You'd think that I've been here long enough that nothing surprises me anymore, but I'm happy to say that's not the case, and yesterday's unexpected announcement from Kenny Bernstein that he was stepping out of the cockpit and turning over the reins of his Monster Energy Funny Car to Tommy Johnson Jr. is Exhibit A. It's what keeps this job exciting after more than 25 years at the keyboard.
Being in the news business isn’t always pretty. Sometimes we have to put on our newsman hats to report the sad, like the sudden losses of Leslie Lovett in July 1996, Blaine Johnson and Elmer Trett at Indy in 1996, Fuzzy Carter in May 2000, Steve Evans in November 2000, Buster Couch in January 2002, Scott Geoffrion in May 2006, and Eric Medlen and Wally Parks this March and September.
Other times, like now, it's quite thrilling to be able to report stories like this. There have been other shocking announcements over the years that really got my attention -– like Bernstein and Dale Armstrong splitting up in 1997 after 16 successful years together or Joe Amato and Tim Richards doing the same in 1992 after more than 20 years together –- that change the world as you know it, but neither of those exactly came out of left field like yesterday's announcement.
Senior Editor Kevin McKenna and I were in my office, talking about next week's 2008 National DRAGSTER planning meetings and discussing possible replacements for departing staffer Todd Veney when the phone rang. It was Susie Arnold, Bernstein's longtime publicist, who wanted to make sure I had gotten the email she'd just sent. As I searched my Inbox for her message, that old familiar tingle ran up my back because publicists don't follow up a run-of-the-mill press release. "What's up? What's the big news?"
The look on my face must have been priceless because Kevin, seated across my desk from me, listening to me say stupid things like "That's amazing," mouthed the word "What?"
The announcement is truly a good news-bad news scenario. I'm thrilled that Tommy Johnson Jr., whom I've known since he was a teenager racing in Super Gas, will be able to continue to showcase his considerable skills next season instead of sitting on the sidelines or roaming the pits and trade shows, résumé in hand, looking for a new ride or a new sponsor. We're also looking forward to him going head-to-head with his wife, newly minted Funny Car pilot Melanie Troxel.
Even though T.J. had the benefit of an eager father with a reasonably successful business to back his early racing endeavors, he's also earned his stripes and paid his dues when he didn’t have a backer. Veney did an interview with T.J. earlier this year for ND's "Out of the Groove" column, and one of the questions was "What advice would you give aspiring racers?"
“How bad do you want it?” he responded. “If you want to race, you’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen. When we didn’t have a sponsor, I’d drive the truck to the races, work on the car, drive it, help tune it, do the press work, then drive it home and do all the maintenance on the car by myself. I’d work all day, then go to the shop and work all night. Getting to race came at the expense of many other things, such as my friends and my social life. I didn’t care — I wanted to race.”
That says a lot about T.J., one of our regular bloggers here at NHRA.com, and pretty much just an all-around great and very likable guy, a straight shooter who's always a pleasure to interview. He's got the skills and has driven high-profile rides before, for Joe Gibbs and, obviously, for "the Snake." Bernstein made a great and deserving pick.
I'm not really sure how the Bernstein camp kept this under wraps. I don’t know of a person in our well-connected world that knew this was coming. Secrets are incredibly tough to keep in drag racing; most announcements seem to be well-known or leaked weeks if not months before they're announced. I'm pretty sure that Bernstein could have told us the Martians were landing next week before we'd have believed that he was going to retire again, this time so unexpectedly.
Don Garlits used to say, "Retiring is easy; I've done it dozens of times," and I can't help but wonder of Bernstein is really done this time.
When he first retired, in 2002, Bernstein gave us two years' notice and, fortuitously for him (but less so for son Brandon), he was able to temporarily squash his growing driving jones in 2003 when Brandon was injured in May in Englishtown.
"In 30-plus years of racing I'd never stood out there on the starting line and just watched, especially when my racecar was running," he told us. "It was a big adjustment for me. I missed driving the car and the competition tremendously, especially at the very start of the season. It was a real shock to the system. I went from being a competitor, racing nearly every day and every week and staying in that frame of mind at all times, to being on the sidelines. It was much more difficult than I thought it would be."
He finished out the 2003 season (and, we thought, his driving career) while Brandon convalesced and went out with a bang, a hugely successful run of four victories in the last five races of the 2003 season that were a much better sendoff than the back-to-back first-round losses he suffered in 2002 (the last to unheralded Yuichi Oyama after losing a head gasket in Pomona).
He shocked us at Indy last year when he announced he not only was coming back but was doing so in a Funny Car. I remember the stunned looks on the faces of my fellow journos in the pressroom. We had been called there for a "Bernstein family announcement" which we assumed meant that Brandon was getting married or something else of a personal nature. Bernstein entered the room on a warm day with his jacket fully zipped, which should have been our first clue he was hiding something like a Monster Energy shirt beneath it.
He had a great season this year, overcoming new-team bugs to reach two final rounds and, best of all, he proved that he could still drive a racecar. Even when he struggled early on, his peers all said, "Watch out, he's still got it," and they were right.
What makes this announcement even more surprising is that last week I got a call from K.B., who was looking for Veney. I joked with T.V. that maybe Kenny was looking for a new driver and heard that Todd was available. Turns out that "King Kenny" was more interested in Todd's stats than his driving as Bernstein wanted to know if he'd topped the charts in the yearly reaction-time averages that Todd maintains for us. Bernstein barely finished second behind 2007 champ Tony Pedregon, with Pedregon getting the infinitesimal edge well down the line of decimal places (.0647 to .0648), and Todd even cited that in a note with the stats just for Bernstein's benefit.
I thought that the fact that Bernstein was so into those numbers meant he was still very much in the game and, who knows, maybe he will be. At the end of 2003, we asked if we would ever come back (again) and he said, "Well, I did learn that you never say never so I'm not going to say that I'll never get back in a racecar."
Hopefully he still feels that way.
If he doesn't, he leaves behind an incredible driving career, chock full of championships and race wins, broken performance barriers, amazing technological advancements, and innumerable firsts. He'll always wear a crown in my books.