Bernstein battles back from horrific crash

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com

   BRISTOL -- After a rookie season of highs and an almost fatal low, Brandon Bernstein is ready to defend his Top Fuel title at Bristol Dragway.
   Bernstein grabbed his first top qualifying position, set two track records and picked up his third and final victory of his opening year in last year's NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals.
   The son of six-time NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series World Champion Kenny Bernstein took the reins from his father going into the season and took his first points lead after that race.
   But two events later, all of that changed.
   On May 18 of last season in Englishtown, N.J., Bernstein was involved in one of the most gruesome accidents in recent memory.
   "What actually happened, was the car smoked some tires and basically all I did was try to get to the finish line," Bernstein reminisced Tuesday at The Vineyard in Bristol, Va. "I kept going on and on the throttle. It just got to the point where it was out of control and I was just along for the ride."
   "When it hit the wall, I just felt my back immediately. The pain in my back, it was excruciating," he said. "When it hit the wall, it rode the wall and went down on the other side."
   The near-fatal crash forced Bernstein to sit out the rest of the season after the injury to his T-3 vertebra, spending months in a brace.
   "I knew that my back was pretty messed up and I had to be in a brace 24/7 for five months straight," he said. "The recovery time was six months before it was fully healed. Then I spent two to three months of really hard rehab, just getting strong again."
   "I've never seen it and I don't really care to see it," he added. "It's not something that I would want to. If I was knocked out and didn't know what happen, maybe. But I was conscious throughout the whole thing."
   From there, his father came back out of retirement and stepped back into the dragster to win four of the last five races.
   Looking back on the incident, Brandon believes the wreck was a good thing for his father, who got a proper send off.
   "I think the wreck was a blessing in disguise," Bernstein said. "He really was missing driving at the beginning of last year, then when we had the wreck, he got back in the car and did so well. He kind of went out on top."
   "He won the last four out of five races," he said. "That's pretty stout and he showed everybody that he could still drive this thing and he wanted to drive the thing."
   "He also realized that he's done this for 20-something years and that it was a time 'I could let it go.' He really was comfortable with it at that point. He's been more comfortable (this season) and (has) taken a little more time to enjoy retirement."
   After his period of rehabilitation, Brandon began the 2004 schedule with a solid boost. In the second event of the season at Phoenix, Bernstein emerged in victory lane.
   "To come out and win the second race was big for our team," Bernstein said. "It shows us that we're here again and it's not over."
   Two weeks ago, he battled back to second place in the points and last week, Bernstein won the NHRA SummitRacing.com Nationals.
   It sets the stage for a possible repeat at Bristol. The Texas native is looking forward to the event.
   "I'm excited about coming back to Bristol. Obviously, this was a great track last year and we're really excited about coming back and being defending champions," said Bernstein, whose 328.28 mile-per-hour run last year ranks first all-time at the track.
   "It's always kind of special to come back to a track you've won at," he said. "We're looking forward to it and we're running great now, we're second in points and we hope to continue it."
   Bernstein will race a special paint scheme featuring a special "Born On" commemorative paint scheme at Bristol, highlighting Anheuser-Busch's commitment to fresh beverages through the "Born On" date found on every package.
   He has spent the season chasing Tony Schumacher and the U.S. Army team, who has won the other three Top Fuel events this season. He sits 38 points behind the eighth-year driver.
   "He's doing great," Bernstein said of Schumacher. "That's a great team over there. To get the championship, you have to consistently be in the finals or semi-finals almost every time. You've got to accumulate the points and that's what we're trying to do."
   Defending back-to-back champion Larry Dixon and his Miller Lite unit has struggled early in the year, holding onto fifth in the standings.
   Brandon spoke about the importance of winning early before a team like Dixon's makes a late-season push towards the top.
   "(Good finishes) are extremely important because you know that team's not going to lay down. He's going to get it and they're going to come back," he said.
   Last year's Bristol victor Del Worsham has rode two victories to the top of the Funny Car standings at this point, while Gary Densham sits 85 points back in second. Multi-time Champion John Force is fourth in the current standings.
   In Pro Stock, your usual crew of contenders are scattered in the top five. Greg Anderson has won four events this year, holding a 106 point lead over last year's Thunder Valley winner Kurt Johnson.
   Larry Morgan and Jeg Coughlin are tied for third, while the legendary Warren Johnson is in fifth.
   As far as support goes, Bernstein has seen a chunk of his fathers fans going in his direction. In light of Bernstein Racing's 25th year with Budweiser, he hopes that new fans will grow into the sport and follow his team.
   "Obviously, my father has a big name in this sport and we're just trying to keep that going. Hopefully, we can get the next generation of fans," he said.
   The popularity of the sport has increased, with ESPN signing a new contract to cover the popular sport. ESPN2 will carry qualifying highlights on Saturday, May 1 at 7:30 p.m., while three hours of final round elimenations begin at 4 p.m. on May 2nd.
   The event has doubled ticket sales for the second year in a row. Bristol Dragway officials were very pleased with the interest in the fourth-annual event.
   "From what I've heard on advanced ticket sales, it's doubled again, and that's amazing. Bristol and this area is amazing," said Bernstein. "It's a magnificent facility and it's really cool to come here. The fans are amazing and it's a great race."
   Sportsman qualifying begins at 8 a.m. on April 30 and May 1, while pre-race ceremonies begin at 11 a.m. on May 2.
   Tickets are still available and each entrance includes a pit pass. For tickets call Bristol Dragway at (423) 764-1161 or by the web at bristoldragway.com.