The performances of his top-fuel dragster Saturday weren't very impressive, but Kenny Bernstein will take a victory any way he can get it.
Bernstein won the $50,000 bonus given by his sponsor, Budweiser, in the Top Fuel Classic, but his time of 5.149 seconds for the quarter mile wasn't even fast enough to have qualified for today's Winston Finals at the Pomona Fairplex.
It was fast enough to beat Don Prudhomme, however, when Prudhomme's tires went up in smoke as he left the starting line in the final round.
"It was a crazy situation, winning $50,000 and nearly not making the field for the championship," Bernstein said. In the first round of qualifying, Bernstein ran a 5.081-second quarter mile, good enough for 14th in today's 16-car field.
That kept alive the slim hopes the Newport Beach driver has of catching Joe Amato in the race for the $150,000 bonus as National Hot Rod Assn. champion. Amato has a 956-point lead going into the final day of the 18-event season, and to win Bernstein must win the final round and set a national elapsed time record during the day.
"Pomona is not the track to set a record on, especially with the weather the way it is this week," Amato said. He holds the record of 4.897, set last March in Gainesville, Fla.
Amato, the defending world champion and winner of the last four Top Fuel Classics, was the most impressive performer until his valve train broke and exploded the engine during a semifinal run against Bernstein.
"He had two or three car-lengths on me when I heard his car go 'boom' and quit," Bernstein said. "I was just motoring along when I saw what was happening, so I stomped on the accelerator in hopes I could run around him before we got to the finish line. I just made it."
Amato had run the day's quickest time of 4.983 seconds in eliminating Dick LaHaie in the first round.
"If I'd had just 50 feet more on power I could have beaten him," a disappointed Amato said. "I hated to give up my hold on the Budweiser Classic that way, coasting across the finish line. I felt I was running a 4.95 or a 4.96 before the engine went 'boom.' "
Warm sunshine made the track slippery and difficult for drivers to keep their tires from smoking.
"We were all spoiled last week," Amato said. "We all got dialed in for cool weather, and then we come back today and it's hot and the sun is beating down on the track. It made for entirely different combinations.
"I know Kenny's chances of beating me (for the championship) are extremely slim, but I've tried to keep my mind from thinking about winning for the fourth time. Maybe today I'll think about it--especially if I get past the first round . . . because then I'll have it."
The only other three-time winners are Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney. Muldowney, who is starting a comeback after being out of drag racing for nearly a year, was bumped from the field late in the day by Doug Herbert. Muldowney's 5.179 run was No. 17 among the 29 top fuelers on hand and only 16 run today.
In another division, Ed McCulloch and the Larry Minor crew set a track record for funny cars of 5.241 seconds in his Olds Cutlass. Other records were set by Scott Geoffrion of Huntington Beach in pro stock (7.229 seconds, 192.51 m.p.h.) and pro bikers John Myers of Birmingham, Ala., (7.697 on a Suzuki) and David Schultz of Ft. Myers, Fla. (174.14, Kawasaki).
Final eliminations start at 11 a.m.