DAVIE, Fla. – The phone is ringing in Darrell Gwynn’s office, which is filled with reminders of a life that nearly ended two decades ago. From his windows, he sees cars being built and fiddled with in the garage, where stacks of racing tires are piled almost to the roof.
The former champion drag racer maneuvers his wheelchair toward the phone. With his right hand – his only hand – he pushes a button to lift the receiver an inch from the cradle. His wife is on the other end, they chat about lunch for a couple minutes, he presses the button again and the phone hangs up.
"Sorry," Gwynn says, directing his chair away from the desk. "Important stuff."
It’s all important stuff these days for Gwynn, whose driving career ended forever on April 15, 1990, when his dragster smashed into a wall on a track in England and became an instant fireball. Gwynn was paralyzed from the chest down, had to have his left arm amputated and easily could have died from his numerous injuries.
Today, he’s the driving force behind the Darrell Gwynn Foundation, a nonprofit group that is involved with research, prevention and treatment of spinal cord injuries and other debilitating illnesses. It’s a multifaceted organization, best known in the racing community for providing motorized wheelchairs – costing $20,000 and up – to patients that need them most and have nowhere to turn.
No more going 300 mph.
He’s quite content in his chair’s top speed, about 6 mph.
"He is one of those people that makes you count your blessings every morning when you wake up," said NASCAR standout Tony Stewart, both a contributor to and a board member at Gwynn’s foundation. "Every time that you see Darrell, it makes you put your life in perspective."
The foundation was started in 2002, 12 years after that fateful crash. Gwynn acknowledges that there were days when he lacked the urge to keep fighting, overcome! by the anger surrounding his situation. Instead of showers taking 10 minutes, they now take 90. Someone needs to feed him, tend to him, care for him almost around the clock. Some days, it was simply too much to handle.
And then he’d go to the track, where he’d hear the story of someone else with a serious spinal cord injury.
"When I got hurt, there were a lot of people coming to the racetrack in really, really shoddy equipment, asking me questions that I couldn’t even answer, showing up in just the ricketiest vans and everything else," Gwynn said. "So we thought we can probably help some of these people, and there’s a niche. There’s things we do that no other foundation does."
At this year’s Daytona 500, 5-year-old Alyssa Hagstrom of Daytona Beach couldn’t care less about the guys zipping around the famous speedway. Instead, she was thrilled to be at the controls of her new $26,000 chair, provided by Gwynn’s foundation.
Just like that, a girl that can’t walk because of a rare muscle disorder was on the move.
"It’! s been a tremendous help for us. It’s made a huge difference in her life," said Duane Hagstrom, Alyssa’s father. "It’s given her independence and allowed her to do things she’s never been able to do before, like be around with her sisters, transport herself around, go to the park and play with kids, all those things. It’s been tremendous."
Hagstrom tried to get his daughter’s chair approved by insurance, which declined to pay. Alyssa was enrolled in a pre-K class through Easter Seals, which told Hagstrom about Gwynn’s foundation and steered him toward the application process.
Hagstrom might live in an auto racing capital, but he isn’t much of a racing fan. He’s a huge Gwynn fan now, though.
"He’s got something that limits his ability, but for him to take what he was given, to use that and understand how it affects people and their lives and offer those people possibilities, that’s awesome," Hagstrom said. "It means everything to me. He’s an awesome guy."
From softball games, fishing tournaments and charity auctions, Gwynn’s foundation has raised money plenty of ways over the years. He said it takes about $2 million annually to keep things running the way he likes, and even in this global economic downturn, the foundation is flourishing.
It’s his full-time job, too. He was a team owner for several years after the crash, but the foundation is his constant passion now. Earlier this month, after spending the July 4 weekend at the NASCAR race at Daytona won by Stewart – "Was up till 2 in the morning taking pictures with Tony in the winner’s circle, too," Gwynn said – he and his family packed up for a two-week vacation.
Gwynn is 48 years old. It was the first two-week vacation of his life.
"There’s a lot of times you do charity events and money gets raised and you know what the amount that’s going to be donated is, and that’s kind of the end of it," Stewart said. "But with Darrell’s foundation, every event you see a little boy or a little girl or a young person receive a new w! heelchair and you see instantly the gratification on their face and knowing that the quality of their life is going to be better."
Gwynn doesn’t know how much longer his foundation will be running. In a perfect world, it would shut down because no one would need a new chair or money for more research, although he knows that isn’t the reality.
So he presses on.
There’s a slew of events in the works for the remainder of 2009, capped by NASCAR’s championship weekend at Homestead this fall, and he’s already planning a series of events commemorating the 20-year anniversary of the end of his driving career. He’s even talking about going back to England and thanking the doctors who saved his life.
"I’ve got one bad memory," Gwynn said. "I’ve got a lot of great memories."