Flashback Feature: Bernstein recalls IHRA memories with Chelsea King Funny Car
Nov 29, 2011
It was a sandwich.
It was a meat-lover's artery-slammin', pile-it-high gastronomic masterpiece that cartoon character Dagwood Bumstead would have relished but probably would make fitness-conscious Kenny Bernstein faint today.
With three slices of bread framing the stack of corned beef, ham, turkey, pastrami, two kinds of cheese, and lettuce and the whole thing slathered in dressing, it was the signature menu item of the Chelsea Street Pub restaurant chain. It was the Chelsea King. Bernstein, who owned the 17-store Southern-tier restaurant chain, instructed his cooks to use everything in the kitchen, in keeping with his business model: over-deliver.
Ah, but the Chelsea King was something much easier for IHRA fans to digest. It was Bernstein's candy-apple-red Plymouth Arrow Funny Car -- named for the sandwich -- in which he won the IHRA's 1979 Nitro Funny Car championship.
And Bernstein definitely over-delivered. He won in two of his three final-round appearances at the year's seven national events -- un-sponsored and celebrating a return to drag racing after a nearly five-year absence.
He told Sports Illustrated writer Sam Moses back in 1988 that the overwhelming responsibility of managing about 2,700 restaurant employees, most of them between 18 and 22 years old and prone to flitting in and out of the business in the college towns he had targeted for his locations, "was so demanding that I never even thought about racing -- not once in five years."
Bernstein also told Moses that he crashed the Chelsea King twice in the first 25 test runs while adjusting to the much quicker elapsed times and a new phenomenon called tire shake.
Just the same, those days were special for Bernstein, a 1997 Petersen Publishing HOT ROD Magazine's Hall of Fame honoree as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the high-performance auto-racing industry and inducted into the Texas Motor Sports Hall of Fame (2006), Don Garlits International Drag Racing Hall of Fame (2007), and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (2009).
Looking through some black-and-white photographs from his IHRA career, he glanced up, that trademark Bernstein grin stretching spontaneously across his face, and said, "Those were the good old days!"
Who could blame him for saying so?
He came back full-time to drag racing, what he really loved all along, through stints as a college student at Arlington State College (now the University of Texas at Arlington), as a traveling sales representative for the Whistle Stop young ladies fashion line, as a tow-truck service owner, and as a restaurant-chain owner. And IHRA fans had the pleasure of seeing this legend-to-be learning to perfect the art of winning.
Sometimes they had to stay up into the wee hours of the morning, in cold, damp weather to witness it. Anyone who watched the finish of the 1979 Spring Nationals at Bristol, Tenn.'s Thunder Valley Dragway always will remember the experience. Bernstein said, "I'll never forget it as long as I live!"
Said Bernstein, "It rained all day and they would not cancel it. We finished about 2 or 3 in the morning. Then the fog came in and you could barely see the track."
His crew chief was Leroy Goldstein, a man who drove both Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, just as Bernstein would go on to do in milestone-marking fashion. And that bizarre and murky night, as Bernstein prepared to line up for the final round against eventual winner Dale Pulde and his War Eagle, Goldstein had some startling advice for Bernstein.
Goldstein told him to keep it in the groove and stand on the throttle.
"Are you crazy?! Have you lost your mind?!" Bernstein replied.
Goldstein wasn't fazed. "Don't worry," he said. "You'll be able to see as you go down the track."
Bernstein thought he was nuts, but he obeyed his crew chief.
"He was right," Bernstein said. "You could see the center line and the guard rail. I'll never forget it. And I'd never do it again!"
Incidentally, among the winners that foggy East Tennessee morning were Warren Johnson in Pro Stock and Dale Armstrong in Pro Comp. Bernstein and Armstrong would later unite with Bernstein driver of the Budweiser King Dragster and Armstrong the crew chief who orchestrated Bernstein's 1992 feat as "The King of Speed" with the first pass at more than 300 miles an hour.
Bernstein left a 16-9 mark in 25 final rounds in IHRA Funny Car competition, making him third on the career-victories list for that class behind only Pulde (20 victories in 35 finals) and Raymond Beadle (19 in 26). Bernstein was .500 in his IHRA Top Fuel career, winning one of his two final rounds in a dragster.
"Every major guy in the business has been in the IHRA," Bernstein said. "They provided us a place to go race and a chance to earn some money.
"All of us, all of the good cars [teams], ran both," he said, referring to the National Hot Rod Association. "It was a world war every weekend."
And when the IHRA was taking root, it had to contend not only with the NHRA but also with the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA).
"In the 1980s, we ran in the IHRA, NHRA, and AHRA. And we won races in all of em!" he said proudly.
Of the three sanctioning bodies, he said, "All of them were fighting to see who was going to come out on top, who was going to sustain a presence."
Bernstein said that "later in the years, when it got thinner with the cars [car counts], they guaranteed us money. The one who helped me most was Ted Jones."
He watched Jones and IHRA founder Larry Carrier and likewise became a diversified businessman as a team owner. He owned and operated racing teams simultaneously in drag racing, NASCAR, and champ-car racing (IndyCars).
But his IHRA days, when he first was reliving the joy of drag racing, are happy memories for Bernstein, who said drag racing has settled into its niche as the nation's No. 2 motorsport.
Will drag racing return to a level equal with NASCAR for media and fan attention?
"I don't think it'll ever happen," Bernstein said on a recent WFO Radio program, quickly adding, "That's not bad, because the more people exposed to motorsports in general, some will come our way. Some will like this better. There's a great crossover there between NASCAR and drag racing.
"We've got a great niche," he said. "We can move the numbers up a taste and get better."
As far as technology and progress, Bernstein said, "The parts and pieces are better than ever. The knowledge that it takes for the safety side of things is much better. I think it all boils down to the knowledge and experience that we learn every time we get in one of these race cars and we find a better way to get it done and a better way to make it safer."
And still calorie-free.