Bernstein, Kenneth Dale ("Kenny")

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BERNSTEIN, Kenneth Dale ("Kenny")

(b. 6 September 1944 in Clovis, New Mexico), businessman and record-setting drag racer who became the first National Hot Rod Association driver to surpass 300 miles per hour in the quarter mile.

Bernstein is one of two sons born to Bert Bernstein, a retailer and B-29 pilot, and Pat Bernstein, a homemaker. He was raised in Lubbock, Texas, where his father managed Levine's Department Store and instilled a positive work ethic and a sense of the value of money in his children.

At age nine, a charismatic Bernstein stepped into his business future by selling merchandise at Levine's. He became a workaholic as a teenager and held many part-time jobs. He also applied this determination to other endeavors. At Monterey High School in Lubbock, where he graduated in 1963, he was a five-foot, seven-inch, 180-pound line-backer who fearlessly tackled opposing football players.

Bernstein's future also held fast cars. In high school, muscle cars such as Chevrolet 409s and Pontiac 421s lured him. As a hobby, he would purchase them and turn them into hot rods that satisfied his passion for speed. Racing continued to be a big part of Bernstein's life at Arlington (Texas) State College, where he was a student from 1963 to 1966 and majored in business administration. By the late 1960s he was driving top-fuel dragsters and eventually drove for the Anderson brothers, Vance Hunt, Prentiss Cunningham, and the Carroll brothers.

Bernstein left college in 1966 before graduating, to combine real-world business skills with racing as a sideline. He sold women's fashions during the week to finance weekend racing at tracks along his five-state-area sales route. Bernstein started a successful Dallas wrecker service in 1971, also to fund his racing. At about this time he married Donna Easom. They had a son but divorced in 1974.

Unable to challenge top race teams, Bernstein left racing in 1973 intending to never return. He also sold his wrecker service and used the proceeds to open a restaurant in Lubbock with Randy Pumphrey. By 1978 the Chelsea Street Pub had opened restaurants in five states and employed 2,700 people.

In 1978 Gene Beaver asked Bernstein to drive his car at the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) U.S. Nationals. Surprised, Bernstein agreed and became permanently hooked on racing. In his own Chelsea King funny car, named for his restaurants' distinctive sandwich, Bernstein began to beat top race teams. In 1979, with crew chief Leroy Goldstein, Bernstein won his first national event, the NHRA's Cajun Nationals, and the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) Winston Championship. More important, that same year, in a savvy business maneuver that illustrated his skill at fostering and maintaining financial support, Bernstein turned a rain-delayed NHRA event into a Budweiser sponsorship beginning in 1980. Subsequently, he sold his chain of restaurants and began racing full time, unveiling the first Budweiser King funny car in 1980.

In 1981, with crew chief Ray Alley, Bernstein won national events in the NHRA, IHRA, and the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA). Dale Armstrong became crew chief for the Budweiser King race team in 1982. With Armstrong's mechanical acumen and a large research and development budget, the team scorched opponents with clutch-management, aerodynamic, and fuel-system innovations. Bernstein won the NHRA Funny Car Division four consecutive times from 1985 to 1988. In the mid-1980s he formed a National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing (NASCAR) team, a company to distribute onboard computers to gather race car data, a public-relations business, and an Indy Car team.

In 1988 driver Ricky Rudd won Bernstein his first NASCAR race. Two years later, in 1990, Bernstein switched from funny car to top fuel and in 1996 won the NHRA Top Fuel World Championship. In 1994 driver Scott Goodyear won Bernstein his first Indy Car race, making him the first car owner to win races in Indy Car, NASCAR, and NHRA. In 1997 Lee Beard replaced Armstrong as crew chief and helped Bernstein continue his winning streak. On 8 November 2000 Bernstein married longtime girlfriend Sheryl Johnson. The next year, Tim Richards replaced Beard as crew chief.

Bernstein has won six world championships and over seventy national events, mostly in NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car Divisions. He has also attained many racing firsts. He became the first driver to win national events and set national records in the NHRA, IHRA, and AHRA in one season (1981). In the Bud King funny car, he was the first driver to win the Big Bud Shootout and the NHRA U.S. Nationals in the same weekend (1983). In March 1984 and August 1986, Bernstein became the first funny car driver to exceed 260 miles per hour and 270 miles per hour in the quarter-mile, respectively. He also became the first driver to break the 5.5-second and 5.4-second quarter-mile barriers, in September 1986 and April 1987, respectively. On 20 March 1992 Bernstein drove his top-fuel dragster to 301.7 miles per hour, becoming the first driver to exceed 300 in the quarter-mile, a speed he doubted was possible three years earlier. Bernstein was also first to exceed 310 miles per hour and to win NHRA championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car divisions. On 8 April 2001, he and his son became the NHRA's first father-and-son pair to win classes at the same national event. Bernstein set a new NHRA top-fuel national record of 4.477 seconds at 330.88 miles per hour on 2 June 2001.

The cars that set such records are astonishing. They usually have supercharged 500-cubic-inch V-8 engines that produce approximately 6,000 horsepower using ninety percent nitromethane fuel. They accelerate from zero to one hundred miles per hour in eight-tenths of a second. During races, Bernstein experiences a force of roughly five Gs during acceleration and negative five Gs when parachutes open to slow his car. These forces have caused stars such as Don Garlits and Joe Amato to experience detached retinas, which forced them to quit driving.

Bernstein is a superb driver whose starting-line presence intimidates opponents. He plans to retire after the 2002 race season, when his son will become driver of the Bud King dragster. "I think there's two things that I want to be remembered for," Bernstein said. "One was obviously the 300 mile-per-hour barrier.… I also hope the business side is remembered for us bringing in [Budweiser as a sponsor]." As in his youth, fast cars and successful sales continue to exhilarate King Kenny.

Highlights of Bernstein's career can be found in Tony Sakkis, Drag Racing Legends (1996); Robert C. Post, High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing 1950–2000 (2001); and in Terry Spohn, ed., The Fast Lane: The History of NHRA Drag Racing (2001). Articles about Bernstein include "Budweiser's Beasts: Strong Brew for the '80s," Car Craft (July 1980); "Kenny Bernstein 'Bud' Bound for 1981 Season," National Dragster (5 Dec. 1980); Leonard Emanuelson, "Kenny Bernstein's Chelsea King Funny Car," Popular Hot Rodding Yearbook (1980); Sam Moses, "Three for the Money," Sports Illustrated (18 Apr. 1988); Michael Lutfy, "Innerview: Kenny Bernstein," Drag Racing Magazine (June 1989); and Michael Lutfy, "Innerview: Kenny Bernstein," Drag Racing Magazine (July 1989). The latter two articles comprise an interesting two-part interview with Bernstein. Videos include Kenny Bernstein: 20 Years Bud King, by Diamond P. Sports, and King of Speed. Additional highlights and statistics of Bernstein's career can be found at <>.

Gary Mason Church