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Bernstein ready to give retirement another try

By Rob Geiger, NHRA.com

"I don't think I'll ever not miss driving the Budweiser King."
– Kenny Bernstein

A year ago, after a driving career that spanned five decades, Top Fuel legend Kenny Bernstein was ready to retire. At least he thought he was ready. As it turned out, Bernstein felt a tad awkward on the sidelines when son Brandon first took over the cockpit of the Budweiser dragster. It was so bad early on that he admits he wasn't even sure where to stand on the starting line.

This time around, a slightly older but infinitely wiser and better prepared Bernstein is ready to embrace the lifestyle of a team owner. But don't underestimate him – the competitive fire is still very much alive and he'll fight as hard as he ever has to put his team on top. It's just that he's come to grips with his new role. And he's figured out where to stand.

A couple of factors have helped Bernstein reach his new level of comfort. First, he has a test run of eight races as a team owner (before Brandon was injured and sidelined for the year) to reflect back on and use as a point of reference. Second, he had an extended, 15-race scratch at the driving itch that ended with a hugely successful run of four victories in the last five races of the season, a much more suitable ending for the "King of Speed" then his initial retirement stumble in 2002.

In the following question and answer session, the six-time series champion and 69-time national event winner talks about the adjustments of going from a driver to a team owner, what he expects to see in the Top Fuel class in 2004, including what ails it, and what it would take for him to drive again.

Q: First off, how is Brandon?
Kenny and Brandon (right) celebrated three wins
and a brief stint at No. 1 before Brandon was sidelined
for the season with a shattered vertebra.

He's absolutely 100-percent healed. He'll get with the doctors again at the first of the year and we're expecting them to give their full blessing at that point. He's doing almost everything and anything that he wants to do. He's even been playing golf when he's out here on the west coast so, physically, he is in great shape. He's been playing golf for a month and a half now and he's continuing the rehab program they set out for him. He's ready.

Q: Why was your first retirement so tough?
I had never done it in my life. In 30-plus years of racing I'd never stood out there on the starting line and just watched, especially when my racecar was running. It was a big adjustment for me. I missed driving the car and the competition tremendously, especially at the very start of the season.

It was a real shock to the system. I went from being a competitor, racing nearly every day and every week and staying in that frame of mind at all times, to being on the sidelines over night. It was almost like stopping something cold turkey. It was much more difficult than I thought it would be.
Bernstein's initial foray into
retirement left him feeling slightly
out of place at the races.
Photo by Mike Fischbeck

I have a lot different feeling now going into this next year, I think for a couple of reasons. One, I have a real good idea what to expect and what it's going to be like. I had started making the adjustments prior to Brandon getting hurt. Second, we had some great success down the stretch once I was driving again and we really finished on a high note, which will certainly lessen the sting.

I'm pretty comfortable with it now. I'm sure I will still miss it. I don't think I'll ever not miss driving the Budweiser King. I absolutely love driving the car. But I think I'm better prepared all the way around than I was one year ago, even though I thought I was ready back then also. I realize now I actually wasn't ready because I just didn't know what to expect.

Q: What will your role be on the team?
This is my company. I'll continue to run it and pay the bills. I'll do all the things I did before. The only thing different is I won't be driving the racecar. If Tim [Richards, crew chief] needs help or wants to talk, I'll be right there for him. Together we'll run the team the best way we see fit and I'll take care of the sponsors and all the things they need. I'll make sure Brandon is doing what he needs to do as the driver and spokesman for the team.

Nothing changes, really, other than me driving the racecar. I'll probably do a few less interviews because Brandon will handle most of those, which he should. Otherwise, it's business as usual.

Q: So fans can still expect to see you at every national event?
Oh yes. We have an obligation for at least two more years with Budweiser. We'll definitely be there. I actually don't have to be at every single event, no, but I'm not the kind of person who would do well if I wasn't there. I'm not a good absentee owner and I certainly don't see me not being there. I probably go nuts if I was somewhere else and the car was racing. I'd need to know everything that was going on at all times. That's just not the way I operate.

Q: Do you expect a landmark year for Top Fuel in 2004?
It's obvious there are four or five cars that will really be in the mix, including a couple or three that are really way out there. I considered [Tony] Schumacher's car and [Connie] Kalitta's two cars to be ahead of all of us at the end of the year. Even though we were able to win four of the last five races, in reality the numbers were being put up by those other cars.
With Brandon back behind the wheel
the Budweiser dragster should be a big-time
player in the 2004 championship chase.

I think we've got some work to do to catch up with some of those guys. We'll be okay; it's just that it's going to be a tremendous battle for the Top Fuel crown, probably as tough as it's ever been in the past. For the last few years it's been two cars – the blue car and the red car. Now there are four or five others coming on pretty hard.

It's going to be very exciting with Scott and Doug Kalitta, Schumacher, our car, [Larry] Dixon's car, just go on down the list and you can see that it's going to be good. At the same time, if we're not careful, there could be a little separation at the top with a couple of these guys if they can maintain that little advantage they showed at the end of the year.

Q: What would you change about Top Fuel?
The oildown problem has become pretty major in Top Fuel, Funny Car, and the alcohol classes, for that matter. In many ways oildowns are killing the sport, certainly on television and for the fans. We all need to work in that area to really curtail this problem.
Bernstein and his father Bert share a laugh.

The worse thing in the world happened at the last race in Pomona when, on live TV, they're showing the last few rounds but they run out of time before they can get the finals on the air because massive oildowns that happened in the first round put the whole day's schedule behind. People at home are watching for two hours and then right when it gets to the finals they have to break away because we're out of time. So no one knows who won. Things like that are killing us and they're killing the TV program too.

We've got to do something to make this better. We just can't keep going in this direction and let these oildowns slow us down like this. We've got to do something to fix it right now.

Q: Is there any scenario where you'd drive again?
Well, I did learn that you never say never so I'm not going to say that I'll never get back in a racecar because that just can't be said at this stage of the game. I feel very comfortable in a racecar. I'm in good health. I think all the means are still there to do the job right. We proved that at the last four or five races of the year. Physically, I'm able to do it and I do enjoy it, so I just don't want to rule it out. But right now, as we stand here today, I don't see anything that says I'm going to be in a racecar next year by any means. So the answer is no.

What would it take to do it? I don't know. It would have to be something where we had the necessary dollars and enough time to plan for that team and to get it in shape and hire the right people, then I might consider it. But that's a long way off at this stage and not something I'm pursuing on a day-to-day basis by any means.

This story is copyright 2003 National Hot Rod Association. It may not be reprinted or retransmitted in any form without the express written permission of NHRA.com.

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