This week, along with six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion owner Richard Childress, NHRA Full Throttle Series champions John Force and Kenny Bernstein were inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala.
The credentials of this trio cannot be argued. At all. Childress was a perennial top-ten driver in NASCAR prior to becoming an owner. He won his six titles with the late Dale Earnhardt, who was inducted into the Hall in 2006. He has won titles in all three of NASCAR’s top series and continues to be one of the strongest and most respected owners in stock car racing.
Force’s 15 Funny Car titles eclipses any driver in the history of NHRA. With his victory in this year’s season-opening Winternationals, his win total is at 133, a benchmark in the sport. His team, John Force Racing, has also won titles with Tony Pedregon and son-in-law Robert Hight. So far this year, they have won all six of the races run in the Funny Car class.
And then there’s Bernstein. Nicknamed the King of Speed for being the first NHRA driver to top the 300 mph mark, he is also the first driver to earn titles in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. The father of 2003 rookie of the year and current driver at Morgan Lucas Racing Brandon Bernstein holds a special place for me because he was the first NHRA driver I ever interviewed.
Kenny retired in 2002 and handed the keys to his nitro rail to Brandon, who was having an amazing season in 2003 until an accident in Englishtown, N.J., broke his back. The 1996 Top Fuel champ was forced to get back into the car and he was its driver when the series made its annual stop in St. Louis.
It was always a big deal when NHRA came to town (and I’m sure it’ll be no different this September when the travelling circus returns after a one-year hiatus), partially due to St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch and its Budweiser brand’s sponsorship of the Bernsteins. I had just begun hosting a motorsports program on a local sports-talk radio station and my co-host told one night before the show we were going to interview Kenny Bernstein. I knew the name and knew he was a big deal, but beyond that, nothing. I was a NASCAR guy. My dad loved the drags and I watched them with him on TV as a kid, but never really got into it.
The interview went off without a hitch. My partner did most of the talking, but I got a couple questions in and was able to keep from sounded too stupid. Kenny was gracious, funny, and honest and it was a great conversation.
The next day, a small newspaper contacted me through the radio station, asking them if I would do a story on a young man from their town who had won a scholarship based on a program Castrol was sponsoring with promotional help from John Force. I was to interview the young man and John at the race at the then-named Gateway International Raceway. I had never been to a drag race and figured it would be a neat story, so I agreed.
Hilarity ensued the moment I got to the John Force Racing pit that Saturday. The only time I could talk to him was between rounds so that meant he was busy. I was also wearing the ballcap of a competing oil sponsor. The first thing John did when he saw me was snatch the Penzoil hat off my head, toss it in the trash, slap a Castrol hat on my dome, and say, “Alright, son, NOW I can talk to you.”
The interview went great and I got my first taste of a John Force interview (and the first taste of transcribing said interview). I thanked him and wandered through Nitro Alley. I passed the Budweiser merch trailer and there was Kenny signing autographs. I stood there for a second and he saw me and said hi. I told him who I was and thanked him for the interview. He told me to hang on and when he was finished signing, we talked for a few minutes and he told me how he loved coming to St. Louis and how much he enjoyed working with the town’s media.
I thanked him again and headed home. Oddly enough, I don’t think I even stayed to watch any of the qualifying rounds that day. My job was done, it was summertime in St. Louis which meant it was hotter than the devil’s armpit, and I was heading to the house.
The following week, I was at the radio station getting ready for my show and noticed an envelope in my mailbox. It was from Kenny Bernstein racing. I opened it up and the letter inside thanked me for having him on my show and all the usual niceties. But the thing that struck me was the fact he had actually signed it himself.
I showed it to my co-host and he said Kenny did that all the time. Yes, I know someone typed the letter and inserted my name, radio station, etc., into it. But the fact Kenny had this done and then took the time to personally sign all these thank-yous to the press really struck me.
I became a fan that day. Not necessarily of the sport, but of the people in it. We would have NHRA drivers on the show all the time and they were always great conversations. The irony of it all was, I never actually went to a race until 2007. It was Memphis and I had been recently named PR director at its then-sister track, Gateway. I saw Kenny again, said hi, told him who I was and what my new position was and he said with a laugh, “Oh, you’ll get tired of us come the next race in St. Louis.”
In the years, I’ve been in this sport, whether as media, PR for a team, or PR for the media, not one team or driver has ever sent a personal letter, thanking me for my help. But Kenny and Brandon did. Every time. I still have them and they rank highly among my collection of motorsports memorabilia.
So I say congratulations to two men, John Force and Kenny Bernstein, for their induction this week because even more than their feats on the track, it’s the roles they play as NHRA ambassadors, roles they take very seriously, that make them true hall of famers.
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