Twenty years ago, NHRA played hardball with NASCAR
On Thursday, Darrell Gwynn will be in Reading, where he and his father, Jerry, along with NHRA Board Chairman Dallas Gardner, former NHRA VP Steve Gibbs, former NHRA Division Director Darwin Doll, Kenny Koretsky, and Jack Redd will be inducted into the Maple Grove Raceway Walk of Fame, but perhaps just as special for Darrell will be getting a chance to reminisce about a spectacular fall evening 20 years ago, when the NHRA and NASCAR communities came together to benefit him in one of the wildest softball games you'll ever witness.
I was fortunate to have been in attendance that wild and woolly night when a group of NHRA all-stars staged an improbable last-inning comeback to beat its circle-track rivals, 21-20. The evening would have been a metaphoric home run no matter the outcome because more than $150,000 was raised to benefit Gwynn, whose spectacular racing career had been ended in a horrific crash Easter Sunday, but it felt a whole lot better when the NHRA team was celebrating on the field at Reading Municipal Stadium than if the good ol' boys had been the ones whooping it up.
I've written about this event previously in this column, but it's worth revisiting, and I dug up some cool photos from the evening that should make it worth your while.
The Darrell Gwynn Benefit Softball Challenge was held Sept. 13, a cool, crisp Thursday evening before qualifying was scheduled to start the following day at the Keystone Nationals. The NASCAR gang also had a race close by that weekend, in Dover, Del., as I recall, so the turnout from both sides was astonishing in number and caliber as both sides answered the call to aid one of their fallen peers.
Dick LaHaie (top) played like a kid in the game, with two doubles and four RBIs. Kenny Bernstein (above), who was instrumental in recruiting NASCAR players, was 2 for 6 with two RBIs.
The NHRA lineup included Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Tommy Johnson Jr., Art Hendey, Dan Pastorini, Scott Kalitta, Koretsky, Dick LaHaie, Mark Oswald, Richard Hartman, Jim Head, Freddie Neely, Don Prudhomme, Tim Grose, and Darrell's father, Jerry. The NASCAR lineup featured Bill Elliott, Kyle Petty, Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan, Derrick Cope, Michael Waltrip, Sterling Marlin, Geoff and Brett Bodine, Rick Wilson, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Chad Little, and Ken Schrader. Both teams had an all-star "bench" (see box score).
After a three-hour autograph session, the teams took the field under the lights in front of an estimated 13,000 fans, almost double what the 7,200-seat facility was built to accommodate.
Gwynn, who was paralyzed in the accident and lost the lower part of his left arm and much mobility in his right, was wheeled out onto the field to toss out the ceremonial first pitch, and his brave effort was immortalized in what has become an iconic photo taken by Reading Eagle newspaper photographer Richard J. Patrick. It was an awesome moment.
No doubt inspired by Gwynn, NHRA jumped to a 4-0 lead in the first inning on the back of former NFL quarterback-turned-Top Fuel-racer Pastorini, who showed that he was as good with a bat as a pigskin by walloping a home run to left center.
The NASCAR troops dinged Prudhomme for six runs in the second and two more each in the fourth and fifth while keeping the NHRA gang at four with Irvan's solid pitching and good fielding. The NHRA drivers came alive in the bottom of the fifth with a seven-run inning manufactured by singles and NASCAR fielding errors to forge ahead, 11-10.
NASCAR tied the score in the top of the sixth and added two more in the seventh and three more in the eighth, and the outcome looked bleak again for the straight-liners, down 16-11 in the middle of the eighth.
Force, who had taken over catching for Papa Gwynn, got run over twice in the top of the eighth, by Allison and Little, but got his revenge, powering a homer to left center. Inspired, the NHRA troops again rallied and tied the score at 16. NASCAR, though, responded with a four-run top-of-the-ninth on Waltrip's grand slam to lead 20-16. Game over? Hardly.
Irvan was tiring. Force walked. After Bernstein flied out, T.J. singled. Hendey and Pastorini walked, Force scoring. Hartman singled in Johnson and Oswald (running for Hendey), Kalitta walked, loading the bases with the score 20-19 for NASCAR. Grose popped out for NHRA's second out.
Two outs, based loaded. It doesn't get any better than that. Koretsky, the home-state hero whose sponsor, Sunoco, was the Keystones sponsor, seized the hero's role, roping a single to left center, scoring Pastorini and Hartman and giving NHRA a dramatic 21-20 win.
Koretsky, T.J., and Pastorini all went 3 for 5 in the game -- Pastorini had four RBIs, as did LaHaie -– but everyone left a winner.