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NHRA: Bernstein Ready to End Roller Coaster Ride of a Season

9 April 1998

COMMERCE, Ga. -- The roller coaster ride that Kenny Bernstein has been on during the first part of the 1998 NHRA season is enough to make even the most adventurous thrill seeker come away with white knuckles. It's not really the fast downhill speeds that he's worried about; but rather the weird loop- to-loops that he would like to put an end to at the 18th annual Fram Nationals, April 16-19 at Atlanta Dragway.

The $1.6-million race is the fifth of 22 in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Bernstein, a veteran of nearly three decades in professional drag racing, has seen it all. This season, however, he and his Budweiser King Top Fuel team are getting a little different view.

In the last four races that were good for Winston points, Bernstein has made a semi-final appearance at Pomona, suffered a nasty DNQ at Phoenix, posted a win at Gainesville, and struggled to qualify at Houston before making a first round exit. If he were playing baseball, all he would need is a second round loss to complete the cycle.

Throw in a hefty $100,000 payday for winning the Top Fuel prize at the Winston Invitational, NHRA's $650,000 non-points All-Star race, and you've got to wonder, what's next?

"It's definitely been an up and down season," said Bernstein, a resident of Lake Forest, Calif. "We've had a couple of bad breaks here and there and made it look a lot worse than it really is. In years past, when we struggled we were really out to lunch. We didn't have a clue as to what to do and we fought it really hard. This time even though we've shown some inconsistency at a few races, it's not been a performance problem, but rather different mechanical problems."

Regardless of what may have happened on the track in the past four races, Bernstein says the key is that through all the adversity his team is still in the hunt for a second Winston championship in Top Fuel.

"I don't think we've ever seen the competition like we have in Top Fuel today," said Bernstein, the defending Fram Nationals Top Fuel winner. "Actually that's a good thing because it's keeping everybody pretty close. Even a team like ours, who didn't qualify, then won the next race went from 10th to fourth just like that. Now we've drifted back to sixth after Houston, but with all this competition there's no one car running away with it. In years past at this stage if you had a couple of bad races you would be way out of the game already and never have a chance to come back. I don't feel that way this year."

* Magic number: After Cory McClenathan powered his McDonald's dragster to an NHRA national speed record run of 322.92 mph at Phoenix, the chatter in the Top Fuel pits hit an all time level. Many drivers, including Kenny Bernstein, feel the top speed for the season will be 325 mph.

However, when and where it will occur is still the debate. Bernstein, who recorded the first 300 mph pass at Gainesville in 1992 says he doesn't see it happening until the late stages of the season.

"Several of us have been running in the 320s, it seems to be happening more often than not," he said. "I think 325 is still the magic number for this year, but I think you'll see it more toward the fall of the year. We're about to get into the summer and it'll be a little more difficult to run fast then."