle Busch’s truck at selected races. People who make a donation of $18 (or more) at JoeyCoulter.com., or at DarrellGwynnFoundation.org, will get their names put on Coulter’s truck for the season finale at Homestead-Miami. They might be kind of hard to see at 170 mph, though.
“They do a lot for spinal cord injury awareness,” Coulter said of Gwynn’s foundation. “But the biggest thing they do is donate wheelchairs to people with spinal cord injuries who can’t get the right kind of health insurance. He donates $20,000 wheelchairs that basically give these people their lives back.”
Those are the stated reasons that young Joey Coulter races for Darrell Gwynn’s foundation. (His primary sponsor is an Internet gun shop, this being NASCAR and all.) I think there might be another reason, a reason that people who drive fast for a living don’t like to talk about.
That thing that happened to Darrell Gwynn? It could have been Joey Coulter.
People who drive racecars and these crazy-fast pickup trucks don’t like to harp on the danger of driving crazy-fast, or how the racing gods can be fickle and capricious.
I mean, look at Darrell Gwynn.
Here’s a guy who won 18 Top Fuel races, one of the best in his business, and then the racing gods frowned — or a part broke at 240 mph. And so now that guy is in a wheelchair, going 6 mph.
It could have been anybody.
It could have been Joey Coulter at Daytona last year, when he was driving for Richard Childress.
On the final lap, Coulter’s truck got turned around, and then it went flying into the air, shearing off fence posts in front of the main grandstand as if they were toothpicks. When it was over, a piece of sheet metal from Coulter’s ride was ominously stuck in the fence.
The driver was not stuck in the fence. The driver was lucky. Young Joey Coulter had walked away from those scattered race truck parts.
That crash was so harrowing that people have posted homemade videos of it on YouTube, breaking it down frame by frame.
“That was something I learned from Darrell — how to look at safety equipment,” Coulter said.
“Daytona was obviously kind of a scary incident. You look at it and say, ‘Wow, I really should have gotten hurt.’ But I didn’t have anything but a couple of bruises. I did make a couple of minor changes with the seat belts I hadn’t thought of before.”
Just before the engines were started Saturday, I saw a crew member reach into the No. 18 truck. I imagine he was cinching up Coulter’s safety harness real tight, maybe giving it one last tug. Just to be sure.
Young Joey Coulter started the race 14th and finished 13th. He ran as high as second, thanks mostly to pit stop strategy, before getting shuffled back during consequent stops and restarts.
Maybe the racing gods didn’t smile on him, but they didn’t frown, either. He raised some money for his pal Darrell Gwynn’s foundation, and it was an exciting race, and nobody got launched into the air and sheared off fence posts.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.