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It’s The End Of The Road, Era For Bernsteins And Bud

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 15 2009

Brandon and Kenny Bernstein have spent 30 years with same sponsor.

Brandon and Kenny Bernstein have spent 30 years with same sponsor.

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Brandon Bernstein felt odd as he left Gateway International Raceway two weeks ago. Empty, kind of. And not just because he left the NHRA O’Reilly Midwest Nationals there without a Wally.

Bernstein felt the kind of oddness which comes with the breakup of a 30-year-old partnership.

It was announced in March that at the end of this year, Bernstein and the company which had sponsored him as a driver – and his father before him – Budweiser, would split up.

That meant this year’s trip to Gateway, which is located just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis – the hometown of Budweiser – would be the last with the signature beer company’s logo on the side of his bright-red Top Fuel dragster.

“It’s going to be weird,” Bernstein said. “It’s all I’ve ever known, growing up and everything. I don’t know how it’s going to feel next year when I’m not wearing that Budweiser red.”

The list of things which separate racing and stick-and-ball sports is lengthy. Somewhere near the top of that list is corporate sponsorship of teams, cars and drivers.

Outsiders don’t understand the bond between sponsor and team. They even take some joy in ridiculing it.

Not insiders. They come to identify people, places and things with the logos which are decaled to the sides of cars in motor sports. They remember Petty blue and the red STP logo, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and the black Goodwrench decals and Kenny Bernstein Racing and Bud.

“Fans definitely associate with it,” Bernstein said of cars and their sponsorships. “The sponsor loyalty, the driver loyalty, they look at all that. It’s going to be interesting to see how the fans react to it all once Budweiser is totally gone.”

Few in the sport apologize for the closeness of teams and sponsors in racing.

Bernstein called the bond between the two, “Huge. You have to have that. You’re going to have success and you’re going to have failure. You always try your best on the race track but its never guaranteed that you’re always going to win. If you have that bond with your sponsor, your sponsor is going to be right there for you. Good times and bad times.”

The Bernstein-Bud bond was the longest running in all of auto racing. Three decades. It is a couple years longer than was the Petty-STP partnership.

It began when Bud sponsored Kenny Bernstein.

“It’s going to be an awkward time for him,” Bernstein said of father and team-founder, Kenny Bernstein. “He really built the relationship with Budweiser in the 1980s so it’s going to be a tough time for him.”

Bernstein’s teams captured six NHRA titles, including four consecutive Funny Car crowns (1985-1988) and two Top Fuel titles (1996, 2001).  Kenny and son Brandon, who took over as driver from his father in 2002, amassed 85 national event victories under the Budweiser flag and in 1992, Kenny became the first driver to surpass the 300 mile-per-hour barrier.

So arriving in St. Louis two weeks ago, the team had a little bit more incentive than their competition.

“It was one of those bittersweet deals,” Brandon Bernstein said. “Obviously we really wanted to win one for the Budweiser folks.”

Bernstein came up just short of the victory. He finished second after being being in the final round of eliminations by Antron Brown.

But while Kenny Bernstein Racing could not leave St. Louis with a victory, there is reason to believe it may leave Pomona in the fall with a Top Fuel championship.

While the team has not yet won an event in ’09, it has reached the finals three times. In addition to that, the team has two other final-four showings.

Bernstein arrives at Bristol Dragway this weekend for the Thunder Valley Nationals third in points _ 44 behind leader Brown and 26 behind second-place defending champion Tony Schumacher.

“We’re close,” Bernstein said. “We really are. Everything is just clicking right now. We’re really close to getting that first win and hopefully it will come here soon.”

Soon as in this weekend at Bristol?

Could be. Bernstein is a two-Wally guy at Bristol. His last victory there came in 2007. He was top qualifier there in ’03 and ’05.

Bernstein says that when that first victory does come, whether it be this race or the next or the next, look out.

“It would mean the world to us to win the championship,” he said. “And it’s definitely doable. We’ve got the right combination to make it work and we really feel we could win this.”

A championship this year would mean more than in other years for the team for two reasons; it was send Bud out with championship, and it could help KBR start up a whole new team-sponsor bond because right now, nobody has been signed to take over as primary sponsor for 2010.

And as hard as it is to break up with Bud, it will be sweet to find somebody new.

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 15 2009
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