Bernstein decides to give Funny Car another go
Retirement has never agreed with the "King of Speed."
Kenny Bernstein's announcement last Friday at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis could be classified by some as a surprise, but it falls far short of a genuine shock to those who know what makes this great drag racing champion tick. Bernstein's new multiyear deal with the makers of Monster Energy drink will put him into a nitro Funny Car for the first time since 1989, ending a brief period of retirement for the first man to travel 300 mph on the quarter-mile.
Bernstein's son, Brandon, will continue to campaign the Budweiser/Lucas Oil Top Fuel dragster next year as his legendary dad -- who turned 62 on Wednesday -- makes yet another return as a driver four years after filling in for his son following Brandon's serious crash in Englishtown, N.J.
Kenny officially retired as a driver at the end of the 2002 season, unaware that he would soon be pressed into service. However, from the earliest moments of his retirement, as he was making the transition from team owner/driver to strictly a team owner, Kenny Bernstein made no secret of the fact that driving a race car was something he missed very much.
"I thrive on competition and I still love the sport," said Bernstein. "I've been searching for the perfect opportunity and the perfect sponsor to field a competitive team to get back into the sport, and Monster Energy drinks provided the ideal scenario. I'm as excited as I was the first time I ever sat in a Funny Car."
Thirty years ago, Kenny moved from driving locally owned Top Fuel dragsters where he grew up in West Texas to his own Funny Car team. He signed a primary sponsorship deal with Budweiser for the 1980 season and eventually won four consecutive NHRA Funny Car championships between 1985 and 1988, only the second driver in history to reach that milestone.
After switching back to Top Fuel in 1990, he became the first driver to win championships in both nitro categories with his Top Fuel crown in 1996, followed by another title in 2001 -- the 50th anniversary year for the NHRA.
During the 2005 season, Kenny had entered discussions with team owners Ken Black and Connie Kalitta about a return to a Top Fuel driver's seat, competing in the nitro dragster that ultimately became the ride for rookie Hillary Will. But the obvious conflicts that would have been created with both Bernsteins racing in the same category for different sponsors ended that possibility.
So why, after six championships, 69 career victories, a body of work any drag racer would be infinitely proud of and the given responsibilities of guiding his son's racing career, would Kenny choose to climb back into a Funny Car?
"It's been no secret that it's been difficult for me to sit on the sidelines," he said. "I've been in the cockpit for so many years that at first, I couldn't even find a comfortable spot to stand at the starting line. And I really missed the competitive side. I can't explain the rush and the kick you get from driving a 330 mph nitro car down a quarter-mile, but that's a feeling you can't replace or find a substitute for.
"Thankfully, I've been blessed with good health and still feel that I can be very competitive."
What is Brandon Bernstein's take? Their father-son relationship is a tightly knit bond that has become even closer since Brandon moved into the cockpit of the race car once occupied by his dad. Does the younger Bernstein approve of his father's decision?
"I know he still has the itch to drive," said Brandon, "and this is about the best scenario you could ever hope for because Monster is connected to Anheuser-Busch. He has coached me and helped me through the learning curve of driving the Top Fuel car and I talk to him after every run. I'm sure we'll have even more information to trade now that he'll be driving."
A surprise? Yes, to the extent that there was some question whether a viable sponsorship agreement would materialize for a retired former champion whose age is far beyond the youth-oriented marketing demographics of most corporate dealmakers.
A shock? Not really, because retirement hasn't successfully extinguished the competitive wildfire that constitutes a major component of Kenny Bernstein's personality.
Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.