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Kenny Bernstein Announces Retirement, Folds Team

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 15 2011

Kenny Bernstein is folding up his team and son Brandon is looking for a ride it was announced Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

Six-time NHRA world champion Kenny Bernstein has closed the book on his career as a competitor and Top Fuel team-owner, leaving son Brandon as a free-agent heading into the 2012 season.

“My wife Sheryl and I have come to a place in our lives where we want to pursue other interests,” Bernstein said in a statement from Lake Forest, Calif. “We have poured our hearts and souls into motorsports for over 30 years and that’s a fulltime job. It consumes you and there is very little time to relax.

“We are very proud of our accomplishments through the years and it’s been a great ride, but we’re interested in being able to travel at-will, we want to spend some time on the golf course and we’ve recently taken up fly fishing, which we really enjoy.

“It’s time to enjoy life while we still have our health.”

Bernstein earned the title “King of Speed” when he became the first National Hot Rod Association driver to break the 300 mile-per-hour barrier on March 20, 1992 at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway.

“For a youngster that grew up in Texas dreaming about cars and reading “Hot Rod” magazine, we were able to live the dream,” said Bernstein, 67.

Bernstein’s decision will park the Top Fuel car Brandon drove to an eighth-place finish Sunday during the 2011 season-ending 47th annual Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. Brandon Bernstein, 39, was eliminated by seven-time Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher of Don Schumacher Racing during the quarterfinals.

Brandon Bernstein finished sixth in the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff standings, 246 points behind newly crowned world champion Del Worsham of Al-Anabi Racing. Brandon has 18 career Top Fuel victories, but none in either 2010 or 2011. His last final-round victory was against Antron Brown at Richmond, Va., in 2009.

“Brandon was also a part of the decision-making process and we are going to do everything we can to help him find a position with another team,” Kenny Bernstein said. “Brandon lives and breathes the day-to-day demands and understands the endless hours of effort that we poured into the team. Brandon wanted what was best for Sheryl and me at this stage of our lives. He was totally selfless.”

Bernstein said Jay Adair, Copart’s CEO, and Vinnie Mitz, Copart’s president, supported the decision.

“Kenny, Brandon, Sheryl and his team are a first-class organization. We have enjoyed our partnership over the past two seasons,” Adair said. “We wish Kenny and Sheryl the best in retirement.”

Bernstein declared the Auto Club Finals at Pomona as “our final run. We can’t say enough about the close association and rapport we have built within the Copart organization. In the two years we have worked with them, they have made us feel like family. We were very proud and honored to have flown their colors and represented them.

“There’s certainly a great deal of sadness in coming to terms with the end of an era and some concern about whether or not you can run a life at 300 mph and then come to a sudden stop. But Sheryl and I gave this a tremendous amount of thought before we came to our final decision.”

Team spokesperson Susie Arnold said Bernstein’s retirement came even as plans for the 2012 season were underway. Arnold said Bernstein plans to liquidate the team’s assets, a process that will involve Brandon.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to all the team members who have worked for us through the years as well as the sponsors who have supported us,” Bernstein said. “We certainly want to salute the fans who have cheered us on and given us encouragement through the past three decades. And we appreciate all the media coverage through the years. We have made some great friends on all sides of the spectrum and we’re grateful for that.

“We salute the late great NHRA founder Wally Parks, who was a dear friend and gave us an arena in which to live out our dreams. We are fortunate to have had a job that we loved and without Wally’s vision, it’s hard to say where our life’s path would have led.

“For the near-term, we are looking forward to our induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (May 3, 2012) in Talladega, Ala., alongside John Force and Richard Childress.

“Thanks again to all those who have touched our lives. We are walking away with a treasure chest full of memories.”

Bernstein exits NHRA as a gifted driver and businessman. He holds the unique distinction of being the first and only team-owner to have collected wins in each of America’s three major motorsports series _ NHRA Championship Drag Racing, NASCAR, and Championship Auto Racing Teams.

In May 1992 his Quaker State Lola/Buick V-6 Indy-car driven by Roberto Guerrero qualified on-pole for the 76th Indianapolis 500 at 232.482 mph.

Bernstein’s association with Budweiser lasted for 30 years, establishing a record as the longest-running sponsorship in the history of motorsports. During his driving career he won 69 NHRA national events, four consecutive Funny Car championships (1985-1988) along with two Top Fuel championships (1996 and 2001). He also was voted into the top 10 on NHRA’s 50 Greatest Drivers list.

As a team-owner, Bernstein accumulated 18 Top Fuel victories with Brandon at the wheel.

Following is a chronological list of Kenny Bernstein’s career highlights:

1966 _ Supported a Top Fuel drag racing hobby which included several victories on the Texas Pro Fuel Circuit by selling high-fashion women’s wear.

1974 _ Abandoned his racing hobby to focus on the Chelsea Street Pub Restaurant chain he founded with Randy Pumphrey in Lubbock, Texas.

1978 _ Returned to racing in mid-season with the Chelsea King Funny Car.

1979 _ Won his first NHRA national event, the Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La.

1980 _ Debuted the Budweiser King Funny Car, beginning a sponsorship association that lasted an unprecedented 30 years.

1983 _ Drove the Budweiser King Funny Car to victory in both the Big Bud Shootout and the U.S. Nationals during the same weekend, becoming the first to achieve that double win.

1984 _ Became the first Funny Car driver to break the 260 mile-per-hour barrier (260.11 mph) on March 18 at Gainesville, Fla.

1985 _ Won the first of four consecutive NHRA Funny Car championships; founded King Racing NASCAR team.

1986 _ Won his second NHRA Funny Car championship; became the first to break the 5.50-second barrier (5.425-seconds on Sept. 26 at Texas Motorplex in Ennis); became the first to break the 270 mph barrier in a Funny Car (271.41 mph on Aug. 30 at Clermont, Ind.)

1987 _ Won the NHRA Funny Car championship for a third time; became the first to break the 5.40-second barrier in a Funny Car (5.397-seconds on April 5 at Ennis, Texas); won Big Bud Shootout for the second time; founded King Protofab Indy-car team (later renamed King Motorsports).

1988 _ Won the fourth consecutive and final NHRA Funny Car championship of his career; earned first victory as a NASCAR team-owner when Ricky Rudd prevailed on the road-course at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.

1989 _ Announced decision to move from Funny Cars to Top Fuel dragsters in 1990; earned second NASCAR win with Ricky Rudd on road-course at Sears Point (now Infineon Raceway) in Sonoma, Calif.

1990 _ Debuted the Budweiser King Top Fuel dragster; earned third NASCAR victory with Brett Bodine at North Wilkesboro, N.C.

1991 _ Tied the single-season record at that time for Top Fuel victories with six; earned the final spot in the Cragar 4-Second Club; became the first driver to win both the Big Bud Shootout for Funny Cars and the Budweiser Classic for Top Fuel cars with Classic victory at Pomona, Calif.

1992 _ Became the first driver to break the 300 mph barrier (301.70 mph on March 20 at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway; owner of the pole-winning and one-lap and four-lap speed record-setting Lola/Buick V-6 driven by Roberto Guerrero for the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Ironically, Guerrero crashed on a warm-up lap and finished 33rd and last.

1993 _ Became the first driver to win 100 career rounds in both Top Fuel and Funny Car; won the Budweiser Classic for a second time.

1994 _ Became the first driver to break the 310 mile-per-hour barrier with speed of 311.85 mph in semifinals and set NHRA national record of 314.46 mph during season-ending Finals at Pomona, Calif.; earned first Indy-car victory as a car-owner when Scott Goodyear prevailed at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. This victory made Bernstein the first car-owner to attain victories in each of the three major American auto racing series _CART, NASCAR and NHRA.

1996 _ Won first NHRA Top Fuel championship and became first driver to win title in both nitro categories.

2001 _ Won sixth NHRA championship and second in Top Fuel; with son Brandon, became the first father and son to win at the same NHRA national event in April at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. They doubled again in June at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill.; voted into the top 10 drivers in NHRA’s 50-year history.

2002 _ This season marked Bernstein’s “Forever Red…A Run To Remember” retirement tour as Bernstein passed the keys to the company car to son Brandon.

2003 _ Brandon’s aborted rookie season saw Kenny return to the cockpit after his son sustained season-ending back injuries from a crash in Englishtown, N.J. Kenny won four events to finish the season sixth in points after beginning to accrue points in the 10th event.

2004 _ Brandon returned to the Top Fuel cockpit.

2005 _ Named by the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association as one of 12 nominees for the Newsmaker of the Half-Century Award. In alphabetical order the nominees were Mario Andretti, Bernstein, Dale Earnhardt, John Force, A.J.Foyt Jr., the France family, Jeff Gordon, Dan Gurney, the Hulman-George family, Wally Parks, Roger Penske and Richard Petty.

2006 _ Inducted into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame on April 5 during ceremonies at The Speedway Club at Texas Motor Speedway; announced at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals that he would stage an NHRA comeback driving the Monster Energy Funny Car in 2007.

2007 _ After one season driving the Monster Energy Funny Car _ including a spectacular crash during a run against John Force in September at Texas Motorplex _Kenny made the decision to step out of the cockpit; inducted into the Don Garlits International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in Ocala, Fla.

2009 _ Celebrated Budweiser/Bernstein 30th anniversary, the longest team/sponsor relationship in motorsports history; also the final year of Budweiser sponsorship.

2010-11 _ Ran his team with two seasons of sponsorship from Copart. Founded in 1982, Copart provides vehicle sellers with a full range of remarketing services to process and sell salvage and clean title vehicles to dealers, dismantlers, rebuilders, exporters and, in some states, to end-users.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 15 2011
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • Mr. Racing says:

    Congratulations to KB on a great, great career in NHRA. The Bud cars will forever remain icons of an era, and his business sense, with Bud, Copart, Quaker State and more, made him an icon off the track, too.

    In a business that likes to call itself a “sport”, there was never a more “sporting” and selfless gesture than Kenny giving his 1996 Top Fuel Championship trophy to Alan Johnson, whose brother Blaine was killed earlier in the season while leading, if not running away with, the championship.

    Cheers and one last “This Bud’s For You” to “The King of Speed”, for your many accomplishments in all 3 forms of racing, all done with true class and humility.

    • John Sturbin says:

      Tom Compton, NHRA president, issued the following statement on the occasion of Kenny Bernstein’s retirement:

      “Kenny Bernstein and his entire operation have thrilled fans for more than 30 years, and for that NHRA is forever grateful. His place in NHRA history is undisputed and his accomplishments both on the track and in the boardroom are second-to-none.

      “He paved the way for team sponsorship in NHRA and showed others how to not only win on the track, but also how to service team sponsors and develop long-lasting business relationships. Everyone at NHRA wishes Kenny and Sheryl the best in their new endeavors, and I want them to know they are always welcome here at NHRA.”