It's Just Like Good Old Days for Bernstein

It has been years since the man behind Budweiser King Racing has really been the king, but Kenny Bernstein is back on the throne.

The only man to win National Hot Rod Assn., titles in top fuel and funny cars has won his last three top-fuel races. It's the first time he has done that since winning four funny car races in succession in 1987, and all since he announced he would retire after the 2002 season and his successor would be his son, Brandon.

"I'm having a lot of fun right now," said Bernstein, who lives in Corona del Mar and has a race shop in Lake Forest. "If you can't be happy now, you'd better quit. It's been a wonderful three months."

Bernstein, 56, has won four times in his last six races. He had won only once in the previous two years.

His victory Sunday, No. 57 in his career, gave him a 60-point lead over Larry Dixon as he tries to win his first Winston title since 1996.

"Unfortunately, the death of Blaine Johnson opened the door for us to win the ['96] championship," said Bernstein, whose last pure championship was in 1988 when he won his fourth in a row in funny cars. "We've always felt it wasn't a clean championship because he was leading the points when he lost his life. We might not have won that year."

The series will lose another great competitor after next season as Bernstein focuses on his role as an owner and lets Brandon, 28, take the reins of his bright red sled.

Last weekend in the NHRA event at Joliet, Ill., Brandon won the Federal-Mogul alcohol dragster competition. It was the second time this season the son and father won on the same day.

"Brandon's ready," Bernstein said. "He's doing a great job. He'll have another year of experience. For me, another year will be plenty. Physically, I'm in great shape--I've got back problems, like everyone in this game--but it's time for me to watch Brandon take this over, and be an owner."

Bernstein, who began racing in the late 1960s, said the last two years have been hard and frustrating.

"You can live with [being competitive] but we weren't competitive," he said.

So he brought on Tim Richards, the crew chief who'd tuned Joe Amato to five titles and 31 victories from 1984-92, and since worked with Chuck Etchells, Whit Bazemore and Connie Kalitta.

In the eight races since Richards joined the team, Bernstein has won four times, reached the semifinals three times and quarterfinals once.

Last Saturday on a qualifying pass at Route 66 Raceway, Bernstein's elapsed time of 4.477 seconds over a quarter mile was the quickest run in NHRA history. His speed was 330.88 mph.

It was part of an astounding few days. Mike Dunn set the top fuel speed record of 330.55 mph, and funny car driver John Force set a national ET mark of 4.763 seconds.

"This was probably the most exciting weekend in the history of NHRA racing," Bernstein said. "Even guys who have been around for a long time were shaking their heads."

One is Richards, whose arrival changed the results, and attitude, of Bernstein's team, which has struggled since finishing third in 1994. Since then, Bernstein has the championship in 1996, but finished fourth once, fifth once, sixth three times and seventh once.

"When we brought Tim Richards aboard [to replace Mike Green], it didn't take long to really be excited about the possibilities we were going to have together," Bernstein said. "I felt comfortable we could have some success, and it made my decision easier to go one more year. I was leaning toward [2001] being my last year.

""Any athlete, if they can go out close to the top, can feel pretty good about that."

Del Worsham's reaction time at the line, .482 of a second to Force's .494, was decisive in his beating Force for the second time this season in the funny car final last weekend. Worsham, winning the fifth race of his career and moving into fourth place in the standings, clocked 4.811 seconds for the run, and 314.39 mph, while Force countered with a 4.805 and 321.19 mph.

"This shows that we can win more than a race a year," said Worsham, an Orange driver who won twice as a rookie in 1991, then went eight years without a victory.

It was the third consecutive runner-up finish for Force, the series leader by 198 points over Ron Capps.

Pep Boys will be title sponsor July 5-7 for the NHRA 50th Anniversary Nationals at Pomona Raceway, the first nighttime drag racing in Southern California in more than 20 years. A noise curfew has been arranged for qualifying runs until 8 p.m. on Thursday and 10 p.m. Friday, and eliminations until 10 p.m. on Saturday.

Off Road

Mark McMillin and Brian Ewalt, both of El Cajon, split driving time in a Ford-powered Chenowth last weekend and won the unlimited Class 1 and overall title in the 33rd Tecate SCORE Baja 500 on the Baja California peninsula. McMillin and Ewalt made the 489.9-mile loop in 11 hours 6 minutes 15 seconds, slightly more than five minutes faster than Troy Herbst of Las Vegas.

The top five drivers in Class 1, among them Rick Romans of Big Bear Lake, Ronny Wilson of Long Beach and Steve Sourapas of Rancho Santa Fe, finished ahead of the first Trophy Truck finisher, co-driven by David Ashley and Dan Smith of Riverside, who clocked 11:32:25 in a Ford F-150.

Robby Gordon, a week after driving in the Indianapolis 500, finished fourth in Trophy Trucks in 13:32:32.

Other winners included Tom Ridings of Long Beach in SCORE Lites and Clive Skilton of Orange in Class 3I. In Class 22 for motorcycles 250cc or more, Steve Hengeveld of Oak Hills and Jonah Street of Ellensberg, Wash., rode their factory Honda XR640R to a 9:55:26 time, beating out San Clemente's Johnny Campbell and San Diego's Tim Staab (10:05:13) on a factory Honda XR650R.

Open wheel

After an eight-year absence, Chevrolet will return to open-wheel racing in 2002 as an engine supplier to the Indy Racing League through at least the 2005 season. Chevrolet will replace the Oldsmobile nameplate on the General Motors engines, the result of GM's scheduled closing of its Oldsmobile division. Chevrolet won 86 races, had 80 poles and five series championships in the CART series from 1986-93.

Al Unser Jr. will replace Scott Goodyear in Saturday's IROC race at Michigan International Speedway, then will race that night in the IRL's Casino Magic 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Goodyear suffered a lower back fracture in a crash at the Indianapolis 500.

IRL owner Dick Simon won't compete this weekend at Texas and when he does return to competition, it will be without Stephan Gregoire, his driver since 1999.

"I talked with our team, our attorney and a couple of potential sponsors and they said they really weren't interested if Stephan is the driver," Simon said. "We are regrouping and hope to put together a package for the last seven races, after the race at Pikes Peak [on June 17]."

Gregoire jumped ship at Indianapolis when he had problems in Simon's car and drove the 500 for Heritage Motorsports.

Townsend Bell pulled off a rare feat last weekend when he became the first driver in Dayton Indy Lights history to lap the field. Bell, formerly of Costa Mesa and now of San Luis Obispo, lapped second-place Mario Dominguez, on Lap 94 of the 100-lap race on the Milwaukee Mile.

Last laps

Big Bill Spencer, widely respected West Coast track announcer, photographer and publicist, died of a heart attack last Saturday at his San Jose home. He was 59. . . . Orange County Speedway will host one of its special races, the third Jack Milne Cup on Saturday, named for the 1930s world champion who helped Harry Oxley build motorcycle racing in Costa Mesa into a weekly event the last 33 years.

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This Week's Races

WINSTON CUP

Kmart 400

* When: Today, qualifying (Fox Sports Net, noon) ; Sunday, race (FX, 10 a.m.).

* Where: Michigan Speedway (oval, 2 miles, 18-degree banking in turns), Brooklyn, Mich.

* Race distance: 400 miles, 200 laps.

* 2000 winner: Tony Stewart.

* Next race: Pocono 500, June 17, Long Pond, Pa.

* On the net: url www.nascar.com.

CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS

O'Reilly 400

* When: Today, race, 5 p.m. (ESPN2, Saturday, 9 a.m., tape).

* Where: Texas Motor Speedway (oval, 1.5 miles, 24-degree banking in turns), Fort Worth.

* Race distance: 250.5 miles, 167 laps.

* 2000 winner: Greg Biffle.

* Next race: Memphis 200, June 23, Millington, Tenn.

* On the net: url www.nascar.com.

INDY RACING LEAGUE

Casino Magic 500

* When: Qualifying (ESPN2, Saturday, 9:30 a.m., tape); Saturday, race (ESPN, 5 p.m.)

* Where: Texas Motor Speedway (oval, 1.5 miles, 24-degree banking in turns), Fort Worth.

* Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.

* 2000 winner: Scott Sharp.

* Next race: Radisson Indy 200, June 17, Fountain, Colo.

* On the net: http://www.indyracingleague.com.

FORMULA ONE

Canadian Grand Prix

* When: Saturday, qualifying (Speedvision, 10 a.m.); Sunday, race (Speedvision and Fox Sports Net, 9:30 p.m.)

* Where: Circuit Gilles Villeneuve (road course, 2.747 miles, 15 turns), Montreal.

* Race distance: 189.543 miles, 69 laps.

* 2000 winner: Michael Schumacher.

* Next race: European Grand Prix, June 24, Nurburgring, Germany.

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