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[AP photo: 2001]
Kenny Bernstein, left, and son Brandon are staying on the same team, but in different roles. Brandon, once part of his fathers crew, takes over behind the wheel for Kenny, who retired from driving after last season.
By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 14, 2003
The son of NHRA legend Kenny has toiled to get his father's Top Fuel seat. But can Brandon start at the top?
It was only during testing, but it didn't take long for Brandon Bernstein to get frustrated.
Dragsters ideally run in straight lines and, though the car's alignment was fine, his drifted toward the centerline every time. After one such run, he checked off what he was doing with his father, newly retired NHRA racer Kenny Bernstein.
The son, it seems, was focusing on the orange cones at the center of the finish line, and the father explained that the problem wasn't in the car, but its driver.
"I couldn't figure out why it was doing it, and he told me I need to look at the front of the nose," Brandon recalled about one of countless lessons he'd receive in the months leading to his rookie season driving in NHRA's Top Fuel class. "He said if you look at the cones, that's where you'll go, but if you look at the nose, you'll see the cones in the corner of your eye when you need to."
Bernstein, 30, has the difficult task of living up to a name his father has made famous, but he'll do so this season with his father's wisdom helping him.
"The greatest part of this has been the wealth of information he brings," Brandon said as he prepared for his first race last week in Ponoma, Calif. "He can tell me all the things that are happening to me because he's already experienced all those things."
One Bernstein's retirement from driving after nearly four decades coincides with another Bernstein's emergence, and Kenny's six NHRA championships will set the bar high, even for Brandon's first season in Top Fuel.
"We're gunning for the championship," said the younger Bernstein, who took a season off from driving last year to work on his father's crew. "It's pretty high expectations for a rookie year, but we know the car can perform to that level. I'm ready to see how we can do, and I'm just excited to get started. I'm stoked."
Bernstein fared well in his season debut in Pomona, posting the fastest qualifying time at one point and finishing fourth in qualifying at 323.89 mph. He lost in the first round of eliminations against eventual runner-up Cory McClenathan but held his own against the event's best. In the last round of qualifying, he edged champ Larry Dixon by 0.006 seconds.
This rookie season in Top Fuel is the culmination of a decade of hard work for Brandon, who aspired to follow in his father's footsteps in high school and got his start racing during summers as he earned a degree in kinesiology from Texas A&M. He later spent three years on his father's NHRA team before taking his own ride in 2001 in NHRA's Alcohol Dragster series, where he won five races as a rookie to earn series driver of the year honors.
And while he'll continue to benefit from his father's guidance, both drivers take pride in the fact that Brandon worked his way to where he is by building a reputation of his own.
"After college, he worked on the team, starting at the bottom, just cleaning," Kenny said. "We wanted him to learn and earn his way into the driver's seat. We hope to be able to help him through the learning curve quicker . . . we have every reason to believe that we'll be very competitive."
For now, if you try to visit brandonbernstein.com, you're redirected to his father's site, kennybernstein.com, where the main image has father smiling in the background and son now at the center of attention. With each week, Brandon will have more of his father's greatest asset, experience, but the early indications show he could share in the family success as well.
"Back in high school, I realized this is what I want to do with my life," Brandon said. "There was never a question after that. I knew it wasn't going to be easy. Now, every time down the track, there's always something new, but I get that knowledge each time."