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Bernstein’s Goal: Finish in Fast Lane

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are two things you must know about Kenny Bernstein. He is a businessman, an entrepreneur credited with helping bring the National Hot Rod Assn. into the Fortune 500. He is also a drag racer, the quickest quarter-miler in history.

The businessman in him has a farewell tour and marketing campaign in front of him as he begins his final season driving the Budweiser King Racing top fuel dragster in the Powerade NHRA drag racing series.

The racer in Bernstein promises he won’t let the farewell tour get in the way of his ultimate goal, defending the championship he won last season after more than two years of less-than-stellar performances.

Now 57 and successful beyond his wildest dreams, the beginning of the end arrived Thursday at Pomona Raceway with the first day of qualifying for the 42nd K&N; Filters Winternationals.

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It was an imperfect start with Bernstein encountering problems and finishing 12th after the first of four qualifying passes.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Bernstein says of the impending finality of his driving career. “The thought process now is the same as it is every year, to win a championship. There’s a lot of other stuff going on with the tour and the fact that it’s my last year as a driver.... But I’m focused on the fact that our race team is getting ready to defend that championship.”

That championship, a duel with Larry Dixon that was decided at Pomona in the final event of the season--which Bernstein won--was one of Bernstein’s most important accomplishments in a career that began in the late 1960s and was funded by his door-to-door sales of lingerie.

Old enough to be a grandfather, Bernstein could have choked away the title in the pressure-cooker with Dixon, 35. There was the attention from the competing beer companies, Budweiser versus Dixon’s Miller Lite. There was Bernstein’s experience versus Dixon’s youth. Even family relations were involved: Kim Richards, wife of Tim Richards, the crew chief who masterminded Bernstein’s turnaround, is the daughter of Dixon’s crew chief, Dick LaHaie.

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“I knew it was a big deal when I was watching ‘SportsCenter’ or ‘RPM2Night’ and they were talking about us and not John Force,” Dixon said. “And there’s no love lost between the brewers. There was a lot of pressure.”

It was exactly the kind of title Bernstein wanted to win, his first since 1996 when his top fuel championship, coupled with four funny car titles from 1985-88, made him the first driver in NHRA history to win championships in both nitro divisions.

But the 1996 championship was hollow because of Blaine Johnson’s death. “I never accepted, never thought, never felt that [the 1996] championship was ours,” Bernstein said. “I felt it was more Blaine’s than mine. When it happened, he was ahead in the championship. I never felt comfortable that that championship was really ours.”

Which is one of the reasons Bernstein relishes last year’s title, his sixth.

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“Last season was the best,” he said. “I don’t want to take anything away from the early titles and all the efforts that were put into them by the teams and crew chiefs, but this is the best for several reasons.”

Among them was the arrival of crew chief Tim Richards three races into the season, and the realization that a racing career that included ownership of CART and NASCAR Winston Cup teams was nearly over.

“We had 21/2 years of not being competitive, winning one race, and not being in the hunt for a championship was very frustrating,” said Bernstein, whose average reaction time of 0.490 seconds in 75 passes was quickest in class.

“You add those things together--you’re 57 years old, you’re in the twilight of your career, you have a new crew chief who wasn’t having much success the last few years, and for all of us to raise up to that level and stay at that level was very special. It’s really the kind of year you should quit on.”

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In fact, if he had known that he was going to win a career-best eight races, an NHRA-record 61 rounds, and establish national elapsed time (4.477 seconds) and speed (332.18 mph) records en route to a sixth nitro championship, Bernstein says he would have quit. He won the last three races of last season. But without a crystal ball, Bernstein instead announced in June his return for 2002, capitalizing on Budweiser’s big send-off before turning over the driving duties to his son, Brandon, 29. “He’s intense every minute,” Brandon Bernstein said. “He definitely wants to go out on top. He wants to repeat as champion, he wants to go out as champion.”

He also wants to satisfy Budweiser in its 23rd year as a Bernstein sponsor, the second-longest relationship in motor sports next to Richard Petty and STP.

Bernstein the businessman--and the racer--made 144 special appearances last season, conducted more than 4,300 television and 2,700 radio interviews and generated more than 14,000 press clippings. And with his final season ahead of him, interest will be even more intense. But so will he.

“The one thing I still love most about this business is driving the race car,” Bernstein said.

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