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Remembering another magic night on the ball field

19 Apr 2013
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Darrell Gwynn threw out the first ball at the inaugural Darrell Gwynn Benefit Softball Challenge, held Sept. 13, 1990, in Reading.

I didn't land in Charlotte until last night and missed Thursday's charity softball game between NHRA and NASCAR drivers at CMC-NorthEast Stadium in Kannapolis, N.C. -- pretty much a rout by our boys -- but I'll never forget the first time we all got together to do this, in September 1990 in Reading, a magical night to benefit Darrell Gwynn and a game that was a whole heck of a lot closer.

The game took place during what was then the Keystone Nationals, about six months after Gwynn's Top Fuel career was tragically cut short in an accident during an exhibition pass in England on Easter Sunday.

Gwynn's career was still on the rise; he had just won his home-state Gatornationals a few weeks prior to his terrible accident. I remember vividly NHRA allowing me to fly twice to Florida to attend press conferences — pretty much unheard-of for us to do so back then — and seeing him at the second one, where he met the public for the first time since the accident, confined to a wheelchair and missing the lower part of his left arm but still exuding the manners of a champion.

Below is a recap of the wonderfully crazy evening that I wrote for this column more than five years ago.

The motorsports community as a whole pulled together for Gwynn, and the softball game, played on a cool evening at Reading Municipal Stadium Thursday night before the Keystone Nationals, was the capper. The 7,200-seat stadium, home to the Philadelphia Phillies' minor-league team, was packed to more than twice that number as the stars of NHRA battled the stars of NASCAR and raised more than $150,000 for Gwynn's recovery.

When I says stars, I mean it. Kenny Bernstein led the way, recruiting not just his quarter-mile peers but his many NASCAR buddies as well. NHRA and NASCAR gave KB a ton of support — he was even allowed to address a NASCAR driver's meeting at Watkins Glen Int'l earlier that year — as did the local paper, the Reading Eagle, whose photographer, Richard J. Patrick, snapped the above shot, which was sent by Gwynn to those like me who attended.

The NHRA lineup included Bernstein, John Force, Tommy Johnson Jr., Art Hendey, Dan Pastorini, Scott Kalitta, Kenny 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 had an all-star "bench" (see box). A three-hour autograph session preceded the game.

Although he didn't have much range or strength in his right arm, Gwynn still gamely heaved the ball plateward a few feet to an enormous cheer that inspired his team.

NHRA jumped out 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 things 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.

On a totally unrelated note, I had a great time last Friday with Don Gillespie, who’s putting together a video history of one of my old stomping grounds, Orange County Int’l Raceway. Gillespie interviewed me on camera at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum for about an hour, probing my memories of my first trip to the County, my favorite moments and drivers, and much more. He’s already interviewed the likes of OCIR founders Mike Jones, Larry Vaughan, and Bill White, as well as the irrepressible Bill Doner, and he’s just getting started.

Anyone who owns Gillespie’s magnificent three-DVD history of Lions Drag Strip knows the amount of detail and love that he puts into his projects, and I’m really looking forward to this one, which he expects should be ready in time for next year’s March Meet.

Like this column, images really make a difference, so he’s actively looking for anything unique that might be out there, especially film or video footage. Also, if you’re someone who competed there, he might be interested in your remembrances. You can email him at [email protected].

That's it from North Carolina. I hope to have time to put together a column early next week before heading off to Houston, but be forewarned that's based on a number of variables including travel and weather. Until then ...