Bernstein basking in the glow of legendary career

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   "This is unbelievable," said 6-time NHRA Champion Kenny Bernstein as he was paid tribute with a dinner at Bristol Dragway Thursday night. "When you have something like this that comes from your friends, that is really special. I'm very much moved by this whole night."
   Later, the disbelief grew when Bernstein became the first drag racer at the Bristol motorsports complex to have a grandstand named in his honor.
   It was fitting for a driver who holds 62 NHRA career event wins and recently scored a 600th career-round win. In 1992, Bernstein became the first driver to break the magical 300-mph barrier. Also of note, Bernstein's 23-year affiliation with Budweiser is the longest running active sponsorship in motorsports.
   "This 23-year run has been very special," said Bernstein, who lives along California's famed Pacific Coast Highway. "As a young kid growing up in Texas, I could have only dreamed about this. We've been fortunate through the years to have a lot of accomplishments. It reminds you of where you came from, where you got to and how you got there."
   Several of those close to Bernstein made speeches in honor of the only driver to win World Titles in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car divisions. Included in these was local businessman Stuart Wood, who told of how Kenny flew from California to East Tennessee a day early, to meet with Holston Distributing employees in Johnson City on Wednesday.
   Wood also bore gifts that included an honorary jersey from ETSU men's head basketball Ed DeChellis. Another of the speeches was made by former rival 11-time NHRA Funny Car Champion John Force.
   "Kenny really set the standard," said Force about Bernstein. "He showed us it just wasn't about having stickers on the side of the race car. He showed us how to love the sport, how to market it and how to work the media. I'm very proud to be his friend."
   Mentioning his business success, at one time, Bernstein simultaneously owned a NASCAR Winston Cup, Indy Car and NHRA team back in the late 80's. He also owned the largest sporting marketing company in the United States at one time.
   BMS general manager Jeff Byrd was pleased the dragway could pay tribute to one of racing's finest. "At the Speedway, fans readily identify the grandstands by the legendary drivers for which they are named," said Byrd. "Now we bring that same approach to Bristol Dragway with the dedication of the Kenny Bernstein Grandstand."
   This weekend at Bristol provides a challenge as the track is sporting a new racing surface. "It's hard to say how this will affect us," said Bernstein. "It looks like the track is as smooth as silk, which is very important to us. Over the next day and a half, the rubber will come on it when the big cars get on there and help it go.
   "I don't think we should be overly concerned about it. We have the best crew chief in the world in Tim Richards. He will get it figured out as will the other guys."
   Asked who he expects the toughest competition to come from this weekend at the MAC Tools Thunder Valley Nationals, Bernstein replied with the names of beer car rival Larry Dixon, defending race champion Doug Kalitta and Tony Schumacher.
   Bernstein is currently racing in his last season of his legendary career, nicknamed the Forever Red, A Run to Remember Tour. After his final quarter-mile pass, Kenny will turn over the keys to his son, Brandon, who has been building his own credentials in the NHRA support classes. Bernstein isn't leaving the seat on a downslide like many other motorsports legends. His seventh career World Championship (6 NHRA, 1 IHRA) came last season when Bernstein edged out Dixon.
   "Any athlete of any kind, whether it be Michael Jordan or A.J. (Foyt) or Darrell Waltrip would love to go out being competitive," stated Bernstein. "The word is being competitive. Sure, you'd like to win the championship too, but being competitive makes you feel you're still capable of doing it. I'm comfortable with everything this year. If we win the championship, it's icing on the cake. Everybody knows I can still do the job.
   "All you have to do in your life is look in the mirror when you're shaving and say that I did the best that I could. If you can answer that honestly and say, 'I did", that's all you can ask for."