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Kenny Bernstein: : He's a Salesman in the Super-Fast Lane

June 17, 1987|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

Kenny Bernstein is forgiving of those who expect drag racing's funny car champion to be a guy with a two-day beard and grease up to his elbows.

"We all started that way," he says, smiling.

Bernstein is always smiling. He probably smiles more than Magic Johnson and Mary Lou Retton. He'll smile until his teeth fall out, then paint his gums white and smile some more.

Drag racing has its legends, such as Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney, whom Bernstein acknowledges, but he is the sport's man for the '80s, a time when it takes grit and guts and salesmanship to go fast.

Marketing and public relations, those are Bernstein's strengths, as much as guiding a 270-m.p.h. projectile down a quarter-mile of blacktop. Away from his Newport Beach home and his shop in Orange, he travels with a black leather briefcase, not a box of tools, and is as quick with a handshake as he is with his throttle foot.

He greets people as would the owner of a restaurant, or a guy selling clothes, which, it so happens, is where he got the practice.

"When I was a kid I played with cars and hot rods," Bernstein said from behind the desk of his carpeted, air-conditioned office. "Even in the early years of drag racing I'd work with the crews, but I learned really quick that, for me, the side that made more sense was the public relations side.

"You base everything around what you can do for the sponsor. You've gotta get a lot of exposure for the companies you represent. The better you do that, the better chances are for them staying around.

"If you win, it's icing on the cake, but don't base it all on winnings, because you're not going to get there. The winnings are few and far between. It's hard to win day in and day out."

Tell that to his rivals. Bernstein, 42, is the National Hot Rod Assn. Winston world champion two years running and has dusted the field by winning three of the first five national events this year, plus an invitational at Dallas, where he smoked a track-record run of 5.364 seconds. That's the best elapsed time ever by a funny car, but it's unofficial because it wasn't achieved in open competition.

Bernstein set the official NHRA record of 5.482 seconds in the Winternationals at Pomona last February. In the '86 U.S. Nationals, he became the first funny car driver to top 270 m.p.h. when he hit 271.4, but that wasn't official because he failed to back it up. To be official, a driver must have another run within 1% of the record during the same competition.

His most recent success was in the Cajun Nationals at Baton Rouge, La., May 31. Last weekend, in the Springnationals at Columbus, Ohio, he lost to Don (Snake) Prudhomme in the quarterfinals when his car's engine failed.

It's easily Bernstein's fastest start in a sport where a fast start is everything, and the man never stops. Besides racing his Budweiser King funny car for King Entertainment, Inc., he runs three other companies and is host on a weekly TV show on ESPN. His life must seem like someone flipping channels, occasionally settling on one at fast forward.

"Last year I was on the road 250 days out of the year," he said. "This year doesn't look quite that bad. I have an airplane. I don't fly it. It's kept in Indianapolis because of our office there with King Sports Inc., which is a sports marketing, promotions, public relations company. That company really uses it."

There also is King Racing Components, Inc., of Texas, which exclusively markets RacePak computers, and King Racing, Inc., a NASCAR team that runs the Quaker State car with Morgan Shepherd.

"A lot of people make this whole thing work," Bernstein said. "There are four companies and they've all got key personnel.

"I'd like to go into other forms of racing--either GTP, IMSA or Indianapolis--but two things have to happen. You have to have the personnel to do it right, and there's the financing.

"I hate to think what it takes to run all those companies. I have no idea. It'll cost around a million dollars a year to run this drag racing operation. It'll cost about a million-eight to run the NASCAR deal."

It's difficult to win enough in NASCAR to break even, but it's tough in drag racing, too, Bernstein said. "You can't come close. You have to have the sponsors, unless you're a multi-millionaire, which I'm not."

So he sells his sport and himself.

"I enjoy doing PR. Many athletes and drivers, in particular, don't enjoy talking to the public or looking into a camera. They just don't feel comfortable. I feel it's part of the job.

"I would be just as excited about sitting in a room with dignitaries from different companies--say the vice presidents of marketing of Budweiser, Buick and Quaker State, which we've done many times--and put together a package of cooperative efforts in marketing and advertising to promote their involvement.

"My one concern when I brought in Budweiser was, 'How can I help sell beer?' I've gotta sell beer. Same thing with Quaker State. How can I sell oil for those people?

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