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LUCKY PLACE : Darrell Gwynn Hopes to Get Fast Start on NHRA Season at Pomona

February 05, 1989|SHAV GLICK | Times Staff Writer

Darrell Gwynn lives in Miami, but there is a place in his heart reserved for Pomona.

It was at Pomona, when Gwynn was a teen-ager, that he fell in love with the old Fairgrounds drag strip while watching his father, Jerry, race a family-owned alcohol funny car called Baby Huey.

"There's no place like Pomona when the sun is about to disappear, the cars fire up, and everyone's going like crazy to get the final runs in before it gets dark. I dreamed of driving a top fueler there from the first time I saw the track and I still get a special feeling every time I'm there."

It was at Pomona, in his rookie year as a top-fuel drag racer in 1985, that he raced Don (Big Daddy) Garlits, his boyhood idol, during the Cragar-Weld Invitational.

"I lost but when I looked over at him in the lane next to me, I felt just like I'd won the race. He'd always been my idol and there I was, a kid of 24, knowing he'd been winning races before I was born. Just being there was thrill enough ."

It was at Pomona, in the first race of 1986, that the Kid, as he is called, won his first National Hot Rod Assn. national event.

"We showed up with an unpainted car, just plain old sheet metal showing. We'd hoped to have a sponsor but didn't get one in time, but we ran all 5.4s (seconds of elapsed time for the quarter - mile from a standing start ) in every round. It was the first time anybody had ever done it. Then we came back to Pomona at the end of the year for the World Finals and ran all 5.3s. That was the first time it had been done, too."

Pomona has been special for another reason. In 4 years as driver of a 3,000-horsepower dragster, he was won 4 of 6 events held at the Fairgrounds--the 1986 Winternationals and the last 3 World Finals.

"A lot of luck was involved, but winning at Pomona somehow means more than winning other national events. That's because we run the first and last races here. If you win the Winternationals, it gets your year off to a great start. And if you win the World Finals, you and the crew get to enjoy being the champ for 3 months. During the rest of the season, you win and it's on to the next race before you get a chance to enjoy it."

Next weekend, in the 29th annual Chief Auto Parts Winternationals at the Pomona Fairgrounds, Gwynn hopes to get a fast start on the one objective that has eluded him, the Winston top-fuel championship. Rain on Friday and Saturday moved the championships back a week.

Gwynn, although he has won 14 events in the last 3 years--more than any other top-fuel driver--finished second to Garlits in 1986, third behind Dick LaHaie and Joe Amato in 1987, and second to Amato last year, even though he tied Garlits' single-season record of 6 wins, to 4 for Amato.

Only 3 drivers, Amato, Eddie Hill and Gene Snow, have ever gone down the strip quicker than Gwynn's best run of 5.052 seconds. His top speed record is 281.95 m.p.h.

"It's no secret why we haven't won the championship," Gwynn said. "It's been our inconsistency. From race to race, we have not been able to keep up with Amato. It seems when we get into a little rut, we haven't had the experience to get out of it soon enough."

Toward that end, Gwynn has hired Ken Veney, a 13-time NHRA national event winner in alcohol top-fuel and funny cars, as crew chief. Until now, that job had been handled by Darrell's father, Jerry.

"My dad will still be with us as team manager, but we felt we needed someone to run the crew who can think racing 24 hours a day, the way I do. Dad works full-time with Chevron Oil Co., so his time was divided.

"We've known Veney as long as I can remember and we've always used his products on our cars. This will be his first year running a car other than his own, but his record speaks for itself."

Gwynn will also start the season with a new beer sponsor.

Last year, with the season little more than half gone and with Gwynn still in the battle for the world championship, he was notified that Budweiser would not renew his sponsorship for 1989.

"It was pretty devastating at the time, but we decided to prove what we could do on our own," Gwynn said. "We won 2 of the last 4 races and were ready to go back to being a family team if we didn't get a new sponsor. That was the way we started and even though we didn't have the money to do it, we were going to try anyway."

During the off-season, Coors became the new sponsor.

"We think we see in Darrell Gwynn and his family the same thing we saw in Bill Elliott and his family when we decided to sponsor his car in the Winston Cup," said Steve Saunders, the beer company's marketing manager.

The parallel is remarkable. Elliott's father, George, ran the family stock car team until it became apparent that more help was necessary and he sold it to Harry Melling, but remained as team manager. Now Gwynn has gone as far as he could with his father doing all the work, so with sponsorship money he has hired a professional crew chief in Veney.

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