Fast times at Bristol Dragway

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff

   BRISTOL -- Whoever said that father knows best, obviously forgot to talk to Brandon Bernstein.
   In what has shaped up to be the fastest and most exciting weekend in Bristol Dragway history, Bernstein crushed the old track record set by his father Kenny two years ago. The younger Bernstein rocketed down the quarter-mile in his Budweiser Top Fuel dragster with an elapsed time of 4.530 seconds and 328.22 miles per hour. Those numbers easily topped the old marks of 4.574 seconds and 323.27 mph to be number one qualifier for the 2003 MAC Tools Thunder Valley Nationals.
   "It was an awesome run," said Bernstein a rookie on the NHRA Powerade Tour, who scored his first No. 1 qualifier about the fast pass. "It lifted the front wheels off the ground and they stayed at about the same height. Once it set the tires down, it was an awesome feeling.
   "I love this track. It's a lot of fun racing here. It was the first time I had been down this track, but it's beautiful here."
   The second fastest qualifier and defending race champion Larry Dixon emerged from a miraculous crash in the final run. His dragster's rear wing came apart and sent his car careening into the left guardwall. Showering sparks, the car came apart sending his car slamming into the other guardwall.
   "It felt like the tire let go or something like that," said Dixon. "I pulled the chute to keep the car from coming around, but obviously it didn't come out on time. I'm fine. We have another car and we will race tomorrow and get after it."
   Bernstein winning the No. 1 qualifier, ended a streak of five straight for MAC Tools driver Doug Kalitta. Dixon wasn't the only one to place his name in the record books. Tony Pedregon in the Castrol Oil Funny Car Pedregon beat his own mark from a season ago, taking the time down from 4.844 seconds to a new quick time of 4.765 seconds.
   "There's a lot of history of here at Thunder Valley and it's awesome to become a part of that," said Pedregon. "Last year, we set low e.t., but got beat in the first round. Still, it's a great position to be in. It shows the caliber of car we have to qualify like that."
   Second and third place in qualifying were teammates Gary Densham, who set a new speed record for that division with a speed of 325.06 miles per hour, and teammate and 12-time NHRA champion John Force, respectively.
   Force's third-place qualifying run matches his best of the season, which occurred earlier at Phoenix.
   In the other major division, defending Pro Stock race champion Warren Johnson set fast time with a run of 6.892 seconds or 200.24 mph in Saturday's final session. He added to a record he already holds with his 129th career No. 1 qualifier, tops all-time among all professional drivers.
   "We looked at the track after they pressure washed it and it was completely clean," said Johnson. "The race track isn't really what we expected of it. If we are lucky tomorrow we will have some cloud cover and it won't change the track too drastically."
   Second qualifier in the Pro Stock division was former Johnson crew chief and 2001 race winner Greg Anderson, who posted the top speed of the day at 201.25 mph.
   It quickly became apparent on Friday the conditions were right to shatter old records when Dixon had already broken the old Top Fuel mark with a time of 4.532 seconds in the opening qualifying session.
   Bernstein said despite that fast afternoon run, he knew his team had a chance to best Dixon's time once the sun went down.
   "We knew we had a little leeway there at night to step on it," remarked Bernstein. "Definitely, it (track condition) is better at night, but we've run good in the heat of the day too. So it's kind of like what the set-ups are like and the track is like.
   "We knew coming into this season, this team would be competitive. We had the same guys coming back from last season, but to have this much success this early is a little overwhelming."
   Friday also provided hope and then anxious moments for local entry Allen Johnson in the Pro Stock division. After being 10th fastest in the afternoon session, the Greeneville driver dropped to 19th in the evening runs. Saturday was the day of reckoning with Johnson coming up short only .003 seconds shy of making the 16-car field.
   Meanwhile defending event winner Warren Johnson jumped from 15th in the afternoon to the top of the Pro Stock charts in the evening session, which he would top on the aforementioned Saturday night run.
   Today's eliminations will start at noon, with pre-race ceremonies to be held at 11 a.m..