FLYING THE NEST No longer driving for his storied father, Brandon Bernstein is learning life as a hired gun. Words Todd Veney | Images Marc Gewertz
randon Bernstein is on his own
now. Until this season, the Top
Then Kenny abruptly announced his
retirement at the end of last season and
Brandon had to look elsewhere for a seat.
Named to drive Morgan Lucas Racing’s
Mav TV/Lucas Oil Top Fuel dragster when
Shawn Langdon left to replace retired 2011
champ Del Worsham at Al-Anabi, Bernstein
is now a hired driver like anybody else.
“It’s been an adjustment,” admits
Bernstein, grateful to have landed on
his feet. “It’s a different feeling, not
having my dad there and not having our
own team to run.”
But it beats the hell out of watching
other drivers race on TV, a fate that has
befallen far too many top names in
recent years – none bigger than his old
friend, three-time NHRA Top Fuel
champion Larry Dixon, who is on the
sidelines for the first time since he
began driving in 1995.
What exactly would Bernstein be doing
if this hadn’t materialized in January?
“Good question,” he says. “By the
time I found out that my dad was
retiring, it was too late in the game to
get anything going. I wasn’t sorting
through offers, deciding which one to
take – this was the only one. I told the
Lucases that straight up: I don’t have
any sponsorship to bring with me; all
you’re getting is me, my name, and my
skills. If it wasn’t for this, I’d probably
be like Dixon, beating down doors and
trying to position myself for 2013. Not
knowing was really, really hard. I was
afraid ‘Hot Rod’ [Rod Fuller] or somebody
else would bring something to the table
at the last minute, and it came right
down to the wire, Jan. 5 or 6, before I
knew for sure. Two weeks later, we were
testing at West Palm Beach.”
Bernstein, whose family has long
been friends with Lucas and his parents,
Forrest and Charlotte, whose largesse
has benefited teams all across
motorsports, fit in immediately.
“Everything was already in place,” he
says. “It’s basically Shawn’s whole team
from last year. It’s laid back here.
They really opened their doors to me
and told me, ‘ You’re one of us now.
Let’s go kick some ass.’”
Early results have been
encouraging. Part of a two-car team
with Morgan Lucas, who dominated
qualifying at the season-opening
Winternationals in crew chief Aaron
Brooks’ team debut, Bernstein ran
within a few hundredths of a second
of the leaders at the first two events of
2012, including a 3.79sec run in Phoenix,
just 0.01sec off his career best.
Despite finishing in the top 10 for
eight years in a row, Bernstein has won
just once since 2007, when he came within
a single round of taking the title. He won
10 of his first 11 career finals, but has lost
12 of his last 13. “The first few years, when
we got to the final, we didn’t lose,” says
Bernstein, who won the ’03 Phoenix event
(on a holeshot) in just his second pro start.
“When you get off to a start like I had,
these long slumps really weigh on you.
It’s like, are we ever going to win again?
“Multi-car teams have dominated the
past few years, and it’s a lot harder to
win if you’re not on one,” he explains.
“I mean, Top Fuel is tougher right now
than it’s ever been. It’s crazy. There are
so many great cars, and that really puts
the emphasis on driving. You’re never
going to have much of a performance
advantage on the next guy, so if you