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All hail His Majesty: Catching up with NHRA great Kenny ‘The King’ Bernstein

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NHRA drag racing has had a long legacy of championship drivers with unique and colorful nicknames that personified their talent in a racecar and competitiveness.

Don Prudhomme was “Snake.” Tom McEwen was “Mongoose.” And Don Garlits was “Big Daddy.”

But throughout 40 years as a drag racer and team owner in the NHRA, there was – and likely will always be – only one “King” in drag racing history, namely, Kenny Bernstein.

Bernstein was drag racing royalty during his career, and even though he drives off-road vehicles, golf carts, motorcycles and bicycles these days, with all the achievements he made in chasing the quarter-mile, he still carries the title of drag racing’s King, much like Richard Petty is NASCAR’s King or Elvis Presley is rock-n-roll’s King.

He earned the nickname “the Bud King” for the 30-year sponsorship (1980-2009) from Budweiser Beer, the longest-running sponsorship in motorsports history.

“Budweiser was the mainstay,” Bernstein said. “They gave me the chance and it was up to me to prove to them that drag racing was good to them, it was good to their customers, and they saw the need to have it. It was just a phenomenal relationship.”

And Bernstein was phenomenal behind the wheel. During his time with Budweiser, Kenny the King was one of the most dominant drag racers in the business, winning 30 NHRA Funny Car national events and four consecutive NHRA Funny Car championships from 1985-1988, as well as 39 Top Fuel races and titles in 1996 and 2001.

NHRA/National Dragster
One time Editorial use only

NHRA/National Dragster One time Editorial use only

NHRA/ National Dragster

After a decade racing Funny Cars, Bernstein switched to Top Fuel – a class known as the kings of drag racing – in 1990. Two years later, the Texas native became the first driver to break the elusive 300 mph barrier.

As a result, Bernstein picked up another nickname for that achievement: “the King of Speed.”

Then in 1996, Bernstein became the first driver in NHRA history to add a Top Fuel championship to his previous Funny Car crowns. Only two others, Gary Sczelzi and Del Worsham, have achieved that rare milestone since.

Bernstein retired from driving at the end of 2001 after his second Top Fuel championship. But that retirement was short-lived as he was pressed back into service about seven months later when his successor, son Brandon, broke his back in a crash. It didn’t take long for the elder Bernstein to shake off the rust, winning four straight races and still finished sixth in what was only two-thirds of a season.

He returned to being just a team owner in 2003 before coming back to race a Funny Car for one final season in 2007. He once again returned to being solely a team owner the following season and remained in that role until he retired for the third and final time from the sport after the 2011 season.

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You can take the drag racer out of racing, but you can’t take the racing out of the drag racer.

Even today, 10 years after his last race as a driver and seven years after his last season as a team owner, Bernstein, now 73, still hasn’t lost the itch to race again.

“People ask if I would go back and do it today, and I say, ‘Give me $5 million and I’ll be back out there tomorrow,’ he says, before adding with a big laugh, “if Sheryl (his wife) didn’t kill me first.”

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But Bernstein is a realist. While he thinks he could still win another NHRA championship with the right team, the right crew chief and the right sponsorship, he also knows he might be tempting fate to do so.

“What if I got hurt so badly and ended up incapacitated and Sheryl would have to take care of me the rest of her life?” he says. “She’s danced every dance with me through this whole program.”

Retirement wasn’t easy at first. It took nearly two years to sell or dispose of the last vestiges of his racing career. He sold his two race shops in Indiana and California, sold all his racecars and equipment, closed the door, turned out the lights for one final time and walked away.

“I had already had those feelings for a few years,” he said. “I had gone almost 40 years in drag racing. I had driven every kind of car there was, we had tremendous success, had numerous wrecks and crashes that were really bad and walked away from everything.

“When you’ve been doing it that long and get towards the latter part of your lifespan at that time, you look at it and say, ‘Maybe it’s time you give this some thought. Here you’ve been going nearly 40 years going down a racetrack, you’ve probably made 10,000 runs and you still have all your limbs and faculties and you’re still running 100 percent, but how much more life do I have to enjoy life and do things I want to do?’”

He’s had no regrets since retiring. He doesn’t miss the near-constant travel, nor the business responsibilities related to both driving for and owning a race team, dealing with sponsors and all the rules in the sport.

“I kid everybody when they ask me if I miss it and say, ‘I only miss the driving part. I don’t miss all the other problems,’” he said with a laugh.

These days, Bernstein attends maybe a couple races a year, typically one or both annual NHRA races in Pomona, California, like being at this past weekend’s 2018 season-opening Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway.

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Bernstein admits what he misses the most is the people in the sport, his former competitors, crew chiefs, team members, fans and media.

“That was our family for 30-plus years and we miss those people tremendously,” he said.

Wanting to drive again is a hard habit to break, Bernstein concedes, pointing to a couple of his old racing buddies, Prudhomme and Amato, as being of the same ilk.

“Prudhomme, Amato and myself, we all would love to drive again because it’s in our blood, it’s the way we were raised,” Bernstein admits. “We all started racing at very young ages and we had great success at it. That driving part is what motivated us more than anything.

“But when you come to this point where you’ve decided to stop, you have to replace it with something. Your life has been going 700 mph every day for 40 years, when all of a sudden it’s down to 2 mph, you’ve got to find something to replace it. As Don (Prudhomme) and Joe (Amato) and everyone else, we find other things.

“There’s other things we like to do and certainly didn’t get a chance to do them when we were pounding it on the drag strip every day, trying to take care of our fans and sponsors and also to try and win races. That was all encompassing, that was our life, that was all we did, all we ate and breathed every day for all those years.”

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Bernstein went virtually non-stop in his adult life. While in his 20s, he and a partner began a restaurant chain – Chelsea Street Pub – in his native Lubbock, Texas, that became a big success, eventually growing to 17 eateries in Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee.

He drag raced on the side during the same time, driving -- what else -- his self-sponsored “Chelsea King.” But being a pro drag racer was always Bernstein’s goal. He sold his share of the restaurant chain in 1980, and promptly began driving what many liked to call “the fastest beer can in the world.”

“When I got the Budweiser program, I had one goal and one goal only, and that was to go to my first love, drag racing, and do it as good as I could for Budweiser,” he said. “I sold my share (of the restaurant) to my vice president and his two sons and as they say, I never looked back.”

In addition to his drag racing program, Bernstein also spent several years owning both NASCAR Cup and IndyCar teams.

While he jokes about racing again, Bernstein admits he’s enjoying retirement, doing so many things he never had time to do when he was racing. He not only has stopped to smell all the roses he missed during his racing career, he’s enjoying the full bouquet.

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Bernstein and his wife have an active lifestyle centered around good health and physical activities. They spend seven months a year in Colorado during the spring, summer and early fall, and then return to their long-time home base in Southern California for five months during late fall and winter before heading back to the Rockies.

“We love it up there in the summer time because there are so many activities, anything you want to do outside. Colorado is just beautiful,” Bernstein said. “You’ve got hiking, biking, side by side riding in the mountains, golf, so many places to see and things to do.”

While Bernstein has received numerous pitches to race again or be involved in a multitude of businesses, he’s resisted them all.

“Every time I get the itch to go back into some type of business like a car or motorcycle dealership, a side-by-side or four-wheeler place, something that would pique my interest, I always stop and remember all the things that go along with that like payroll, taxes, working and employees,” Bernstein said. “I loved my employees, they were the best people in the world, but this is a whole lot more fun now, not having to worry about it.”

Bernstein admits he started to lose interest in racing when he reverted back to solely being a team owner.

“The last five or six years and with Brandon driving, it was difficult to go to the races because I enjoyed driving so much,” Bernstein said. “It wasn’t a lot of fun. I just wasn’t entranced with it.”

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When asked what was the highlight of his career, Bernstein doesn’t hesitate to reply.

“It would be the 300 mph run, the breaking of the barrier,” he said. “That’s at the top of the list for me.”

NHRA/National Dragster
One time Editorial use only

Bernstein on his record-setting 300-plus mph run in 1992 in Gainesville, Fla. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster

NHRA/ National Dragster

The March day in 1992 that Bernstein broke the elusive 300-mph mark was one of virtual perfection. The track (Gainesville Raceway in Florida), the weather conditions, humidity and oxygen levels were absolutely top-notch. Bernstein couldn’t have ordered a better day. He remembers it as if it was yesterday.

“That particular day on a Friday afternoon at 4:08 p.m. ET, we just went up there for another qualifying run,” he said. “The car left the line and it was trucking hard, pulling the whole way. When I pulled off the track, my thoughts were it was a good run that should be the No. 1 qualifying run.

“When I got down to the end of the track, a worker reached down and pounded me on the chest and held up three fingers. I thought he meant we qualified No. 3, and I was pretty upset, I thought it was better than that.

“I remember seeing Steve Evans, the TV guy at the finish line, there were no TV cameras set up, so he grabbed a local TV guy and said ‘we have to shoot this.’ That’s when I heard somebody say 300 mph before he actually told me. So, I went from extremely disappointed to extremely happy.”

Meanwhile, back at the starting line on the same run, Bernstein’s crew chief, Dale Armstrong, was equally initially non-plussed about the run.

“He saw the elapsed time on the scoreboard, which was No. 1 and turned away and walked away and the crew was going crazy and figured Dale hadn’t realized it had run 301 mph,” Bernstein said. “So they grabbed him and turned him around and told him to look at the scoreboard and that’s when he found out.”

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The NHRA of today is not the NHRA of Bernstein’s era. While still a popular motorsport, it’s not what it was like when Bernstein was racing Prudhomme and the like.

Part of that is simply the evolution of culture of people today.

“We have two audiences: one is older people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, who’ve been there in the beginning and they’re devout drag racing fans and will be there until the day they die,” Bernstein said. “The problem is how do you bring in the young audience, the 18, 19, 22, 25, 30 year old, into the sport, to see what it’s all about and get them exposed to it?

“NHRA has to keep its core and develop the younger audience. That’s especially hard with the younger ones, the millennials, because they’re so into the gadgets and phones and tweeting and all the social media there is, and it’s so difficult to get their attention.

“I kid about this, but I’m not far off: most millennials today probably don’t know how to check the oil in their car. It’s not that drag racing has gotten bad, the life has just changed, it’s different. I mean, there’s 900 TV stations out there. There’s just so many options for the millennials and young people to get exposed to, it’s not like it was when I grew up. There’s nothing wrong with drag racing, it’s just the nature of the beast.”

NHRA/National Dragster
One time Editorial use only

NHRA/National Dragster One time Editorial use only

NHRA/ National Dragster

Bernstein has high praise for NHRA CEO and former president Peter Clifford, who has tried to make the sport more attractive and relevant to younger fans, as well as new NHRA president Glen Cromwell.

Another challenge Bernstein acknowledges that NHRA will ultimately face in the coming years is the eventual retirement of its greatest driver ever, 16-time Funny Car champ John Force.

Force turns 69 in May. Several of his sponsorship contracts expire at the end of 2019.

“If there’s one thing NHRA needs to do when John Force retires,” Bernstein said, “they need to develop and to promote the drivers who are the stars of the sport and promote them more than ever before.

“Any of the guys that have won championships need to be promoted. Robert Hight, who won his second Funny Car championship last year, is one of those guys that should be promoted. And Ron Capps (Funny Car champ in 2016). They’re all well known but they could probably be even more so. And then there’s others out there, like Courtney and Brittany Force, the kids in the Kalitta camp – Doug (Kalitta’s) a great guy.

“If they’ve been world champions or have been winning races, they’re right there. You need to promote them and make it seem like they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

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Four Funny Car championships. Two Top Fuel championships. 69 combined national event wins, good for 11th on the NHRA’s all-time wins list.

Bernstein’s career will forever be marked by superlatives and milestone accomplishments. When asked if he preferred driving a Funny Car or Top Fuel dragster, the king of drag racing not surprisingly picked the other king of drag racing.

“I enjoyed both, but I just think Top Fuel is the ultimate car at the end of the day,” he said. “They’re the fastest and quickest in the sport. That’s why they call them the kings of the sport.”

And that’s why the king of speed will always be drag racing’s king. That’s all it’s ever been about for him, to be the fastest and quickest.

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* Born Sept. 6, 1944 (age 73 now)

* Grew up in Lubbock, Texas, and later Dallas, Texas

* Started his business career selling shoes and clothing after dropping out of college

* Named sixth on the National Hot Rod Association Top 50 Drivers, 1951–2000

* Inducted into Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2009

* One of the staunchest supporters of safety in NHRA, and helped spearhead an effort to make all cars safer after the death of three drivers in five years (2004 to 2008). Since NHRA adopted enhanced safety standards and equipment championed by Bernstein and several other drivers including John Force, not one driver has been killed in pro-level competition.

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