Commentary

Bernstein steps away from Funny Car cockpit -- again

What does drag-racing legend Kenny Bernstein have left to prove? Apparently nothing. That's why he's turning the Monster Energy/Lucas Oil Funny Car keys over to veteran Tommy Johnson Jr.

Updated: December 6, 2007, 3:27 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | ESPN.com

If you're not sure if Kenny Bernstein's remarkable drag racing journey is headed in the proper direction, here's a valuable piece of advice:

Just wait a minute.

The King of Speed has enjoyed a legendary career spawned on the dusty, bucks-down asphalt ribbons in western Texas that passed for drag strips back in the 1970s, when he first tasted the exhilaration of nitro racing. The twisty, serpentine path of his exploits is now familiar to any card-carrying student of NHRA history as Bernstein totaled four consecutive Funny Car championships in the 1980s and two Top Fuel titles in the 1990s.

[+] EnlargeKenny Bernstein
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireKenny Bernstein will hand the controls of the Monster Energy/Lucas Oil Funny Car to Tommy Johnson Jr. in 2008.

Of course, his landmark 300-mph pass in 1992 was the single most reverberating achievement of any racer in the NHRA's 56-year history.

But his résumé goes into an utter Gordian knot when you trace his footsteps from 2002 until today. His first attempt at retirement in 2002 was highlighted by his "Forever Red -- A Run To Remember" tour, but in May 2003, his son Brandon's crash in Englishtown, N.J., put Kenny back in the driver's seat and reignited the 63-year-old's passionate urges to return to the cockpit permanently.

It was last year when he assembled a new-from-the-ground-up Monster Energy/Lucas Oil Funny Car team, and while his 2007 season resulted in an uneven campaign, it nonetheless proved that he had lost none of the skills necessary to compete in a category that had grown enormously faster and frighteningly more powerful since the last time he raced in F/C in 1989. That fact was never more evident than in September at the Texas Motorplex -- in the state where he cut his teeth in the nitro ranks -- when he avoided serious injury by maintaining control of his wounded fuel coupe after 14-time POWERade champion John Force collided with it at over 300 mph.

And then, on the afternoon of Dec. 4, Bernstein's career shifted yet again in another direction when he made the surprise announcement that next year, veteran Tommy Johnson Jr. will take over the controls of the Monster Energy/Lucas Oil machine, ushering in the third, and perhaps final, transition from owner/driver to owner for one of the sport's most resilient and venerated personalities.

"I was only contemplating driving one more year," Bernstein explained, "but when Tommy became available at the end of the '07 season, we started to give the situation a lot of thought. We've been fortunate to win six championships, 69 races, and we have some milestone performance marks, chief among them, becoming the first to crack the 300-mph barrier.

"I guess we can always look to win one more race or one more championship, but in reality, I've had a great career and many talented crew members who have helped mold my success through the years. For me at this stage of my life, the right decision is to step away from the cockpit."

Johnson was released from Snake Racing at the end of the 2007 season after seven years at the wheel of a nitro Funny Car for Don "The Snake" Prudhomme. At the season-ending event in Pomona, Calif., in November, Johnson was less than hopeful that he would find a competitive ride in 2008.

"It's tough," he said at the time. "I've had to go out and find my own deals in the past [referring to his experience as a team owner in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s when he and his family raced a Top Fuel Dragster] and it's not something I'm looking forward to doing again. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that something comes along for next year."

Johnson's good luck ritual may have worked; the offer from Bernstein will keep the popular driver on the tour in 2008 with a team that has the talent and resources to win races. He and Bernstein appear to be a good fit and, coincidentally, are two of an elite brotherhood of NHRA national event winners who have won event titles in both Top Fuel and Funny Car.

"We chose Tommy because he is a quality driver, likable person, and he understands the corporate nature of our business," Bernstein said. "He also has ties to Lucas Oil and Mac Tools which certainly fit right into our sponsor alignment. We've enjoyed a lot of accolades in our career. Now it's time for me to take a step back, continue to guide Brandon's career, and be there to help and support Tommy.

"It's been a good ride and we owe a debt of gratitude to numerous people who have contributed to our success through the years," Bernstein added. "Perhaps I can repay that debt and contribute to the success of others."

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com