Las Vegas Kenny Bernstein looks to get back on winning track

LAS VEGAS - Young Top Fuel superstar Doug Kalitta came away from NHRA's most recent event with the winning trophy in hand, but perhaps the biggest smile following the event in Gainesville, Fla. belonged to NHRA legend Kenny Bernstein. No, ...

LAS VEGAS - Young Top Fuel superstar Doug Kalitta came away from NHRA's most recent event with the winning trophy in hand, but perhaps the biggest smile following the event in Gainesville, Fla. belonged to NHRA legend Kenny Bernstein.

No, Bernstein didn't break another milestone performance barrier, like his now-famous first-ever 300-mph run there in 1992. He didn't invent some new trick part that will enable him to go quicker and faster than ever before. He did, however, see a spark ignite within his team that may lead to a few victories in 2000. With 52 career NHRA victories to his credit, Bernstein will be the first to admit that winning never gets too old. In fact, he can't wait to do it again.

Bernstein, 55, is eager to resume his winning ways in the 6,000 horsepower category after a dry spell in 1999 left the Budweiser King winless during a season for the first time since 1995. His team, led by co-crew chiefs Lee Beard and Mike Green, made a positive step in the right direction with a third place qualifying effort that led to a semifinal appearance in Florida. Bernstein lost traction in the semi match with eventual race winner Kalitta.

"We definitely began to see some performance improvement at Gainesville," said Bernstein, one of the Top Fuel favorites entering the inagurual NHRA SummitRacing.com Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, April 6-9. "Our elapsed times were very competitive. We were encouraged because we made six runs without smoking the tires. Just when we started to get comfortable, the tire smoking gremlin bit us."

Bernstein, a five-time NHRA champion, including one Top Fuel title and four Funny Car crowns, hopes to put his tire-smoking blues behind him at the $1.8 million race, the fourth of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

"It's like being mugged," said Bernstein, who also suffered traction problems in early round losses at the season-opening event in Pomona, Calif. and the circuit's second event, near Phoenix. "The tire smoke sneaks up behind you and knocks you down. We were disappointed with losing, but we gained some valuable ground on our tune-up combination."

Bernstein, currently fifth in the Winston point standings, hopes that his improved combination will enable the Bud King team to compete with Tony Schumacher's Exide Batteries dragster and Gary Scelzi's Team Winston ride. The two competitors have been dazzling in the first three events. Bernstein hopes to make that rivalry a three-way affair during a season that has presented new challenges for all NHRA nitro category teams.

"This season all of the Top Fuel and Funny Car teams had to go back to the drawing board to find new tune-up combinations since there are new rules governing oil downs and the percentage of nitro we can use," Bernstein said.

"The new rules are a positive step forward, but it necessitated a major re-evaluation by all the teams. We can only run 90 percent nitro, where we used to run close to 100 percent. We also have to be very careful about oil downs. Our team has rarely oiled the track in the past, but now on race day, oiling the track costs you money and you're docked championship points."

During the off-season, NHRA officials mandated a strict 90-percent nitromethane rule for Top Fuel and Funny Car teams; posted monetary fines and point deductions for teams that leak oil onto the racing surface during competition; and reduced the amount of time teams have to service their cars between elimination rounds from 90 to 75 minutes. So far the results of the new rules have been excellent, as Sunday eliminations at the first three events have finished in record time.

"It's a new learning process for the drivers and teams, but it's a great thing for the fans," Bernstein said. "There is better side-by-side racing, and for the first three events this year, we've been done before 5 p.m. on Sunday - something that's been unheard of in the past."

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Series NHRA
Drivers Kenny Bernstein , Gary Scelzi , Doug Kalitta