When Kenny Bernstein was just nine years old, he was allowed to work in the stockroom of Levine's department store in Lubbock, Texas. That was the fall of 1953, cotton harvest time, and on Saturdays Levine's was full of laborers using their weekly checks to buy clothes and supplies for themselves and their families. Little Kenny persuaded his father, Bert, who was the store manager, to give him a chance to sell socks. "Three pairs for a dollar," recalls Bernstein. "I went after anybody that would come close to the counter, and I loved it. I enjoyed the feel of writing up those tickets. There were 50 tickets to a book, and I went through three books that day. I thought I had just set the world on fire."
Never mind that the early lives of race car drivers are supposed to be packed with nascent racing thrills. This was the moment when Bernstein first displayed the talent that would later make him a champion driver. Today, at 43, he is the current and three-time National Hot Rod Association world champion in Funny Cars, those explosions disguised as automobiles that accelerate from 0 to 275 mph in a quarter of a mile. He also holds the elapsed-time record for Funny Cars of 5.314 seconds for the quarter-mile, which he set on March 20 at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. His victory there was the 25th of his career on the NHRA circuit. And, believe it, he's the best because he could sell socks better than anyone else.
That drive has also been instrumental in Bernstein's becoming the head of five corporations, all of which are involved in motor sports, and all of which have "King" in their names. Bernstein, who spent 275 days crisscrossing the country last year, rules his empire from the nearest phone. The companies are King Entertainment, Inc. (his drag racing team) of Orange, Calif.; King Racing, Inc. (his NASCAR team, which features veteran Ricky Rudd as the driver) of Travelers Rest, S.C.; King Protofab Racing (his brand-new Indy Car team with three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford driving) of Wixom, Mich.; King Racing Components (a distributor of on-board computers for race cars) also of Orange; and King Sports, Inc. (a public relations and marketing firm) of Indianapolis—where the companies' Cessna Citation 500 jet is based.
But the real flagship for Bernstein's companies is his 270-mph Budweiser King Funny Car. When he climbs into its cockpit, Bernstein is swathed in fire-retardant clothes. He is then strapped, to the brink of suffocation, inside a steel cage and tucked under an 18-foot-long graphite carbon fiber cover that has been molded to look like a Buick Reatta. Directly in front of him is a 3,000-horsepower supercharged V-8 engine that's ignited by specially mixed racing fuel. Bernstein loves every ear-splitting, death-defying second of Funny Car racing. It's a major source of his income as well as his escape from the stress of King enterprises. "I take my vacation five seconds at a time," Bernstein likes to say.
So how is blasting down a quarter-mile stretch of asphalt like selling socks? To succeed, a modern race driver must be able to attract sponsorship—the saying is, "To go fast takes cubic dollars, not cubic inches"—which he can do only by convincing sponsors that he can sell their products. At this Bernstein appears to have no peer. He eagerly embraces what would be heresy to most drivers. Quite openly, willingly, matter-of-factly, remarkably, realistically and unregretfully, he says, "I'm here to sell beer. That's the bottom line."
When he's behind the wheel, he's the world's most spectacular beer—and car and oil and tool and shoe etc.—salesman. When he's not, he's merely one of the smoothest. No one can say "My Budweiser King-Quaker State-Mac Tools-Kanga ROOS Athletic Shoes-La Paz Party Mix-Buick Reatta race car" better or more slickly than Bernstein, especially if the red light is aglow on any nearby TV camera. He's a hero to his sponsors' public relations people because he makes their jobs so easy.
That's O.K., because Bernstein doesn't just tolerate the sponsor reps who trail him; he genuinely appreciates them. Reporters love him for much the same reason—he makes their job easy, too. "Hey Kenny, how about a picture with me!" shouts a mildly obnoxious fan at the Gatornationals. The fan is wearing a Bud hat and hoisting a can of the brew. Bernstein tucks himself under the man's arm and smiles for the shutter. Sponsor identification—that's what they pay him for. It's the bottom line.
Many successful drivers grew up in the pits. They were racing brats of racing dads. As a boy in Lubbock, Bernstein pounded the sidewalk in front of Levine's wearing a sandwich board and a stack of hats to attract customers. He hung around with traveling salesmen, who were his role models. "The big deal was always, 'How much did you sell today?' " says Bernstein. His father had begun his career as a salesman with Levine's. He would eventually become president of the Levine's chain, which he left in 1970 when it had grown to 157 outlets in the Southwest. Bert now owns an import business in Dallas.
"My father was strict about two things," says Kenny. "One was working; he wanted you to understand what it took to make money to live, that it didn't just happen. The other thing was paying your own way. He'd help me when I needed it, but nothing was ever given. I always ended up paying him back, some way, somehow, with work."
Bernstein learned how to drive at about the same time he learned how to sell, and at about the same pace. His grandparents lived on a farm in Far-well, about 90 miles from Lubbock, and on weekend visits Grandpa would let young Kenny drive his old pickup on the deserted dirt roads. "I remember my grandmother once asking him how I drove," says Bernstein, "and he told her I was good but I had a lead foot."