Drag Racer Bernstein Was Slow to Mature
At 41, funny car driver Kenny Bernstein finally reached the maturity that eluded him in 20 years of drag racing.
Bernstein, a Californian by way of Texas and New York City, won his first National Hot Rod Assn. championship and a tank full of records in 1985. His reflexes are keener than they were two decades ago when Bernstein was making sporadic starts on quarter-mile drag strips around the country.
“I’ve been racing off and on for close to 20 years,” says Bernstein, the first funny car driver to crack the 260-mile barrier. “But it wasn’t until 1980 that I finally made driving pay off as a business and a profession.”
At the Keystone Nationals in Maple Grove, Pa., on Sept. 15, Bernstein rammed the throttle to the floor and set a record of 5.59 seconds for his Budweiser Motorcraft Super Team.
“I feel maturity usually comes to a driver in his early 30s,” says Bernstein, who began racing in the longer top fuel cars, in the mid-1960s, switched to funny cars five years later and quit the sport in 1973 to open a restaurant chain.
“If I had started when I was 20, I would have matured at 30. I’m 41 now, and my talent really wasn’t recognized until three years ago. It took a long time to mature. I was always into cars. Cars were part of our lives in west Texas while I was my mid-teens. Drag racing was the only form of racing we knew.”
Bernstein won six races in 12 NHRA starts this year. His victory in the Winston World Finals at Pomona, Calif., on Oct. 20 “was a perfect ending to a perfect year for me.” During the year, Bernstein set a record of 38 winning rounds in preliminary events.
A key factor in his success was an onboard computer crew chief Dale Armstrong mounted in the Ford Tempo that enabled Bernstein to analyze race car data and plot improvements to chassis and engine.
“From the second race on at Gainsville, Fla., we felt we could be consistent,” said Bernstein. “We didn’t have the luxury of a 500 mile race to make adjustments. The computer helped us get stronger as the season progressed and we were running harder and still setting records at the end of the season, an unusual happening for a race team at the end of a year.”
Bernstein’s one dangerous moment in 1985 occured when the engine exploded while his car was running at 250 mph during the July 4 racing weeked in Detroit. The fire destroyed the fiberglass body after Bernstein managed to scramble safely out of the car.
“We had to regroup with a spare chassis and the computer finally figured out the malfunction that cause the engine to blow was a misfiring ignition,” Bernstein explains the problem. “The computer had been telling us this fact all along, but we were too inexperienced with the device to read it correctly.
Bernstein will try his luck in stock car racing next year, utilizing Joe Ruttman as the driver on the NASCAR circuit.
“NASCAR is a challenge, a step in a different direction,” says Bernstein, who prefers the quarter-mile sprints of drag racing to the time-consuming 500 miles of stock car competition. “We secured Quaker State as a major sponsor, their first adventure into NASCAR with total car association. The money enables us to set up a first class operation. I wouldn’t be doing it if the financial end wasn’t rewarding.”
Bernstein said Ruttman was the No. 1 driving choice because of his experience and sound mechanical knowledge.
“Joe never had an opportunity to race with good equipment. He also is very good at public relations. His family is steeped in racing tradition and his knowledge of the support is insurmountable.”
Bernstein is working out of a new office in Indianapolis while waiting for the 1986 drag racing season to begin. He is involved with King Sports, a sports marketing company which has several accounts, and King Racing, the public relations arm of the firm designed to publicize Bernstein’s NASCAR involvement.