- Bill Stephens
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They all have different reasons for doing it. One was bored with retirement; another wanted to relive the exhilaration of nitro racing and better understand the demands of today's Funny Car racers to relate more closely to his drag racing school students; and one was pressed into service at the last minute to fill in for the scheduled driver.
But in the end, they all proved they still have it.
In the past two seasons on the NHRA POWERade tour, Kenny Bernstein, Frank Hawley and Mark Oswald returned to the driver's seat of 8,000-horsepower Funny Cars after lengthy absences from the cockpit. The three veteran drag racers represent a combined seven NHRA F/C world championships, and they have diverged into totally dissimilar career paths since their on-track exploits.
Bernstein, 63, planned to retire from the driving duties of his Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster at the end of 2002, but when his son, Brandon, suffered a serious crash in May 2003 in Englishtown, N.J., the six-time POWERade champion (four consecutive titles between 1985 and '88 in Funny Car and 1996 and 2001 honors in Top Fuel) returned to action and realized he hadn't shaken the driving bug just yet.
"I was bored," admitted the King of Speed at the time. "Driving was the most enjoyable part of my job, and going to the races strictly as a team owner and to give Brandon my help and support didn't fill the void I felt from not racing anymore. When he got hurt and I got the chance to drive again, I realized I wasn't quite ready to hang up my helmet."
Last year, Bernstein returned to the Funny Car class full time for the first time since 1989 with a new team and new sponsor, Monster Energy Drink. It was a struggle to find consistency and success -- especially relative to his dominance earlier in his legendary career. When he and 14-time POWERade champion John Force were involved in a frightening, top-end accident in Dallas in September, Bernstein not only displayed uncanny driving skill by maintaining control of his race car but clearly reassessed his decision to continue driving. He handed the in-car assignment to Tommy Johnson Jr. at the end of 2007.
Hawley, 53, won back-to-back Funny Car championships in 1982 and 1983, along with the inaugural Skoal Showdown (then called the Big Bud Shootout) in Indianapolis in '82. After retiring in 1991, he worked briefly as a pit reporter for NHRA television coverage produced by Diamond P Sports, while continuing to operate the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway, a school he had opened in 1985. Later, he added a branch at AAA Raceway in Pomona, Calif.
Earlier this year, Hawley was offered the seat at selected NHRA national events in one of two fuel coupes being campaigned by Mike Ashley and Roger Burgess of Gotham City Racing. Hawley has competed at three races in '08, and his most impressive outing so far was at the recent O'Reilly Summer Nationals in Topeka, Kan., an event at which he had not originally been slated to drive. When Ashley, who had been planning to race, was called away at the last minute because of a sudden business obligation, Hawley climbed into Ashley's machine, qualified No. 3 and ran the quickest elapsed time in F/C eliminations in Round 1, narrowly being beaten by points leader Tim Wilkerson on a holeshot. Wilkerson's margin of victory: 8 inches.
"Well, obviously any loss is bad, and if you think you didn't do your job, it makes it even worse," Hawley said. "I just wasn't the fastest guy off the starting line in the first round, which cost us the win."
Meanwhile, 56-year-old Oswald, the 1984 NHRA Funny Car champ, found himself in a similar situation at the Torco Racing Fuels Nationals at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., last weekend. Ashley -- again at the last minute -- was forced to miss the event because of a business commitment, and Oswald, the team's co-crew chief with Brian Corradi and Aaron Brooks, was conscripted to handle fill-in duties.
The former driver of a string of memorable Top Fuel and Funny Cars owned and maintained by the fabled team of Paul Candies and Leonard Hughes quickly shook off any cobwebs that might have accumulated since he retired from active driving duty in 1996, qualified No. 2 behind low qualifier and teammate Melanie Troxel -- for whom Oswald normally serves as tuner -- and just missed advancing to the semifinals when he lost to eventual race winner Tony Pedregon in Round 2 by a scant two-thousandths of a second.
"Naturally, when I got the call on Thursday night, I was nervous because I haven't made any runs this year at all and a very few last year," said Oswald, who occasionally makes test passes for the Gotham City team. "As we did better and better throughout the weekend, I was fine.
"Honestly, that was a lot of fun."
Beating boredom, looking for that long-lost adrenaline rush while being better able to teach new drag racers the ropes or coming in off the bench to fill a suddenly vacant driver's seat, Bernstein, Hawley and Oswald have lost little of their racing skills, competitive fire or passion for the sport while standing on the quarter-mile sideline in their post-championship years.
All three might be a little longer in the tooth and getting a bit more gray around the temples, but each remains a lean, mean fighting machine.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.