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A LIFE OF SPEED IS SET INTO MOTION
Kenny Bernstein was born in Clovis, New Mexico, on September 6, 1944, to parents Bert and Pat Bernstein. His father was in the military, serving as an aviator on B-17 bombers, and he eventually settled his family in the West Texas town of Lubbock.
When World War II ended and Bert made the transition to civilian life, he was hired as manager of Levine's Dept. Store in Lubbock, where as a youngster Kenny worked part-time on weekends and holidays to earn extra money. It was during this time that Kenny developed an interest in sales while building upon a work ethic that would serve him well throughout his life.
Blessed with good health, good looks, an outgoing personality, and the financial benefits that resulted from his father's management position at Levine's, Kenny enjoyed a childhood filled with opportunities to pursue his interests and explore his potential.
Kenny's maternal grandparents, Dewey and Nanna Bagley, who lived in nearby Farwell, were major influences in Kenny's earliest encounters with the automobile. Dewey, who operated two gas stations, would prop Kenny on his lap in the driver's seat of his 1952 Ford pickup with a three speed transmission and allow the youngster to drive around the family's property. It became Kenny's favorite activity during the summer, so much so that when his parents wanted him to go to camp, his grandmother literally had to bribe him to attend.
"My grandmother always indulged me when it came to anything with wheels," Kenny said. "So one year, just to get me to go to camp for the entire summer session, she promised to buy me a little motor scooter I wanted if I spent the full eight weeks there. I did, and true to her word, she bought me the scooter and I went everywhere on it."
The "car bug" had bitten Kenny at an early age, and long before he was racing in real cars on the quarter-mile, he was racing in half-midgets on short ovals in the Lubbock area with his dad, Bert, who also possessed a genuine fascination with cars. In 1958, at the age of 14, Kenny won the Bardahl High Point Half-Midget Championship, his first taste of real notoriety as a race driver.
"I knew racing was something I wanted to do very badly," said Kenny. "I wanted to race, not necessarily drag race, but be involved in racing at some level."
Even before he earned his driver's license, he and his friends tinkered with cars and built their own hot rods and jalopies in Kenny's driveway-a situation that frequently led to Bert Bernstein becoming exasperated because of the oil and grease leaking everywhere.
"I had a Model A which I bought with extra money I had earned working part-time at Levine's. It took my friends and I two weeks to get it running, but we shouldn't have gotten it running because none of us had a driver's license. We drove it anyway because we were teenagers and that's the kind of trouble we would usually get into."
Kenny's other passion was a love of sports, especially football, which was an essential element of a teenager's life in Lubbock in the late 1950s.
"The two things that took up a lot of your attention in Lubbock back then were cars and athletics," he recounts. "Texas is a major hotbed for scholastic sports, and if you weren't playing sports on the school team, you'd play pickup games with your friends. But cars were important, too. When I was a teenager, if you didn't have some kind of car to fool with, you just weren't happening."
Eventually, Kenny got to make his first trip down the dragstrip, but it wasn't in his own car. "A friend of mine had a 1961 Pontiac Ventura with a V-8, three two-barrel carburetors and a four speed. We were at a track in Hobbs, New Mexico. Since he didn't know how to power shift and I did, the job of driving fell to me, and that was OK, because that's what I wanted to do."
As he was about to enter college, Kenny bought what he considers his first real racecar, a 1953 Studebaker, which he purchased from a salvage yard near his home. The salvage yard operator, Don Hardy, would go on to acquire widespread fame of his own in the racing world as one of drag racing's preeminent racecar builders.
Kenny and his friends brought the Studebaker home, dropped a small-block Chevy V-8 into it, and began towing it to local drag races in Texas and New Mexico.
"I raced the Studebaker as I was attending college at Arlington State University. I was the only college student I'd ever seen who drove to school towing a racecar behind him, but that allowed me to enter some races around Dallas on the weekends and when I wasn't in class."
Kenny's passion for racing was soon displacing his commitment to his studies, and eventually, the racing won out, putting his scholastic career on permanent hold.
He replaced the Studebaker with a Chevy-powered 1941 Willys coupe, and for a while raced a D-Gas 1948 Anglia with a hot-rodded Chevy engine. But nitromethane was the fuel of choice for racers who really wanted to go fast, and so Kenny started hanging out at the local shops of the Anderson brothers, Mitchell and Donald, the Carroll brothers, and Vance Hunt, who were all campaigning Top Fuel dragsters in the southwest.
Before long, Kenny had worked his way into the driver's seat of a number of fuel dragsters, including those owned by Hunt, the Andersons, the Carrolls, and Prentiss Cunningham. As his obsession with becoming a pro escalated, Kenny began to establish himself as a capable driver.
In the early '70s, Kenny was dividing his time between racing his own doorslammers and the Top Fuel cars of others. He needed to fit a racing transmission to his Anglia, which led him to a California racer and builder, Ray Alley. Alley not only cured Kenny's transmission problem but gave him the opportunity to go on tour with a nitro Funny Car. It was the beginning of a long and unbreakable friendship that continues today.
Alley had built and driven a series of notorious altereds and Funny Cars flying the "Engine Masters" colors. Since he had become too busy in his race shop to go out and compete himself, he loaned Kenny his nitro Dodge Charger Funny Car. In his first NHRA national event start, Kenny runnered-up to Don Schumacher at the 1973 Winternationals.
Kenny later took one of Alley's other racecars, a Mercury Cougar nicknamed "Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar", and toured throughout Texas with it. It gave Kenny valuable experience in managing his own race team and handling a tricky, nitro-fueled, full-bodied, short-wheelbase racecar after having devoted much of his previous drag racing experience to piloting front-motored Top Fuel dragsters.
He eventually saved up the resources to buy his own Top Fuel car, a Woody Gilmore dragster that he bought from the infamous California fuel racer Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen. After sealing the deal in California and bringing the rolling chassis back to Texas, Kenny installed an engine supplied by the Anderson brothers and won the first two races he entered with the car. His racing career looked as if it were rapidly taking off.
But sponsorship was a word that was becoming more and more prevalent in the drag racer's lexicon, and without it few racers could compete on a full-bore, full-time level. Kenny could read the handwriting on the wall, and at the end of 1973, he made a monumental decision that altered the course of his future.