How important is a crew chief to a champion race driver?
Consider Kenny Bernstein's case. Before the newly crowned Winston World funny car champion hired Dale Armstrong of Torrance four years ago to build and prepare his funny cars, Bernstein had won only three National Hot Rod Assn. events and 24 side-by-side races.
This season, Bernstein has won five national events, has been runner-up in three others, has won a near-record 34 races and has clinched his championship with two events remaining.
Bernstein can set the record for races won by winning two rounds Sunday during the 21st annual Winston World Finals at the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona. The record of 35 was set by the late Lee Shepherd, a pro stock driver who was killed in a testing accident last March.
Having already won his $40,000 bonus as NHRA champion, Bernstein elected to skip the Fallnationals two weeks ago at Phoenix to plunder the International Hot Rod Assn. bank account. He took his funny car to Darlington, S.C., where he won $50,000 in the Night of Fire Showdown, and $25,000 a day later in the IHRA national finals, setting a record elapsed time of 5.585 seconds for the quarter-mile run.
"Armstrong is the man responsible for it all," said the 41-year-old bachelor from Newport Beach who gave up a lucrative restaurant business in 1978 to become a professional drag racer.
"Armstrong's work in designing the Ford Tempo to make it lower and slicker than the other cars gave us our first advantage but the big thing is the computer he designed. The computer gives us an almost instant readout of important information after each run. That is what has enabled us to be so consistently strong this year."
In 52 official runs in NHRA competition, Bernstein has averaged 5.768 seconds. Before this year, only four funny car drivers had ever driven that fast--even once.
"Drag races are won with consistency and Dale has found the secret," Bernstein said. "With the computer, we don't have to guess when something is wrong. We know it. Sometimes we know it before it goes wrong.
"In Cincinnati for the IHRA Summer Nationals, I made a pass at 5.81 and felt like I needed something more off the starting line. Dale said, 'Let's see what the computer tells us.' We compared our readouts, run to run, with ones from the previous race. We saw we needed more weight on the clutch. We went out and ran a 5.71.
"We probably would have found the problem, but it might have taken us three or four runs. With the computer we found it immediately."
The computer, which Armstrong and Jim Foust developed during the 1983-84 seasons, records 32 separate performance functions, such as RPM, torque, rear axle speed, fuel pressure, blower pressure, fuel flow, throttle positioning, brake application, shift points, temperature and chassis transfer movement.
"By comparing one readout with another, you can tell immediately where there is a change and you can fix it before the next run. It used to be we'd find out what was wrong after an entire weekend and hope we had it right by the next race. Not anymore. Dale makes the changes from run to run."
Armstrong is a former drag racer, having won 12 NHRA races and 10 IHRA events while driving alcohol-fueled dragsters. In his last race, the 1981 World Finals at Irvine, Armstrong ran the fastest time of the year in a funny car, 5.90 seconds. After that, he retired to join Bernstein.
The success of the computer has led Bernstein to form a company, King Racing Components, Inc., to sell the computer. Some of the first customers included fellow drag racers Don Garlits, Bob Glidden, Warren Johnson and Billy Meyers. World of Outlaws sprint car champion Steve Kinser and Indianapolis driver Bobby Rahal also had them installed in their cars.
"In a drag racer, it helps from run to run. With an oval track or road racing car, it helps in practice toward setting the car up for the race."
One big factor in Bernstein's 1985 success is in the reduced weight of the computer. Last year it was a bulky box weighing about 40 pounds. This year Armstrong has packaged it into a four-pound capsule.
Another innovative area explored by Bernstein and Armstrong, with the help of Ford factory support, is use of a wind tunnel.
"Aerodynamics has become such a factor when you're splitting hundredths of seconds. It takes a wind tunnel to discover how to gain more downforce as track conditions change and to eliminate as much airflow as possible underneath the race car. We learned some interesting things, but at a price. We couldn't have done it without use of the Lockheed wind tunnel at Marietta, Ga.
"The wind tunnel costs $1,000 an hour and we were in there about 24 hours. That's more than the normal racer would spend in a area he's not sure what it means, but we did it as part of the Ford Special Vehicles Operations."
Despite all the expenses of building, testing and running a space age race car, Bernstein says his biggest expense in his telephone bill.
"When I leave Newport Beach in March, I don't get home again until October. I'm on the road 85% of the time. All of our work is done out of the back end of our trailer rig. I have nine phones and I'm using one of them nearly all the time. You wouldn't believe the bills I run up trying to juggle my businesses between races."
STOCK CARS--The richest short-track race on the West Coast, the $77,000 Stock Car Products 150, will be run Sunday on the high-banked half-mile oval at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield. More than 100 cars are expected, with only the fastest 24 going in the main event at 2:30 p.m. Also scheduled Sunday are a pair of 35-lap B main events. Time trials are set for Saturday night, along with two 15-lap qualifying races to determine Sunday's starting positions, plus a 40-lap invitational and a 30-lap C main event. Garrett Evans, the Washington state champion, will challenge local favorites Jim Thirkettle, Jim Robinson, Jimmy Insolo and Chris Cobbs, winner of an open comp race two weeks ago in San Bernardino.
SPRINT CARS--The two biggest West Coast shows of the season are set for this week and next. First is the 18th annual Western World Sprint Car Championship races tonight through Sunday at Manzanita Park in Phoenix. Rain Wednesday caused a day's delay in the Arizona program which now calls for qualifying races tonight and Friday with the U.S. Auto Club vs. California Racing Assn. Challenge Series race on Saturday night with the Western final on Sunday evening. Then the 19th running of the Pacific Coast Nationals will be held at Ascot Park, a four-day $20,000 show starting next Wednesday night. Manzanita's will be a winged-car show, except for the USAC vs. CRA Challenge Series 30-lap race. All races will be wingless at Ascot. Dean Thompson, who won his 100th CRA main event last Saturday night, will be at both Manzanita and Ascot, as will World of Outlaws veterans Ron Shuman, Steve Kinser, Doug Wolfgang and USAC-CRA standings leader Ricky Hood.
DRAG RACING--While the NHRA Winston World Finals are going on at L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona, racing will go on as usual at the other L.A. County Raceway in Palmdale. The second annual Pepsi High School Challenge is scheduled Friday night and Corvettes Unlimited will sponsor a Corvettes vs. All Cars program Sunday afternoon, a charity event to benefit the John Tracy Clinic for Deaf Children.
MOTOCROSS--Ascot Park's new stadium supercross track will be unveiled this weekend when the seven-race Lady Liberty Trans-Cal series concludes with pros racing Saturday night and sportsmen all day Sunday. Three-time winner Willy Simons is favored in the 500cc class. The 250cc title is up for grabs. Two-time winners George Holland and Willy Surratt, plus nationally-ranked Johnny O'Mara, who won at Laguna Seca, loom as the strongest contenders.
SPEED RECORDS--Don Carr and Barry Kaplan, driving a double-A Lakester, set an all-time El Mirage dry lake speed record with a run of 284 m.p.h. during a SoCal Timing Assn. meet. The year's final SCTA event is scheduled Nov. 10 at El Mirage.
MISCELLANEOUS--The International Wetbike Boating Assn. will hold its first major California race Sunday morning in the Pierpont basin of Ventura Harbor. Wetbikes closely resemble hydroplaning motorcycles. . . . Automobile racing will return to Del Mar next year when an International Motor Sports Assn. Camel GT sports car race is held on a temporary circuit around the horse track. It is scheduled for Nov. 9, 1986. . . . State speedway champion Steve Lucero will challenge Bob Ott in a speedway program tonight on Ascot Park's South Bay Stadium oval. Ott won the last two Ascot main events.
SPORTS CARS--Bob Kirby of Oceanside, defending champion in E Production, heads a group of 41 Southland drivers who will compete this weekend in the Sports Car Club of America's national runoffs at Road Atlanta. Kirby will drive a Porsche 914. Other Southern California entries:
FORMULA 440--Jim Ellis, Lawndale, Zink; Nick D'Amico, Escondido, Red Devil. G PRODUCTION--Robert Snow, Orange, Fiat; Ernie De Jacomo, Cerritos, Datsun; Joe Moran, Irvine, Datsun; Kandice Elsebusch, Montrose, Triumph. D SPORTS SEDAN--Gregory Aden, Granada Hills, LeGrand; Richard Colburn, Los Angeles, Nissan; SHOWROOM STOCK B--William Hagerty, Huntington Beach, Chevy Citation; GT-4--Paul Lemmons, Grand Terrace, Datsun; Derek McKesson, Laguna Niguel, Datsun. C SPORTS RACING--Tom Ballentyne, Los Angeles, Ralt; Frank Monise Sr., Pasadena, Lola; Charlie Kulmann, Fullerton, Cosworth. FORMULA VEE--Ray Stephens, Capistrano Beach; Mark Edwards, Santa Ana. SPORTS RENAULT--Art Charles, Irvine; Mark Wyborny, Bonita; Rick Anderson, La Mirada. SHOWROOM STOCK C--Burt Rockliff, Granada Hills, Honda; Ron Haase, San Pedro, Honda; FORMULA FORD--Robert Groff, Northridge; Scott Atchison, Bakersfield; Richard Rutherford, Newport Beach; Gary Bingaman, Downey; Bill Schubert, Monterey Park; Anthony Baia, Santa Ana. F PRODUCTION--Dave Nagel, San Pedro, Ford. FORMULA CONTINENTAL--Donald Peterson, Malibu, Ralt. SHOWROOM STOCK A--Dave Rutherford, Torrance, Mitsubishi. SHOWROOM STOCK GT--Lee Mitchell, El Segundo, Nissan. GT-3--Bruce Short, Palos Verdes Estates, Mazda; Bill Van, Santa Ana, Mazda; Norm DeWitt, San Diego, Datsun. SPORTS 2000--Carlos Bobeda, Northridge, Swift; Chuck Luckman Jr., Joshua Tree, Swift; Bill Fickling, San Clemente, Swift. GT-2--Don Reynolds, El Segundo, Datsun; Dr. Robert Reed, Bakersfield, Mazda. E PRODUCTION--Dale Ragel, Simi Valley, MGB.