FAREWELL TOUR 2002
Kenny Bernstein's Most Memorable
Kenny Bernstein did not win that event, but what the Budweiser King did accomplish not only qualifies as his Most Memorable Gatornationals but also as the most memorable event in his long and honor-filled driving career.
For it was on that sunny Florida day, March 20, 1992, that Bernstein lined up in the left lane for his second qualifying shot of the day. At 4:44 p.m., the red and white rocket launched from the starting line alongside Al Segrini, who smoked the tires, giving Bernstein center stage in the first pairing of that session.
Just 4.82 seconds later, Bernstein crossed the finish line, and the numbers that flashed on the Coca-Cola scoreboard signified the shot heard 'round the racing world. Bernstein had not only captured the No. 1 qualifying spot with the quickest run in history, 4.823, but also ensured himself a prominent and permanent place in drag racing history by cruising through the speed traps at 301.70 mph, thus becoming the first driver of a piston-powered, wheel-driven race car to exceed 300 mph.
Bernstein's run brought the house down and earned him a $50,000 bonus as the first member of the newly created Slick 50 300-mph Club for an accomplishment that Slick 50, in its promotional material, had characterized as "the motorized version of the four-minute mile."
The race to the 300-mph barrier was a major focus of the early 1992 season. Entering the year, the best speed ever recorded was 296.05, recorded more than a year earlier by the late Gary Ormsby at Heartland Park Topeka in Sept. 1990. Mike Dunn finally surpassed the mark with a run of 297.12 mph at the 1992 Slick 50 Nationals, the event that preceded the Gatornationals. At that same event, Bernstein had run 296.93 and reset the national record at 4.84.
Over the winter, Bernstein and crew chief Dale Armstrong, who had teamed to become the first to exceed 260 and 270 mph in a Funny Car, added Wes Cerny to the Budweiser team. Armstrong had always believed that dragsters were capable of running 10 mph faster than their Funny Car counterparts, and when Roland Leong's Cerny-tuned entry ran in excess of 290 mph in 1991, Cerny's expertise became a desired element in the Bud camp's tune-up.
Bernstein's 296-mph blast in Houston had dropped two cylinders, so Armstrong and Cerny spent the 10 days between the events working on the magnetos to improve their spark capability.
Bernstein opened qualifying in Gainesville with a 4.91 at 291.26 mph Thursday, though Pat Austin reset Bernstein's 1991 track record of 289.57 with a charge of 292.39. After Bernstein shook the tires on his Friday morning pass, Armstrong actually took power out of the Bud King before its historic pass. It was definitely a case of less being more. The run might have topped 302 mph had the engine not dropped a cylinder four-tenths of a second, or about 200 feet, from the finish line.
Bernstein's 4.82 held for the No. 1 spot in what was a record-quick field. That season's Rookie of the Year, 19-year-old Dannielle DePorter, qualified for her first field and occupied the bubble spot with a 5.068.
Bernstein opened eliminations with a 4.88 at 298.30 to beat DePorter, followed by a 4.87 at 299.30 mph that not only put Tommy Johnson Jr. on the trailer but also backed up the 301 as the new national speed record.
Bernstein's wild weekend got even wilder in the semifinals, where he faced Michael Brotherton, whose mount went up in smoke early in the run. Two hundred feet downtrack, Bernstein's dragster launched into a power wheelstand and broke the right front A-arm on its return to terra firma, folding the front tire onto its side. Not hearing or seeing Brotherton, Bernstein bravely tromped back onto the throttle and powered across the finish line at 263 mph on three wheels to get the win.
The man who did win the Gatornationals that year, Eddie Hill, was Bernstein's final-round opponent. Hill, the first Top Fuel driver to record a four-second pass, was bitterly disappointed that he was not able to be the first to top 300, but he made up for it in eliminations, where he posted elapsed times of 4.89, 4.80, and 4.84 to make the final; the 4.80 supplanted Bernstein's 4.82 as the sport's quickest and gave Hill the national e.t. record.
Hill, who had not won a national event for three years, remained steady in the final with another 4.84 while Bernstein went up in smoke. Both drivers left Florida with glory, but there's little doubt that Bernstein's glory was longer lasting and an indelible entry into drag racing's history books.