Bernstein Says His Goodbyes -- Again

Times Staff Writer

One year ago, Kenny Bernstein was in a quandary.

He had announced his retirement after winning six National Hot Rod Assn. drag racing championships and was at the end of a yearlong "Forever Red" farewell tour. He wanted to go out a winner.

It didn't happen. He lost his title in top fuel to Larry Dixon and, in what was to be the final day of his Hall of Fame career, he smoked his tires and lost in the first round of the World Finals at Pomona, his home track where he had previously won seven times.

"I'll admit it, I wasn't ready to retire. It was a bummer, but I had committed the Budweiser King car to Brandon, and I knew he deserved his chance. But in my own mind, I was still a competitive driver, capable of winning. I was caught off guard. I thought 30 years had been enough, then I knew it wasn't."

Fate gave him a second chance. It certainly was not the way he wanted it to happen -- son Brandon, his successor, had a horrific accident -- but the 59-year-old warrior from Lake Forest has made the most of it.

"This is a lot better, winning three of my last four races and getting another chance at Pomona," the senior Bernstein said after winning at Chicago, Dallas and Las Vegas.

Brandon, after a sensational start as a rookie, when he won three of his first six national events, broke his back in a first-round crash at Englishtown, N.J. He was not paralyzed, but his season was over. He was in a clamshell-like brace from his neck to his waist for four months.

"Winning races is good for the soul, but the best thing is that Brandon is about ready to start driving again," Kenny Bernstein said. "He sat in the cockpit in Vegas and did warmups. When he hit the throttle and revved the engine, he was like a little kid in a candy store. We expect him to be ready to race by the time we start testing in February."

In the meantime, the father is having the time of his life as a fill-in driver.

When he won at Dallas, where his career started in the late 1960s, Bernstein said it was one of the most gratifying of his 68 NHRA victories.

"To win in Dallas again, where I cut my teeth racing around places like Lubbock, Oklahoma City, Abilene and Amarillo as a youngster, and where I won my first national event in 1986, was extra-special because I had so many old friends and family there.

"Especially my father, Bert. He's 80, and he gets to a couple of races every year. He was at Las Vegas, and I told him he had to come to Pomona because he was my new good-luck charm, but he's going to be busy with a jewelry show in New Orleans. I'll miss him, but I'll never forget his being there in Dallas."

Bernstein will make his second Pomona farewell this week in the 39th annual Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals on the legendary Fairplex racing strip. Qualifying will begin Thursday and continue Friday and Saturday to qualify 16-car fields into Sunday's eliminations.

Brandon will be there too, blipping the throttle, but it will be Kenny on the starting line.

"Like I said, going up in smoke last year was a bummer. This year we've got a better car. The car Brandon crashed was totaled, and the backup car wasn't quite competitive. The one I have now, the one that has won three races, is a new one we've had for the last four or five races. Tim Richards, our crew chief, has given me a fantastic machine, and I can't wait to give our Pomona fans a better show than last year."

Points in the NHRA Pow- erade championships are earned by drivers, not teams, but if Brandon's 629 points and Kenny's 998 were combined, the Bernsteins' 1,627 total would be second to Dixon's 1,940. Despite not driving in the first eight races, Kenny climbed his way to seventh with his Dallas victory, Dixon clinching his second consecutive title there .

"It was a team thing, thanks to Tim and Kim [Richards' wife, the team clutch specialist] and the crew. They have a beautiful combination. To get to seventh in 13 races was quite a feat. Our goal when I took over for Brandon was just to get to the top 10, and I thought if we could do that, that would be pretty cool."

His career record is mind-boggling: six NHRA championships, four in funny car, two in top fuel; 68 overall victories; more than 1,000 rounds of national competition; and, strikingly, the first driver to better the 300-mph barrier with a 302.70 run at Gainesville, Fla., in 1992.

He has since increased his personal best to 332.18 mph, which was the national record until Doug Kalitta ran 333.00 this year at Chicago, but as Bernstein said, "No one else can ever say they were the first past 300."

Now, with only one race left, the realization that he is about to retire again is on Bernstein's mind. Last year he was antsy, hesitant and not sure he was doing the right thing. Now, he says, he is more comfortable with his position.

"I think sitting on the sidelines for those eight races Brandon drove, plus getting a chance to drive this year, has better prepared me for retirement. Not really retirement, because I'll be there with the team, but as a driver. It's a different lifestyle, but one I can live with. I think."

Bernstein admits he has floated the possibility of a two-car team, but not seriously, he says.

"I've passed the thought around, but Budweiser doesn't want two cars, so we'd have to find another sponsor. It could happen, but I'm not pursuing it particularly hard. Believe me, though, when I walk to the starting line alongside Brandon at Pomona in February [for the season-opening Winternationals], it's going to hit me again, but not like a ton of bricks as it did earlier this year."

Bernstein said he was especially proud of his accomplishment this year because the level of competition in the top-fuel class was higher than it has ever been.

"For years, it usually just came down to the red car [Bernstein's] and the blue car [Dixon's], but there's a lot more out there today. Besides us and Dixon, there's both Kalitta cars [driven by cousins Scott and Doug] and the Army [-sponsored] car with Tony Schumacher. The way [crew chief] Alan Johnson has that car running, it may be the strongest of all."

Schumacher, since midseason, has won four events and lost in the Las Vegas finals to Bernstein. He also set a national elapsed-time record of 4.441 seconds for a quarter-mile from a standing start at Reading, Pa., last month. The record he broke, 4.477, had been set by Bernstein in 2001.

One disappointment is that, despite the combined success of the Bernsteins, neither was able to qualify for Saturday's Budweiser Shootout, a bonus event Kenny won in 1991 and 1993. Eligible are the eight drivers accumulating the most points during qualifying in the season's 22 previous events.

On the plus side is that Brandon, despite having driven in only eight of 22 events, is a candidate for the Auto Club's Road to the Future rookie-of-the-year award. The other candidate is top-fuel driver David Baca, also a second-generation driver whose father, Dennis, won the World Finals in 1977.

The winner will be announced at the NHRA Powerade awards banquet Monday at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

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