That sums up Armstrong perfectly. Always avoiding commotion. He would be happy sitting at home eating tomato sandwiches and watching hockey on the tube or, as he once did, 19 straight hours of The Honeymooners.
On Saturday mornings, to get away from work, Armstrong will sometimes go for a drive on the curvy Ortega Highway over the Santa Ana Mountains down to a building in which he works on restoring his 20 vintage cars. There, one day in July, Armstrong tells the history of each car to a visitor, explaining how one might be the first to have had an original 409 engine in it or how another, now in perfect running condition, was found rusting away in a shed after being unattended to for 20 years.
In a sense he's Indiana Jones, and each of the cars is a treasure, his way of tracking time, history and, of course, performance. "He'll probably be fiddling with those cars when he's 80 years old," says Arnold.
March 20, Gainesville, Fla., 4:42 p.m. At 68°, it was the kind of day that the Budweiser Top Fuel car would perform at its best. Bernstein sat in the cockpit at the starting line, waiting to make a qualifying run. In line behind him were the rest of the Top Fuelers.
The staging lights called the Christmas tree blinked on. Bernstein stomped on the throttle and let out the clutch. The car in the next lane spun and smoked its tires, sending a cloud of white smoke over the starting line. Bernstein's car disappeared into the smoke.
In the first 1.5 seconds, Bernstein traveled 100 feet and the car was doing 100 mph. After 2.8 seconds they were going 200 mph. At 3.3 seconds 250 mph, almost 20 mph quicker than this year's top qualifying time at the Indianapolis 500. And at 4.7 seconds the car entered the 66-foot speed zone before the finish line, the engine turning at 7,800 rpm and....
"I turned around to go back to the van, and suddenly this roar went through the place," says Armstrong. "I remember thinking to myself, Nah, it couldn't have been a 300. I was scared to turn around."
As the smoke cleared, Armstrong could see the scoreboard: It read 301.7 MPH. "What made it such a thing to me was something I had talked about with a lot of the guys and other competitors," he says. "And that was the day when a three, not a two, comes up as the first digit. Because we've raced for 30 years, and it has never been more than 200 and something."
A few moments later the Budweiser team joined Bernstein and the car as they were towed back to the starting line in front of the stands. "All the Top Fuelers were just standing there," says Armstrong. "Don Prudhomme and Joe Amato and Don Garlits, and you could just see the forced grins, although they were giving us the thumbs-up. I thought, This is how I would have felt standing there and watching one of those guys do it. Boy, would I have been disappointed, because there is only one first time; it can never be done again."
"It's probably the last barrier drag racing will see," says Bernstein.