by Jon Asher
It's far too easy to define Kenny Bernstein: He's the consummate drag racer – but he is so very much more than that. He's an organizational wizard, a marketing genius and a self-made man. And we should insert right here that his motorsports successes haven't been confined to the straight and narrow. He has also been a winner at the top levels of NASCAR and open wheel racing as a team owner, and you don't climb to those plateaus without having a lot of intestinal fortitude, dedication and desire. He has 'em all –in spades.
In addition to the staggering number of personal honors earned by Bernstein during his stellar career, no other competitor or team owner can match his 30 year tenure with a single major sponsor (Budweiser). That speaks volumes about the man's persona and integrity, for no amount of winning alone keeps a sponsor involved for three decades. Ironically, during Bernstein's initial years with America's largest brewer he was not a particularly successful racer, often being listed among the DNQs (Did Not Qualify), prompting some of his peers to suggest that "Pretty soon this Bud's gonna be for someone else!" What those short-sighted rivals failed to realize was that despite his lack of victories, Bernstein was delivering massive amounts of print and electronic media coverage for his sponsor – an often far more important result than simply winning. Bernstein's quarterly clipping report often ran to hundreds of pages, something the decision-makers in St. Louis paid close attention to. Bernstein may not be a public relations genius, but he's been smart enough to have not only studied the positive aspects of such efforts, he's consistently hired people who are, and then let them run the show – with his considerable input.
A successful manager is one who understands the value and importance of delegating authority, and Kenny's always been a master of that concept. It's one reason his towing business in Dallas grew from a single truck to almost a dozen before he sold it at considerable profit. He used the same concept in the formation of the college-themed Chelsea Street Pub eateries. From a single entity in Austin grew a national chain, again sold at considerable profit. What does this have to do with his racing successes? More than you might think.
When Bernstein appeared with his first full time Funny Car – this after having driven dragsters and Funny Cars on a part-time basis – it was a flawlessly prepared machine without a single aftermarket logo on its flanks. When sponsor reps approached him about the money he might win by displaying their logos, he responded by suggesting that if they wanted to be affiliated with his operation they would have to pay for the privilege. Hard nosed, yes, but the right way of doing things? Emphatically yes, because in the years that followed their investment in Bernstein paid off big-time with reams of positive publicity, such as the nationwide exposure that resulted from his becoming the first driver to break the 300 mph barrier on March 20, 1992. Or that which resulted from his becoming the first driver in NHRA history to win championships in both Funny Car and Top Fuel. In all, he would earn seven World Championships by way of 89 national event victories. At the time of his retirement Bernstein was considered one of the best pure drivers in drag racing history
Bernstein's off-track honors include numerous appearances on the Car Craft Magazine All-Star Drag Racing Team in the driver categories, and he was also named Person of the Year (along with tuners Dale Armstrong and Wes Cerny) in 1992 and later, again with Armstrong, was presented with the prestigious "Ollie" Award for his career-long contributions to drag racing in 1996.
Kenny also earned a place on the AARWBA All-American Team on numerous occasions, and was inducted into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006 and the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in '07.
During his tenure in NASCAR Kenny visited the winners circle at Watkins Glen with driver Ricky Rudd in 1988 and again at Infineon Raceway the following season. In '92 driver Roberto Guerrero drove Bernstein's Buick-powered car to the Indy 500 pole, and two years later Scott Goodyear earned Bernstein the winner's trophy at the Michigan 500.
Long the voice of reason in drag racing's PRO – the Professional Racers Owners Organization – Bernstein remains a member of the Board despite having stepped down as president last year.
It's not like he has nothing to do these days. On the contrary, he remains directly involved in the increasingly successful career of his son Brandon, who has already scored 17 victories in six-plus short seasons.
A still-youthful and enthusiastic 64, Kenny Bernstein is destined to remain a force in motorsports for a long time to come. He's too dedicated and too professional to be relegated to retirement. His experience and thoughtful approach make him too valuable to lose.