No. 6: Kenny Bernstein
It's hard to imagine that a legend might begin in a small garage in one of hundreds of tiny Texas towns, but it was in just such a place that drag racing's "King of Speed," Kenny Bernstein, set out on a journey that has resulted in him becoming one of the sport's true legends in terms of performance, technology, and corporate relationships while capturing five season titles and 60 career quarter-mile wins.
In his early 20s, Bernstein built his own race car, a '50 Studebaker. While relocating to the Dallas area, he drove through the small town of Cockrell Hill and noticed activity at Donald and Mitchel Anderson's garage. It was a gathering spot for local drag racers, and Bernstein rented a space to store his car. Between classes in business administration at nearby Arlington State College, Bernstein was at the garage learning how a fuel dragster operated. He was hooked on fuel dragsters.
He drove Top Fuel dragsters for many teams in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, notably Vance Hunt, the Anderson brothers, and the Carroll brothers. He also briefly drove for Lubbock-based Prentiss Cunningham. He was active on the Texas Pro Fuel circuit that operated in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He bought one of the last Funny Cars built by Woody Gilmore — an ill-handling Mercury Cougar — and drove the L.A. Hooker for the late Gene Beaver.
In those early years, his only major success was a runner-up finish to Don Schumacher at the 1973 Winternationals, where he drove the Engine Masters Dodge for Ray Alley.
Frustrated by his inability to be competitive against the top teams, Bernstein elected to wash his hands of racing at the end of 1973, and he and Comp standout Randy Pumphrey opened the first Chelsea Pub in Lubbock. Bernstein went on to open 13 other Chelsea Pubs in Texas, New Mexico, Florida, and Louisiana.
However, drag racing eventually lured him back. Beaver talked him into coming to the U.S. Nationals in 1977 and driving the latest incarnation of the L.A. Hooker. Although the car didn't qualify, Bernstein was hooked again and returned in late 1978 at the wheel of a Funny Car called the Chelsea King.
When it comes to the business of drag racing, no one has ever done it better than Bernstein. Many attribute much of the sport's eventual ability to attract Fortune 500 corporations to his efforts. The business-savvy Bernstein even parlayed a race postponement into the Budweiser sponsorship that has endured for 22 years, the longest such alliance in motorsports. When rain delayed the 1979 Cajun Nationals, he quickly concocted an opportunity for a sponsorship pitch to Anheuser-Busch management at the company headquarters in St. Louis. He hustled his race transporter from Louisiana to Missouri so his car and trailer would be on display when the brewer's employees reported to work. Bernstein's bold maneuver, and his accompanying presentation, earned him the Budweiser sponsorship for the 1980 season and resulted in the launch of the first Budweiser King Funny Car. When the rained-out race resumed, he also earned his first major reward as a driver: He won the Cajun Nationals.
Though he indeed charmed the corporate world and had cleared the hurdle of winning his first national event, Bernstein was not an instant sensation on the quarter-mile. Despite the healthy arsenal he assembled between 1979 and 1985, his on-track successes, while respectable, were only moderate until 1984.
By 1983, Bernstein had won five national event titles, including the 1983 U.S. Nationals and Big Bud Shootout, an accomplishment that netted him what was then the biggest payday in drag racing history: $80,000. However, in that same period, beginning with the 1981 Golden Gate Nationals, he also went six straight events without qualifying. The good was tempered somewhat by the average.
In 1984, Bernstein's drag racing career made a huge leap forward. Crew chief Dale Armstrong, who Bernstein hired at the beginning of the 1982 season, implemented some innovations on the 1984 Budweiser King Funny Car that changed the sport — and the fortunes of the team — forever. It was Armstrong's decision to learn what made the Funny Car tick aerodynamically that made the difference. Wind-tunnel testing produced body configurations that led to the first 260-mph Funny Car speed at the 1984 Gatornationals. For the class, it was the proverbial "shot heard 'round the world." After that blast, the Bernstein-Armstrong act was unstoppable.
Bernstein did more than merely dominate the fiberglass contingent between 1985 and 1988; he broke longstanding barriers and changed the way people race. It began at the 1985 Winternationals, when Bernstein's team rolled from their trailer an '85 Ford Tempo that was noticeably longer than their 1984 car. The extended front fender and a number of more subtle changes made the car aerodynamically superior to any other Funny Car. Bernstein's ever-expanding edge on his contemporaries became evident at that year's Gatornationals, where he trimmed the national record to a 5.64 on the way to the first of a seemingly endless string of national event wins. He won or runner-upped at the next six races, and the chase for his first Winston championship was effectively finished by August.
After a relatively slow start in 1986, Bernstein pulled away from the pack on the strength of another technological innovation, the two-stage clutch. He became more dominant in the ensuing months than at any point in his four-year reign, winning 10 of 13 races and compiling a 43-3 win-loss record from October 1986 to September 1987.
The credit for that unprecedented streak goes not only to Armstrong but also to the new body the team unveiled in 1987. A ghastly creation, the Buick LeSabre was nicknamed "the Batmobile." With its huge rear deck, narrow roof, and laid-back windshield, it looked nothing like any Funny Car anyone had ever seen.
Using a more conventional Buick Reatta body in 1988, Bernstein tied Don Prudhomme's once-untouchable record of four consecutive Winston championships, but for the first time since he took control of the class in 1985, beating him began to seem possible.
While he was busy pounding the Funny Car competition in the mid-1980s, Bernstein spawned a series of new ventures to further expand his motorsports portfolio. At one point, he simultaneously presided over a NASCAR Winston Cup team, a sports marketing company, and an IndyCar team and was partnered in King Racing Components, which handled the RacePak computer line. He became the first and only team owner to field cars that won races in America's three largest motorsports series: NASCAR, NHRA, and IndyCar.
In 1990, Bernstein left the Funny Car category, along with Prudhomme, for the challenge of Top Fuel dragsters.
One of Bernstein's most celebrated accomplishments was on March 20, 1992, during qualifying for the Gatornationals. On that date, Bernstein punched through the previously unexplored 300-mph barrier with a historic 301.70 blast that rocked the drag racing world. Heralded as the sport's "King of Speed," Bernstein gave further credence to the title by becoming the first to break the 310-mph barrier. He currently holds the speed mark at 332.18.
Already immortalized as the first drag racer to exceed 300, in 1996, Bernstein became the first to win Winston championships in both fuel categories: The four-time Funny Car champion claimed his first Top Fuel title.
The 1997 season proved to be a transitional year for Bernstein marked by the departure of Armstrong, his longtime friend and crew chief. Lee Beard took command of the Budweiser King and led Bernstein to seven victories through the 2000 season. His current crew chief, Tim Richards, has helped catapult Bernstein toward a potential second Top Fuel championship in 2001.
Bernstein has announced that the 2002 campaign will be his last as a driver and that he will pass the torch to his son, Brandon. He will continue as a team owner, and the fabled Bernstein name will remain a mainstay on the drag racing scene. -- John Miller
Comments from the panel
"His track record is impressive, but KB's greatest asset is his marketing sense. Easily the best businessman in the sport." - Rick Voegelin
"One of the top names in drag racing for two decades and continues to be just as strong in the waning years of his career." - John Miller
"Drag racing’s ambassador." - John Drummond
"His desire to improve resulted in much help for independent inventors and developers, such as on-board computers. His leadership was also masterful in guiding the Professional Racers Organization during several difficult years." - Don Gillespie
"One of the first to also recognize that a total team effort was the quickest path to victory" - Jim Hill
"The model for every racer of any stripe." - John Raffa
"Showed the rest of the racers how to please sponsors and show a profit running a fuel car." - Dave Wallace Jr.
"One of the greatest Funny Car drivers who ever lived." - Jeff Burk
"Redefined NHRA professional racing." - Steve Gibbs
"The ultimate corporate persona." - Keith Burgan