Interview with the Pros: Kenny Bernstein
By NHRA Communications
Brandon Bernstein was eight races into his professional career when he was injured as a result of an accident in Englishtown, N.J. last weekend. During the first round of eliminations, Brandon's car smoked the tires early and veered out of control, hopped the guard wall and stopped on the other side of the wall. He suffered a fractured vertebra and will be in a brace for three months. His father and team owner, six-time NHRA champion Kenny Bernstein, will be taking over the driving duties for Brandon until he is rehabilitated and is ready to jump back into the Budweiser/Lucas Oil Top Fuel dragster. In this Q&A session, Bernstein talks about Brandon's current condition, what it is like to be out of retirement so soon and how he is able to focus on racing while his son is still in a hospital.
Q: What is Brandon's condition?
BERNSTEIN: In the overall picture, he is really doing well in a lot of ways. We've had a couple of hiccups in the last few days but they will get that organized. Surgery isn't necessary, which is great. The first fracture of the T3 vertebrae is good in the sense that if you are going to have one bursting it is better to have it not go inward, it went outward. By going outward it didn't influence the spinal cord or the spinal column. There is no paralysis and there will be 100% recovery. The bad news so to speak is that he has got to be in a body brace, which goes from the back of the head to the waste, for eight to 12 weeks. He has to wear it all the time with the exception of sleeping, he can sleep without it. It will mobilize that area so that he can't move and hurt it anymore. That will allow it to heal on its own with nature and God. The total time for healing to get back in one of these cars is four to six months. The healing process will allow him to feel really good in a couple to three months. He's going to feel like he can do anything, but it really will take him four to six months to get back in one of these cars. The key here is that the bones get hard and not soft during the healing so if he ever had another problem or incident, it won't do more damage. The problems they have been having in the last couple of days are nausea and a lot of pain. When he takes medicine for the pain it makes him nauseous. They have him in a cycle and they are trying to get that under control. They really thought he would be out of the hospital by this weekend but as of today it is going to be at least Monday or Tuesday. Once they get stabilized on the pain, we'll take him home back to the West Coast and we'll rehab out there for four or five weeks or whatever it takes. I certainly feel that sometime soon he will want to be back out here hanging out with his brace on and traveling and doing some things with the team. It is going to be a couple of hard weeks to get that done.
Q: What is going through your mind as Brandon is trying to rehabilitate and you are coming out of retirement to climb back in a Top Fuel car?
BERNSTEIN: My first thought is that I am not excited about getting back in the car under these conditions. It kind of dulls that feeling that I had all year that I miss it very much and that I would like to do it again. I am sure that I still have that same feeling, but not under these conditions so that feeling is not there with me right now. Maybe in a couple of races or a couple of weeks or maybe by the end of this weekend I will feel differently about that but this is not the way that I wanted to do it. If I did ever get back in the car this is certainly not the way. I didn't really want to leave New Jersey yesterday because I knew that Brandon was still in a little bit of trouble with nausea and pain and even though it is nothing critical, I wanted to be there. This is a job we do and we have to want to do the job and we want to help these guys get as much out of the season as we can based on what we are dealt with. Brandon knows that and we came out here on those conditions. We're not excited today to jump in a race car in that light. If this was another race team separate from the Bud car and Brandon was in the Bud car, I would probably be tickled to death right now. We'll get better with that, I know because we have to get better. We have got to get our minds ready to go too.
Q: How much of an effort was made by the Budweiser team to get ready to race this weekend?
BERNSTEIN: Not much. This car was in the trailer and it was pretty much ready to go. This car was ready Sunday afternoon at Englishtown. (Crew chief) Tim Richards called me before they came to the hospital and he told me they were ready to go. The problem was the next car, the third car in line, had a lot of work to be done on it. They all went back to Indianapolis and spent a ton of hours on Tuesday and Wednesday getting that car up to date, ready to go and getting the decals ready to look like this car and back up into the top of the trailer. So that was the hard part. This car that we are running now was pretty easy to get ready to put on the track.
Q: When was the last time you were in a car?
BERNSTEIN: The Finals (at Pomona, Calif.) in November. We were thinking of testing the new car this week but I didn't want to leave Brandon. I couldn't do that.
Q: What was going through your mind when you were running down the track to get to Brandon after he crashed?
BERNSTEIN: I was just hoping that he wasn't hurt. As we have all seen in most of these wrecks the guys get right out of the car. I was looking for that to happen. I was just running trying to get there. My first instinct was to run and I probably should have gotten in a car, I would have gotten there sooner. My first thought was to get there and see what we had and see how he was. I fully expected to get there and see him standing there by the car and say 'Hey dad, I'm sorry, but let's get the other car out.' But that wasn't the case.
Q: What words of encouragement did he give you before you left for the race?
BERNSTEIN: We talked (Thursday) just before I left and I told him that I was really upset that I had to go. He understood that. I told him we were going to try to go out there and win one for him and he told me to tell the team to do their best and to try to win one because he knows we have a job to do. It has been tough for him the last couple of days and he's thinking about what happened and what he could have done to prevent what happened, as we all would do. That is just part of racing, that is what we do and that is just part of the game.
Q: Have you ever gone five months without being in a car?
BERNSTEIN: I've gone from November to February each season, so that is pretty close. It won't be a problem. We'll get in there and do the best we can. I assume it is going to be like riding a bicycle.
Q: What would be a successful weekend for the Budweiser team here at Heartland Park Topeka?
BERNSTEIN: We're racing for Brandon. Everything right now is for Brandon. This team is a great race team and if I can do my job we can win. This car is going to go. It is just me getting back up to speed and being able to do my job. Tim and I will get it done. We are not backing up any. Tim is not, the team is not. We are going to go out there and try to get the No. 1 qualifier and run the field. That is what you do. Whether or not we can do it, we will try. That is all we can do. We didn't come out here just to make a cameo appearance.
Q: Last year at this event during the second round of eliminations on your retirement tour you had trouble during the burnout and while backing up, the chutes came out and you had to abort the run. Is this weekend a chance to erase that final run here at Topeka?
BERNSTEIN: I told Brandon that last time we were here we messed up pretty good. We didn't have a very good burnout, we backed up too fast and the chutes came out because the steering wheel kicked my hand off of it and I hit the chutes by accident. We didn't get to make a run and we were really running well. From that aspect, maybe this is God telling me that we are going to get one more chance since we messed up so bad in Topeka.