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by Susan Wade. Photos by Jeff Burk

Darrell Gwynn, who won the NHRA's U.S. Nationals Top Fuel title in 1989, was among the former champions to return to the Indianapolis Raceway Park quarter-mile Friday. During Funny Car and Top Fuel qualifying, the owner of Mike Dunn's New York Yankees Dragster was behind the wheel for the first time since the Easter Sunday accident in 1990 that left him paralyzed and a partial amputee.

With Michael Bolton's "Back On My Feet Again" playing on the public-address system and a kiss and "Good luck, Daddy" sendoff from daughter Katie, Gwynn motored down the track at 37.27 miles an hour.

"I think my racing days are over till I'm walking again," Gwynn said, "but that was a pretty cool alternative. The car doesn't make any noise, so all I could hear was the people. It was pretty cool.

"The car goes faster, but I wasn't about to take that chance."

Gwynn has partnered with Sunrise Medical and Quickie Design to provide specially powered wheelchairs to patients with spinal-cord injuries at select NHRA venues this year. But Friday it was his turn to receive, as friends treated him to his triumphant return to celebrate his 40th birthday.

The Super Comp-styled dragster, a one-of-a-kind hybrid between a rear-engine dragster and an electric golf cart, was a surprise gift that former Gwynn Racing employee Mike Gerry and Jeff Whittle, of Las Vegas, built. It's equipped with a customized hand-controlled throttle, steering and braking unit and powered by six eight-volt batteries. The detachable roll bar is all that keeps it from passing NHRA safety specs.

Gerry, the project designer, helped build some of Gwynn's first chassis, including the "Miami Vise" dragster from the 1980s. "He's been such an inspiration to so many people we decided to give him the best 40th birthday present possible, and that is a chance to make another quarter-mile pass down IRP during the U.S. Nationals."

"I had no idea this was taking place. It was a total secret," Gwynn said. "I can't begin to tell you how much it means."

The car's speed output is a stark contrast to Dunn's 6,000-horsepower machine that owns the NHRA's fastest pass at 331.61 mph. But speed wasn't the issue Friday. "The fact that it (went) really slow is irrelevant,"

Gwynn's father, Jerry, also a former NHRA champion. "Just the idea of going past those filled grandstands is what it's all about."

There wasn't a dry eye in the house on that lap.


Don Garlits, 69, drove his Matco Tools dragster to a planned half-track shut-off run of 5.322 at 190.46 on Friday. It was the eight-time U.S. Nationals winner's first NHRA event as a driver since 1992.

Shirley Muldowney turned in a 4.647/319.98, putting her in 8th place at the end of Friday's qualifying.


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