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Jim Murray

Funny How Driver Came to Funny Cars

November 28, 1986|Jim Murray

Listen! Fed up with the family jalopy, are you? Tired of not having that burst of quick speed when you want to get around a big truck on a crowded highway? Like a little excitement in your Sunday driving?

How about a car that will accelerate from 0 to 100 m.p.h. in 1.2 seconds? That will go from 0 to 271 in 5 seconds?

Of course, we're not talking economy here. What we're talking is a vehicle that gets, oh, say, 50 feet to the gallon. Anyway, look at it this way: It goes a quarter of a mile on 10 gallons.

Also, we're not talking your unleaded regular here. We're talking a tankful that costs $30 a gallon. Some kind of nitro-methane. It can burst into flames if you just snap your fingers too close to it.

Of course, not many people would want to invest $300 just to go a quarter of a mile. But we're also talking people to whom expense is no object. Because the car we're talking about costs nearly as much as a yacht that would sleep six.

It's no wonder they call them "funny cars." They're not half as funny as the people who drive them.

Funny cars, of course, are just hot rods with delusions of grandeur. They are an offshoot of the drag strip competitors, the ones that look at first blush like 250-mile-an-hour insects screaming through a slot and down a measured asphalt track. Actually, these are the funny cars, and the ones they call "funny" really could pass for hunks of Detroit iron and wouldn't get a second look on the Santa Monica freeway.

Under the hood is another story. There, they are seen to be 3,000-horsepower brutes with a fiberglass shell that lifts right off to let the driver in. It's just a kind of rocket with wheels on it.

But, if you think the car is far out, you should see the driver.

Kenny Bernstein doesn't fit any mold you ever preconceived as a hot-rodder, or even a race driver. Most drag racers were youngsters who were lube rats growing up, under or in a car and with either a steering wheel or a lug wrench in their hands from the time they could walk.

Kenny was actually the scion of a department store family, owners of chain outlets all over the Southwest, and his first job was not greasing a hot dragster, it was hawking a line of women's ready-to-wear through the dress shops of Texas and New Mexico.

Kenny couldn't see himself starring in a real life "Death of a Salesman" and he kept slipping off to country tracks from Amarillo to Lubbock to pursue his real love, auto racing.

There was a war going on in Kenny. One side of him wanted to be A.J. Foyt, any Unser, Johnny Rutherford. The other side wanted to be a rich businessman.

So, he did both. He was still schlepping a line of frocks one day in Lubbock, Tex., where he paused in a mall one day looking for a place to get a beer and a sandwich. There wasn't any. Kenny went to the manager. "I'll put one in for you if you'll lease me the space."

That was the start of a chain of fast-food shops called The Chelsea Street Pubs, where Kenny made his first million on the way to a 21-store, $17-million-a-year business.

He ran it for six years, but his heart was always in a cockpit. He hankered for something more life-threatening than serving up burgers-with-everything to college kids.

He became the most successful and best-known funny car pilot in the business, the first to break the 250-m.p.h. record and the 260-m.p.h. record, and he has attained a top speed of 271.

But the businessman in Bernstein was not completely dormant. He could see the business opportunities, the promotional potential of his sport, and he soon convinced the Budweiser and Ford promo departments of the value of corporate sponsorship of this popular sport. Bernstein not only brought his lead foot to the business, he also brought his silver spoon.

You figure a guy would get behind the wheel of a funny car because he would otherwise be behind the wheel of an 18-wheel rig on I-5 or a stretch limo in Beverly Hills. But Kenny Bernstein came there directly from a board room, went from the back seat of a Rolls to the driver's seat of car that doesn't even have a phone in it.

And even though he brought corporate methods with him, what you have here is a man who walked away from a $17-million-a-year business and a four-phone desk in an executive suite to get in a flameproof suit and climb in a car that burns up a gallon of $30 fuel every 50 feet. And they call the cars "funny."

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