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Bad timing ... and phone calls from famous folks

14 Aug 2007
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

“Who are you going to make mad this week?” joked Mike Dunn when I spoke to him this morning for his regular post-race Final Take column.

He was referring, of course, to DRAGSTER’s weekly dilemma of who to put “on the cover of the Rolling Stone,” as the racers sometimes like to say. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know it’s a topic about which we agonize each week to ensure that the most deserving winner gets the spotlight, even if that criteria shifts based on a lot of factors.

It was disappointing to have to tell the Budweiser team that Brandon Bernstein wasn’t going on, that we were going to honor Jeg Coughlin for his 50th national event win instead. The Bud team usually calls here every Monday not to politic for its driver –- I can’t say the same for other teams –- but to find out if he is on the cover so that they order extra copies to distribute to their sponsors.

If Coughlin hadn’t won, "Double B" definitely would have been my pick because it’s his fifth win and he’s been on the cover just once (after his Atlanta win); by way of comparison, Greg Anderson has seven wins and two cover appearances, and even he might not have made it on for his last one had it not been his 50th.

Chalk up Bernstein’s cover absence to a lot of bad timing. Bernstein got aced out of the cover in Las Vegas because Robert Hight was there after his emotional victory one race after sitting out the Houston event after Eric Medlen’s death. He didn’t make the Topeka cover because that was Mike Ashley’s first Funny Car win, and in Bristol he was in the shadows after John Force finally scored his first of the season in Funny Car.

If Brandon and Kenny had both won, I’d have been calling Columbus to apologize to Jeg, or he’d have to be sharing the cover with the Bernsteins after what would have been a historic father-son double-Pro winner's circle. Of course, the Bernsteins were the first to share the winner's circle as Pro and Sportsman winners in Las Vegas in 2001 and have since been joined by John and Ashley Force (Pomona2 2004) and Dave and Ray Connolly (earlier this year in Madison), but having a father and son win the fuel classes at the same event would have been too tough to pass up.

The Bernsteins aren’t the only ones who utilize their appearance on the cover for more than just a nice addition to the scrapbook. Since 2003, the folks at GM have regularly asked for copies of the cover anytime that a GM-branded car is featured there so that they can produce memento plaques for their drivers, including most recently the KB team, Tommy Johnson Jr., and even Super Stock ace Peter Biondo, last week’s cover subject. I guess they'll be looking for Jeg this week.

But back to Mike Dunn …

I enjoy getting to spend about an hour on the phone with Mike after each race to get his thoughts for his very popular Final Take column. I’ve known Mike for a long, long time –- back to 1982 and his sometimes fiery days in Roland Leong’s cars –- and he’s always an absolute delight to speak with. He’s so knowledgeable and insightful that it really makes for some good reading. We’ll usually spend some time just catching up, whether it’s about his son Michael’s promising baseball career or about Mike’s biking expeditions, then launch into the event recap.

Usually I call Mike late Tuesdays after he’s had a chance to get home and unwind a bit and after Michael’s baseball practice, but he called me early this morning because he’s headed to Bristol, Conn., home of ESPN, for an annual ESPN summit that will bring together more than 100 on-air talents (and their producers) to discuss new strategies and so on. The entire NHRA team will be there, from Paul Page on down, plus producer Shawn Murphy.

Mike also is prepping for his annual bike ride with Whit Bazemore and the gang from Mike’s home in Mt. Joy, Pa., to the track in Reading. It’s about a 50-mile ride that they’ll cover in about three hours; that’s a 17-mile average -- not bad considering it involves a lot of hills.

It was a busy day on the phone because not long after I hung up with Dunn, John Force called to touch base on a number of topics, most critically the Brainerd final. As much as he wanted to win, he really felt bad he had to do it at Kenny Bernstein’s expense, especially because of how well Bernstein had driven at the event.

It was their first meeting since the 1989 event in Englishtown –- a year before Force won the first of his 14 world championships; that shows you how long ago that was -– and Bernstein even had a lopsided 6-1 win-loss record against Force back in those days.

“I know it would have meant a lot to him to match what his kid did, and he was really killing them on the Tree,” said Force. “It’s hard to get to the final looking for a win for your new sponsor and not get it, and maybe it would have given him a boost to get into the [Countdown].”

Getting to chat with drag racing's most famous drivers is one of the greatest -- and still thrilling -- parts of our job here. Remember, a lot of these guys were our heroes before we ever got here; many of them still are. Force covered a lot of other things that hopefully I can share here soon, but not yet.

Not long after that, another old pal, Tom McEwen, was on the other end of the phone. Tom’s one of drag racing’s all-time greats, and it’s an honor that he considers me a good friend and calls me regularly to make sure I’m up on some of the latest news coming down the pike. “The Mongoose” was on a mission this time out, though, asking if I knew who won Funny Car at Orange County Int’l Raceway’s Last Drag Race. (Insert Final Jeopardy theme and try to come up with it before I tell you.) I have no idea why he wanted to know, nor apparently did he have time to explain. I took a quick guess (Mike Dunn?… Oooh, no, I’m sorry) and dashed off to the ND Library to get the answer. I was at that sad, sad event, but it was 24 years ago -- wow, that’s pretty amazing; how time flies when you’re not having match race fun -- so I couldn’t quite remember until I broke open the Nov. 11 issue.

It was at 1:45 a.m. on Oct. 30 when Force, at the wheel of his Mountain Dew Camaro, smoked the tires and lost the final round to … Kenny Bernstein.