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MR. MOTORSPORTS

Kenny Bernstein is going 300 mph, and he's not even in his Top Fuel dragster.

Topeka, Kan., Indianapolis and North Wilkesboro, N.C., all within the span of a week. From there, it was Charlotte, N.C., on Monday, Houston on Thursday, then back to Charlotte today for NASCAR's Mello Yello 500. Then, Chicago on Monday and finally Dallas on Tuesday.

"And that's mild. Sometimes it's two and three cities in a day," said Susan Arnold, whose job it is to make sure Bernstein doesn't end up in Daytona Beach when he should be in Lime Rock. "Sometimes he'll get like 10 different airline tickets at the same time because he's not sure exactly where he's going next."

Usually, this 48-year-old drag racing lord is in and out of these cities, a blur hurtling down a quarter-mile strip of asphalt inside a 4,000-horsepower machine or doing an O. J. Simpson through an airport terminal with briefcase and cellular phone in hand. But his presence is often indelibly left behind, either through his tireless promotion of drag racing or a barrier-breaking run that lifts it to undiscovered frontiers.

"I'd say from 1979, he has taken the sport to a new level. He's revolutionized it," said Denny Darnell of the California-based National Hod Rod Association. "Not only has he won four world championships, but before Kenny Bernstein, drivers basically put their names on the car and that was it. They didn't do public appearances, media tours and sponsor activities. Kenny Bernstein does those things better than anybody. He's been a gold mine."

Drag racing isn't even the half of it, though. Bernstein owns Brett Bodine's Winston Cup team and Roberto Guerrero's IndyCar team that won the Indy 500 pole, in addition to a sports-marketing company. He is a one-man conglomerate in the image of Roger Penske. Only bigger.

With a hand in racing's three largest pots _ NASCAR, CART and NHRA _ Bernstein seems ubiquitous. He is, as Darnell calls him, "Mr. Motorsports."

Is it any wonder then that he travels like a presidential candidate, going on the road about 300 days of the year, covering more than 200,000 miles annually?

"I wish I didn't have to travel so much, but I do like it," Bernstein admitted, sounding as if he were confessing to an addiction. Once or twice a year he vacations for a week in Aspen, Colo., one of his four residences around the country (Dallas; Charlotte, N.C., and Mission Viejo, Calif., are the others).

"But actually I'm still working then, too," said Bernstein, who is divorced and has a son in college. "I'm truly someone who has to be busy most of the time. I get bored very easy."

Fat chance of that these days. While his NASCAR team waits for a breakthrough season (its best season was ninth with Ricky Rudd in 1989) and his IndyCar team prepares to run its first full season next year, Bernstein continues to beat his drag racing peers off the line, winning a record-tying six Top Fuel events last year, his second since leaving Funny Cars.

Last March at the NHRA Gatornationals, Bernstein boldly went where no man (not even Captain Kirk) had gone before: past drag racing's once impenetrable 300-mph barrier. Bernstein scorched the asphalt strip in Gainesville at 301.70 mph, setting an NHRA speed record (Eddie Hill holds the quickest elapsed time of 4.801 seconds). In July, he went 300.40 mph at the Summernationals in Englishtown, N.J.

With the second-to-last event of the season next weekend _ the Chief Auto Parts Nationals in Dallas _ Bernstein is eyeing another drag racing milestone. Already a four-time Funny Car series champion (he has 30 national victories), he's steering toward becoming the first man in NHRA Winston Drag Racing history to also win the Top Fuel series title.

"The 300 deal is the biggest thing to ever happen to us. Even if we win the world championship, I don't think it'll be greater than that," Bernstein said. "The whole world knows about it. People who don't even know racing come up to me and say, "Hey, congratulations on going 300 mph.' Certainly if we win the world championship, that would be the icing on the cake."

Not that Bernstein's career isn't sweet enough already, what with his innate racing skill to complement the customer-friendly business sense he inherited from his father, Bert, who was a retailer.

It was those early years of working for his father _ he sold women's clothing and later ran a towing service and built a chain of pubs _ that has made him a pioneer in the cultivation of sponsorships in racing. Bernstein was the first to introduce a beer company, Budweiser, to drag racing when he signed with them in 1979, and his King Sports Inc. is dedicated solely to landing sponsorships for Bernstein's teams as well as for clients not involved in racing.

"I see K.B. as a businessman first, then a racer," said John Dangler, King Sports president. "He understands racing is entertainment and you have to fight for that entertainment dollar that could just as easily go to a rock concert or a movie or something else.

"And there's not a person who works as hard at it and is as tireless as he is. Other guys like Roger (Penske) or (drag racer) Joe Amato own other businesses, but K.B.'s business is racing. His whole life is consumed with motorsports."

The racing part seemed to just come naturally to a young Bernstein. Growing up in Lubbock, Texas, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there wasn't much else for Bernstein to get into except racing. And as it happened, that was the thing back then anyway, James Dean movies and '57 Chevys.

"Cars were important," Bernstein said. "It was a way of life. That's what you did. I guess most guys grew out of it, but I didn't."

Not even by the time he went to college. For two years at Arlington State (now the University of Texas at Arlington), he never missed class except in a life-or-death situation, which for Bernstein meant a drag race in the next county.

"I was too busy racing to go to class," he said. "The dean finally told me to take some time off and decide what I wanted to do. I never went back."

Nearly three decades later, he has made it to the top of his class. And as always, Bernstein's focus stretches well beyond the quarter-mile view of most drag racers. He's out to make a run at the sport itself.

"Drag racing had the third-highest attendance (1.7-million) last year behind NASCAR and IndyCar, but one of the things we have to overcome in NHRA is the image," Bernstein said. "Today's executive only remembers drag racing the way it was when he was a kid. When he sees it today, he's going to change his opinion in a hurry because of all the money that's in it. But he's got to see it first."

Already, Bernstein, a walking, talking, traveling billboard of a man, has made sure a lot more people see drag racing _ even if they don't always see a lot of him.

Bernstein facts

Name: Kenny Bernstein.

Age: 48.

Resides: Dallas, Charlotte (N.C.), Aspen (Colo.) and Mission Viejo (Calif.).

Birthplace: Clovis, N. M.

Began drag racing: 1966.

Occupation: Drag racer and owner of NASCAR Winston Cup and IndyCar teams.

Career highlights: First drag racer in history to reach 300 mph, at Gatornationals in Gainesville this year; won four straight NHRA Winston World Funny Car championships (1985-88), tying an NHRA record; won seven Funny Car events in 1987 and six Top Fuel races last season, both tying NHRA single-season records; has 40 NHRA national wins; fielded the pole-winning car for this year's Indy 500 (with driver Roberto Guerrero); was first person to have a beer company (Budweiser) sponsor a drag racing team.

NHRA Top Fuel

standings

Driver Points

1. Kenny Bernstein 10,540

2. Joe Amato 10,050

3. Cory McClenathan 9,954

4. Eddie Hill 9,476

5. Don Prudhomme 9,226

6. Michael Brotherton 8,636

7. Ed McCulloch 8,520

8. Pat Austin 8,470

9. Doug Herbert 7,442

10. Tommy Johnson Jr. 4,320

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