Bernstein (left) and new teammate Morgan Lucas form a strong lineup.
Brandon Bernstein is on his own now. Until this season, the Top Fuel stalwart, who turns 40 this year, had spent his career in the employ of his famous father, Kenny Bernstein, the only driver to win multiple championships in both Funny Car and Top Fuel. He was the boss' son, so he wasn't going to get fired, but no one ever said he had it made, either. Kenny, notoriously competitive and driven to succeed in all facets of life, never made excuses and never wanted to hear any.
Then Kenny abruptly announced his retirement at the end of last season and Brandon had to look elsewhere for a seat. Named to drive Morgan Lucas Racing's MavTV/Lucas Oil Top Fuel dragster when Shawn Langdon left to replace retired 2011 champ Del Worsham at Al-Anabi, Bernstein is now a hired driver like anybody else.
“It's been an adjustment,” admits Bernstein, grateful to have landed on his feet. “It's a different feeling, not having my dad there and not having our own team to run.”
But it beats the hell out of watching other drivers race on TV, a fate that has befallen far too many top names in recent years – none bigger than his old friend, three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon, who is on the sidelines for the first time since he began driving in 1995.
What exactly would Bernstein be doing if this hadn't materialized in January?
“Good question,” he says. “By the time I found out that my dad was retiring, it was too late in the game to get anything going. I wasn't sorting through offers, deciding which one to take – this was the only one. I told the Lucases that straight up: I don't have any sponsorship to bring with me; all you're getting is me, my name, and my skills. If it wasn't for this, I'd probably be like Dixon, beating down doors and trying to position myself for 2013. Not knowing was really, really hard. I was afraid ‘Hot Rod' [Rod Fuller] or somebody else would bring something to the table at the last minute, and it came right down to the wire, Jan. 5 or 6, before I knew for sure. Two weeks later, we were testing at West Palm Beach.”
Bernstein, whose family has long been friends with Lucas and his parents, Forrest and Charlotte, whose largesse has benefited teams all across motorsports, fit in immediately. “Everything was already in place,” he says. “It's basically Shawn's whole team from last year. It's laid back here. They really opened their doors to me and told me, ‘You're one of us now. Let's go kick some ass.'”
Early results have been encouraging. Part of a two-car team with Morgan Lucas, who dominated qualifying at the season-opening Winternationals in crew chief Aaron Brooks' team debut, Bernstein ran within a few hundredths of a second of the leaders at the first two events of 2012, including a 3.79sec run in Phoenix, just 0.01sec off his career best.
Despite finishing in the top 10 for eight years in a row, Bernstein has won just once since 2007, when he came within a single round of taking the title. He won 10 of his first 11 career finals, but has lost 12 of his last 13. “The first few years, when we got to the final, we didn't lose,” says Bernstein, who won the '03 Phoenix event (on a holeshot) in just his second pro start. “When you get off to a start like I had, these long slumps really weigh on you. It's like, are we ever going to win again?
“Multi-car teams have dominated the past few years, and it's a lot harder to win if you're not on one,” he explains.
“I mean, Top Fuel is tougher right now than it's ever been. It's crazy. There are so many great cars, and that really puts the emphasis on driving. You're never going to have much of a performance advantage on the next guy, so if you can't leave on time, you're never going to win. That motor behind you is running great, and you'd better step it up on the starting line. It's your livelihood. Some days, you're just not on it, and there are going to be times when you have a 0.040 or 0.050sec light and still lose because the other guy had a 0.030. It didn't used to be that way, but it'll probably be like this from now on, so you've just got to adapt.”
Bernstein has also had to adjust to driving a Hadman chassis. With his dad's teams, he was almost always strapped into the seat of a McKinney car. “They drive totally different,” he says. “A Hadman is way looser, but it's fast. It moves around more, even off the line. Sometimes, it'll wash out to the right or left, and it'll want to dance the whole way down the track. If you're not on top of it right from the start, you're going to be chasing it all the way to the finish line. And you're never going to catch up to it. You have two options: lift or hit the wall. Our car and Morgan's are set up identically. That's the only way to do it on a multi-car team. [Crew chief] Joe Barlam and Aaron talk before and after every run, and both computers are linked in the pits, so both crew chiefs can look at each other's data as soon as the cars get back from a run.”
Bernstein can compare notes with Lucas, but this is a whole new world for him. “I still have the best equipment there is, just like I always did with my dad, but now I don't have all the responsibilities that come with running a team, the day-to-day problems, the bills,” he says. “That pressure is gone. That's Morgan's deal – it's his team. I focus on driving and sponsor relations, but sometimes I still feel like a fish out of water. There was a lot more responsibility before, but I was used to it, and all of a sudden, it's taken away. All I have to do is drive.
“My dad's not here anymore, but we still talk about every run. We always did, right up until he retired. He was always there. Now, I call him after every run – every run. He has a wealth of knowledge about these cars. He was an amazing driver, and he's seen it all.”
The senior Bernstein, voted sixth-best driver in drag racing history in 2001 (the year he won his second Top Fuel title and sixth NHRA championship overall) truly is one of the sport's all-time greats. Even after all the victories and championships, he never stopped working to improve during a 40-year career and probably was better than ever when he quit driving in 2008 at age 62. Just don't look for him to wave to the camera every time Brandon wins a round.
“It's funny, but I'm really his only connection to drag racing now,” Brandon says. “Not having a team, not being in competition, he has no reason to follow the sport. He has no desire to come to the races again, and he doesn't follow it at all. He's the kind of guy who, when he's done, he's done. The only things he knows about what's going on out here is what I tell him over the phone. I stayed at his house for the Pomona race, and trust me, he's not going to be glued to the TV on Sunday nights, waiting for the race to come on.”
No, Brandon will be on his own from now on. Which might just be the best thing that ever happened to him.
• The full version of this feature article appeared in the April 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands.
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