When Kenny Bernstein was an 18-year-old in Lubbock, Texas, 200 mph was just about out of this world. To teen-agers and professional racers in stock car, Indy car or drag racing, going 200 mph was a dream.
"No one in his right mind ever thought about 300," Bernstein said yesterday, before taking his Top Fuel dragster out for its first qualifying run at the Mopar Summernationals in Englishtown, N.J. "In those days, guys were running 180, 190 mph. Heck, 200 was a phenomenal achievement. Three hundred? No one considered going 300 mph. It wasn't in the realm of reason. And now, well, it's awesome."
Bernstein was the first man to travel 260 mph and 270 mph in a Funny Car. Earlier this spring he became the first -- and so far only -- man to go 300, and he didn't even know he was doing it.
"Honestly, you don't feel it," said Bernstein, 47. "Inside the race car, everything seems to be happening in slow motion. I could feel the initial acceleration. But the speed? I had no idea I was going 301 mph."
He went exactly 301.70 mph March 20 during qualifying for the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. Now, he is anxious to do it again, as quickly as possible.
The reason? Because Kenny Bernstein is made that way. He never gets in his Budweiser King Quaker State Top Fuel dragster without a purpose. He never goes out for a joy ride, never goes on a two-week vacation to relax.
But at Englishtown, 300 mph may not be possible.
"The humidity," Bernstein said. "To make a 300-mph run, the conditions have to be perfect, and everything has to be right on the race car. The cooler the temperature, the easier it is to make horsepower. It's much more difficult when it's hot and humid."
He didn't get it done yesterday, clocking 287.81 mph in 5.079 seconds, good enough for fourth fastest. Joe Amato set a track )) and event record, but he too was short of the 300-mph barrier, clocking 290.88 mph in 4.940.
Bernstein, who leads the NHRA Winston championship point race by 858 points over Amato, said there may be a chance to go for 300 mph during an evening qualifying session today from 3 to 7 p.m. The Summernational Final Eliminations begin at 11 a.m. Sunday.
Bernstein owns the Winston Cup stock car driven by Brett Bodine and the Indy car Roberto Guerrero put on the pole for the Indianapolis 500. He also owns an Indianapolis-based sports promotions, marketing and public relations firm -- King Sports FTC Inc. -- and King Racing Components Inc., which sells PacePak computers. Plus, he has put together marketing packages for 21 companies, all of which sponsor his Top Fuel dragster.
"Three pair of socks for a dollar," said Bernstein, recalling how he learned salesmanship at age 9, selling socks at Levine's Department Store in Lubbock, where his father was the store president. "I went after anybody that would come close to the counter, and I loved it. . . . There are two principles that I apply in all my business endeavors and I learned them from my dad. First, control your own destiny, and secondly, give the customer more than he asks for."
That's what Bernstein does. He spends an average of 300 days a year crisscrossing the country. "I'm not a very good example of a good way to live," he said. "But I enjoy what I do. It can be a tough life. It hasn't left a lot of time for a lot of other things. I'm divorced with a son at Texas A&M, who I see when I can. And had the same girlfriend for the last 11 years, but nothing serious that will get in the way of what I have to do."
He is a 5-foot-7 bundle of energy, who works from a yellow tablet filled with a list of daily "things to do" and he always has his eye pealed for the nearest telephone. Someone once said that not since Clark Kent has anyone accomplished as much from a phone booth.
For Bernstein, who won the International Hot Rod Association World Funny Car championship in 1979, and National Hot Rod Association World Funny Car titles in 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1988 before switching to the Top Fuel category in 1990, being inside the race car is probably his least busy time of the day.
"I think the biggest misconception about what I do in the car is that people think I just sit in there and guide it down the track," Bernstein said. "That's not it . . . When the engine explodes or you do a wheel stand or a tire blows, that's what separates the really good drivers from the rest."
It's all a matter of reflex, reaction and concentration: Three abilities Bernstein said can't be learned or acquired.
"I think some people are born with it," he said. "I think it's a God-given gift that I've always had. I know nothing distracts me. I can be thinking about some other part of my business before I get in the car, but once I crawl in the car, put my helmet on and strap up, you can be standing right beside me and I won't know you're there."