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‘King Of Speed’ Remembers THE 300 mph Run

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 10 2012

Kenny Bernstein, the first Top Fueler to break the 300 mph barrier, will be honored Saturday in Gainesville. (Photos courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

On the day he officially became “The King of Speed,” Kenny Bernstein arrived at the racetrack armed with a work ethic that traces to his family’s West Texas roots.

Always give the customer more than he pays for – that was the mantra preached to Kenny by his father, Bert, as manager of Levine’s department store in hot-and-dusty Lubbock. This was in 1953, and 9-year-old Kenny had pestered his dad into letting him try to sell socks.

“Three pairs for a dollar,” Kenny recalled, matter-of-factly. “I went after anybody that would come close to the counter, and I loved it. I enjoyed the feel of writing up those tickets. There were 50 tickets to a book, and I went through three books that day. I thought I had just set the world on fire.

“My dad taught me valuable lessons as I was growing up. Because of the competitive sales nature of our family, we always had to think of ways to sell bigger and better. He instilled this ambition in me.”

Fast-forward to March 20, 1992 and qualifications for East Coast drag racing’s annual rite of spring, the prestigious Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. Already a four-time NHRA Funny Car world champion, Bernstein had taken his Budweiser King sponsorship and moniker to the Top Fuel ranks in 1990. And on this particular Friday afternoon, KB blasted into the record book with a quarter-mile lap at 301.70 mph –the first 300-mph pass in NHRA history.

It truly was a shot heard around the motorsports world. And NHRA will honor the 20th anniversary of
that moment today at renamed Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville during second-day qualifications for the

Kenny Bernstein, his team and his 'beer wagon'.

43rd annual Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals presented by NAPAFilters.com. The ceremony will
include the original red-and-white Budweiser dragster accompanied by the recently retired Bernstein, wife Sheryl and some of the original members of his crew.

The ceremony will be followed by an autograph session at the Darrell Gwynn Foundation display, where no doubt, everyone in line for Kenny’s signature will swear he/she was on-site that day.

“It was a beautiful day, number one,” Bernstein, 67, said during a recent teleconference. “It was pretty much ideal conditions…a lot of trees, oxygen. Oxygen makes power in these cars. The coolness of the day was good.” Still, Bernstein said neither he nor celebrated crew chief Dale Armstrong were expecting to rotate the earth.

“We had not even talked about this being a 300-mile-an-hour run,” said Bernstein, whose tuning braintrust that season included Wes Cerney. “We hadn’t talked about getting to 300 other than we wanted to. It wasn’t like it was pre-planned that this run was going to be the one. The car left the starting line, ran really good, got to the finish line. I coasted to the turnoff area. I told this story many times, but it’s true. When I turned on the turnoff, the guy that helps you, one of them was holding up three fingers. The first thing I thought was that he meant we qualified No. 3. I was pretty disappointed because I thought it was a No. 1 qualifying run because it ran pretty well. He reached in and pounded me on the chest and said, ‘You just ran 300!’ It didn’t dawn on me at first. I said, ‘Do what?’ That’s what the three fingers were.

“From that point on, it was just ecstatic. As you can imagine, it was craziness. Again, it was so unexpected that we were going to do it, anybody was going to do it that day. We had all been running 296, 297, but to jump to 301, that’s a big step to make that jump, it’s really hard. Dale Armstrong, he tells the story that he looked up and saw the lights, saw the 4.823-seconds (elapsed time). Turned around and started walking to the pits. The team members had to grab him and tell him it ran 301 miles an hour. That’s what I mean by it being unexpected.”

Brandon and Kenny Bernstein.

In hindsight, that “unexpected” run stands in contrast to Bernstein’s type-A, control-freak personality –and his myriad accomplishments as driver, team-owner, corporate spokesman and TV personality.

At one point during the mid-1980s and into the early 1990s, Bernstein simultaneously presided over a NASCAR Sprint Cup team (King Racing), a sports marketing company (King Sports), and a CART open-wheel team (King Protofab Racing) that also competed in USAC’s Indianapolis 500. He also was a partner in King Racing Components, which handled the RacePak Computers line instrumental in winning his consecutive NHRA Funny Car titles from 1985-88.

During the same timeframe, Bernstein also earned the distinction of being the only racing team-owner to have won events in all three major forms of domestic motorsports – NASCAR, CART and NHRA.

“I look back and say when we had all three teams, I must have had rocks in my head, I can tell you that,” Bernstein said with a laugh. “It’s all geared around the people that you have around you and with you throughout the companies in those days. Certainly Sheryl, my wife, who was instrumental in all parts of it. But it’s the people around you, the crew chiefs, the drivers, everyone that it takes.

“It was a lot of fun, I’ll be honest about it, to be able to be in those three arenas. That 1992 season will always be remembered because not only were we fortunate to set that 300-mile-per-hour zone, we also won the pole in May at the Indianapolis 500 with Roberto Guerrero.” Driving the factory-backed, stock-block Quaker State Buick V-6, Guerrero won pole with a record four-lap average of 232.482 mph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The fact that Guerrero crashed-out on a warmup lap on race day morning and finished 33rd and last remains an inconvenient truth.

“The spring of ‘92 was very, very special to all of us,” said Bernstein, whose teams won three Cup races and one CART event. “It was a lot to do. But I’ve enjoyed every drop of it.”

None of that wheeling-and-dealing, however, ever replaced the buzz Bernstein got from driving.

“It’s always really the drag racing side because I got to be the driver there,” said Bernstein, who added Top Fuel titles in 1996 and 2001 to his four Funny Car crowns. “That’s the one thing that I have always enjoyed the most of any of these racing endeavors. An owner is fine, but there’s nothing like driving, winning and competing, being at the top of your game on a certain day. The drag racing side, the 300-mile-per-hour feat, the things we got to accomplish in drag racing will be forefront always.”

Kenny Bernstein and Don Schumacher talk racing at zMAX Dragway in 2011. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Bernstein won 69 NHRA national events – 30 in Funny Car and 39 in Top Fuel – to stand ninth on the

all-time list. He qualified on-pole 66 times, advancing to 120 final rounds in 448 races en route to a 681-359 win/loss record. Last year during NHRA’s 60th celebration, fans voted the 300-mile-per-hour pass as one of the top-five greatest moments in NHRA history.

That honor was a lifetime removed from Kenny’s first laps in a driver’s seat, recorded in a truck around his grandfather’s farm in the country suburbs of Farwell, Texas. Once he was old enough to get his license, Kenny did some Friday and Saturday night cruising through the Hi-De-Ho high school hangout _ and a little racing on the country roads. He read “Hot Rod” and car-related magazines religiously, until they fall apart.

Bernstein famously headed off to college in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex with drag race car in tow, parking the rig outside his dorm. When it came time to decide between academics and racing, Bernstein chose the latter with a vigor that carried him throughout North Texas and beyond.

“That’s where it all started for me,” said Bernstein, who was born in Clovis, N.M. “Living in Dallas, growing up in Lubbock, we had a circuit called the Texas Pro Fuel Circuit. Green Valley (Race City), which was in Fort Worth (North Richland Hills) at the time, Odessa, Abilene, you had Oklahoma City, New Orleans area down there in Louisiana, that was the circuit, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. That was the circuit that the Texas Pro Fuel Circuit ran. We ran all those places.

“One of my favorite places I went to in the beginning when I still was in high school was the one called Green Valley outside of Fort Worth. The first time I ever drove a Top Fuel car was at Green Valley. The first time I ever won a race was in Amarillo and Odessa, out in those two areas. They’re very special to me from the beginning.“

Bernstein celebrated the end of his driving career with his “Forever Red, A Run to Remember Tour” in 2002, handing over the Bud King to son Brandon. Only days after the 2011 season concluded, Bernstein announced he was folding his Copart-sponsored Top Fuel team, leaving Brandon as a free agent.

“It was hard. There’s no question about it,” Bernstein said of the decision to completely exit the sport.

Kenny Bernstein stepped back from racing after the 2011 season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Tami Pope)

“And it wasn’t something that was spur-of-the-moment. Sheryl and I had been talking about this for a couple years. It’s something that at this stage of our life, where we’ve been, after 32-plus years of being on the road racing, we just felt, I felt, it was time to go and enjoy life a little bit.

“My biggest fear has always been that you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the later years because you wouldn’t be healthy enough to enjoy them or something would happen that would cause you not to be able to enjoy them. I just didn’t want that to take place.

“I just felt that it was time for us to do that. I look back at it today. If Copart hadn’t come aboard, we would have done this two years ago when Budweiser gave up on the program with the new ownership out there. It could have happened two years ago or it could have gone on for two more years with the Copart people. There’s never a good time to do it, in all honesty, with all the employees that are with you, certainly with Brandon. But it would have been the same procedure now or two years ago, it would have been the same procedure.”

Brandon joined Morgan Lucas Racing during the offseason as driver of the MAV TV/Lucas Oil dragster. He currently sits ninth in the Top Fuel point standings.

KB, meanwhile said he is OK with retirement…such as it is. “When I do make a decision, I’m done with it. I’m through. I’m fine,” Bernstein said. “I had concerns about employees, concerns about Brandon by all means. But we took care of everything and made it as good as we could for everyone so we didn’t throw them out on the street and say, ‘See you later.’ I haven’t missed racing at all at this stage of the game. I had not wished I’d been there the last couple of races.

“We’re actually busier right now than we have been because to shut down a business of basically 35 years of work is very difficult to do. Sheryl is in the middle of it. We’ve got a lot of things to do. It’s not easy to close down a business. I’d say we’re only about 50 percent finished with that procedure now. We have another couple, three months before we’re retired. We haven’t benefited at all from the word ‘retirement’ by now. Sheryl said in the background, ‘If we’d have known it was this hard, we wouldn’t have retired.’^”

The honors, meanwhile, will continue on May 3, when Bernstein will be inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala., along with 15-time NHRA Funny Car world champion John Force and championship NASCAR team-owner Richard Childress. In addition to the inductees, the HOF will honor 2011 Driver of the Year Tony Stewart.

“It’s a great honor. Very proud of it,” Bernstein said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be in the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame at the Texas Motor Speedway (in Fort Worth), and of course the Detroit people a few years ago. This one’s very special. I’m really, really thankful for it, for the career we were able to have, for the people that helped us build that career to make it to Talladega. That’s very special to us. Being in the NASCAR arena and the Indy-car arena, it’s really special.

“This particular night will be great because John (Force) goes in also from drag racing. John and I started together back in 1978, ‘79. That’s great. But Richard Childress is a great friend of mine and Sheryl’s. In the days when we had our NASCAR team, Richard and Dale Earnhardt were good friends of ours. I’ve known Richard since 1980, a long time. It’s a great honor to be inducted with those guys.”

However, his appearance at Gainesville will be among the few Bernstein plans to make at a Full Throttle Drag Racing Series national event this year.

“I don’t have any desire to stay in the sport and do anything to keep going or I would have stayed on as an owner and continued on with the team,” Bernstein said. “I’ll help in any way I can if someone calls me, Brandon calls, whatever. But bottom line, the plan is to go away and enjoy whatever. Maybe in a couple years I’ll change my mind. Maybe in a couple years I’ll look up one day and say, ‘I kind of miss that.’ Right now, I don’t have any desire to do that except when somebody has need for some advice.”

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

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 10 2012
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