At first glance, John Force and Kenny Bernstein appeared to be thrust continually on the same stage for decades in some techno-twisted version of “The Odd Couple.”
And it has been hard to tell whether they’re hopelessly different or intriguingly alike. They appear to be a little of both. Either way, they seem to be linked to one another.
But to be up there with Kenny Bernstein, a guy I’ve always respected and admired and loved and raced with — a guy who ran the first 300 miles an hour . . . It’s great.
They’ve raced together and against each other. They set records and earned their positions as two of the top five NHRA competitors of all time, as selected by a panel of experts. They’ve been team owners together, ones who have tried to shape NHRA policy in such a way to keep costs down, drivers safe, and fans engaged. They’ve watched their children become close to one another and carve their own successes in the sport. They even were tangled up literally in September 2007, in a serious crash during eliminations at the Texas Motorplex near Dallas.
Along with NASCAR legend Richard Childress, they’ll be inducted together on Thursday evening into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega, Ala. Tony Stewart, 2011 Driver of the Year, and 2011 ARCA champion Ty Dillon also will be recognized.
“This is unique for me, to share the stage with a guy like Childress, a heavyweight in NASCAR,” Force said. “But to be up there with Kenny Bernstein, a guy I’ve always respected and admired and loved and raced with — a guy who ran the first 300 miles an hour . . . It’s great.
“It’s just unique, not to accept it for me and for my race teams but for my sponsors and the fans. And that is the accomplishment for NHRA: another stepping stone, to move us up that ladder to where we want to be.”
Image courtesy: NHRA/National Dragster
Bernstein agreed, saying, “It’s great for the sport, great fro NHRA drag racing. I’m very honored to be there with John. That’s kind of the icing on the cake, for me. John’s so important to our sport. And he has such an outstanding record. To be there with him, that’s really second to none.
“Richard Childress just happens to be a very, very close friend of mine, and I’m glad to be there with Richard. That means a lot to me.”
Force recalled the time he attended the induction ceremonies at Talladega (in 1996, when he was the first drag racer to be named Driver of the Year in all of American motorsports) and met Dale Earnhardt.
“It was just an unbelievable feeling to have him reach out and shake your hand,” he said. “Those guys are my heroes, too, but I’ve got heroes out here in drag racing.”
He named Bernstein and Don Prudhomme and said, “I love these guys. They were the stars I grew up watching. To get inducted with the greats who are going to be there, it really is quite an honor. It’s very humbling to get a chance.”
Both Force and Bernstein understand humble, for both came from modest backgrounds.
Force arguably bears more scars from growing up in poverty than he does from the polio that struck him a toddler. He tells stories about growing up in California with his siblings in a trailer so tiny that “honest-to-God, you could sit on the toilet and shower at the same time. I slept on the couch, so I had to wait for my parents to get done watching Johnny Carson before I could go to sleep. And we didn’t have big Thanksgivin’ turkey dinners where everyone got around the table. It wasn’t ‘The Waltons.’ ”
Bernstein’s environment wasn’t as Spartan, but as a grade-school boy he learned to sell and present merchandise in dad Bert’s department store in Lubbock, Texas. “Everything was precise. If you weren’t selling, you were fixing the stock,” he said. “It was instilled in me from the time I was seven or eight years old.”
So both were self-starters in drag racing.
Bernstein is famous for using common sense and a show-and-tell approach to landing a marketing partnership contract with Budweiser that didn’t run its course until the end of the 2009 season. That 30-year marketing marriage was the longest in motorsports history, surpassing STP’s 28-year sponsorship of NASCAR king Richard Petty. Bernstein and the Prudhomme – Tom McEwen dynamic duo ushered in the era of Corporate America’s involvement in racing.
It ain’t like I was a billionaire who walked in here and said, ‘I’m Howard Hughes, and I want to race.’ I had nothing’ — flat nothin’.
Ingenuity is what drove Bernstein’s effort. He parked his race car outside the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis to generate excitement among the workers, then pitched the executives who, impressed, watched from the office windows the crowd gathered outside.
Bernstein began racing seriously in 1966, on the Texas Pro Fuel Circuit, supporting himself by selling high-fashion women’s wear. Later, he juggled his own NHRA driving career with managing his teams in IndyCar and NASCAR and for seven years operating 17 Chelsea Street Pub restaurants that employed 2,500 workers.
Force morphed what he called “a big, dumb ol’ truck driver” (because he used to pay for his racing habit by running a long-haul route) to entrepreneur extraordinaire. He owns, among other ventures, four Brownsburm Ind-headquartered Funny Car teams that have swiped every single victory this season, a Top Fuel team, and The Eric Medlen Project that’s dedicated to race-car safety technology. He also owns John Force Entertainment — complete with editing bays, filming studios, and a theatre — in his former shop at Yorba Linda, Calif.
Said Force, “It ain’t like I was a billionaire who walked in here and said, ‘I’m Howard Hughes, and I want to race.’ I had nothing’ — flat nothin.’ ”
He landed his first big sponsorship when he ran out of gas in Denver, down the street from the Jolly Rancher candies office, and begged executive Bob Harmsen for money to buy gas to get to the next race. He charmed Harmsen into a deal that lasted eight years and really introduced Force to the drag-racing world.
Bernstein always is neatly groomed, clothes pressed, every hair in place. Force often has been a hot mess of facial stubble, helmet-head hair, wearing firesuits with grime ground in so deeply that even the most professional dry-cleaner has to concede defeat.
Bernstein measures his words and uses precise grammar. Force spills out his heart, whatever is in it, whenever the spirit moves him, to whomever will listen. He often jabbed Bernstein, saying of their racetrack row of haulers, “Kenny has a big, fancy mansion. But he never gets to see it. He has to live in my trailer park every week.”
Bernstein is a walking Rolodex, while Force mangles names in a way that seasoned comics would envy. Bernstein is controlled, Force excitable. Said Bernstein with a laugh, “He’s hyper and upside-down on everything all the time. I’m hyper and upside-down half the time. So there’s a difference.
“We do a pretty good job at being the straight guy and the funny guy. We can get going pretty good,” Bernstein said. “John’s obviously a pretty smart guy, underneath all that farce that he puts out. He kind of acts like he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about, but he really does.”
Image courtesy: NHRA/National Dragster
Bernstein always accommodated his sponsors and fans with grace but is private. Force acts as if he’s a best friend to each person in the grandstands — that’s why fans line up 10-deep or more at the rope line in his pits every second he isn’t on the track racing.
“He’s overloaded,” Bernstein said of Force. “He has a hard time telling people no. You can’t tell John a lot of advice. You can give it to him, but he won’t take a lot of it. Sometimes you wonder if you aren’t talking to that wall. I said, ‘There are only two issues that I’ve told you about several times, and you always forget them. Are you making money? And are you having fun?”
A lot of people misinterpret me. I care about people and I care about the sport, and I care about everything very deeply.
As Bernstein’s son, Top Fuel racer Brandon Bernstein, pointed out, his father retired and, in the vein of fellow Texan Eddie Hill, simply doesn’t have any urge to jump into the commotion of a drag race. “There’s no withdrawals, I can tell you that right now,” Brandon Bernstein said. “He hasn’t missed it one bit, he says.”
Entertaining the fans and media with outrageous yarns and crazy-talk, signing autographs with grand theatre never was Kenny Bernstein’s shtick. But it’s right in Force’s wheelhouse. “That’s my lifeline. That’s what makes John Force tick. This is my home,” Force said.
“And this is where I’ll go out. We’ll never have no big retirement party — ain’t going to do none of that. When I can’t cut it anymore, I’ll just leave. I’ll step over the fence and I’ll just be gone one day — if I don’t fall over dead,” Force said. “That’s how I want to go, because I don’t want to say goodbye.”
Bernstein has a soft side, too, and once said, “A lot of people misinterpret me. I care about people and I care about the sport, and I care about everything very deeply.”
They clearly love their children. Bernstein watched carefully when Ashley Force (Hood) began her racing career. “He doesn’t want to have anything happen to his daughter,” Bernstein said. “I don’t want to have anything happen to Brandon — don’t misunderstand me. But it’s different. I think that’s bothered John a lot. I think one flag goes up with a boy-kid and two go up with a girl. I just think he’s worried to death that he’s going to hurt his little girl. And that’s heavy. That’s heavy stuff there.”
He knows the anguish he went through — not to mention his return to the dragster after his first retirement to satisfy sponsor obligations — when Brandon Bernstein was injured midway through 2003.
Force said he doesn’t see any differences between himself and Bernstein. But Bernstein said, “We’re a lot different. We’re a whole lot different.” History can decide.
For right now, they both can agree, as did the voting panel for the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, that Bernstein and Force are among the industry’s greatest treasures.