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Ben Smith

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Bernstein is back strong in Top Fuel

Brandon Bernstein, son of legendary drag racer Kenny Bernstein, will drive his Top Fuel dragster in this weekend’s U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

– So this is what blood makes a man do, if that man is Brandon Bernstein: It makes him tell his achin’ back to shut the hell up.

Day after day now, week after week, he grits his teeth, hauls his weary 41-year-old self out to that smoking ribbon of asphalt, and straps himself into what amounts to a four-wheeled bomb. And then he drops the hammer on that shrieking bad boy and goes hurtling off.

Needless to say, the achin’ back likes this not at all.

“Yeah, it’s extremely difficult,” Bernstein says, when you ask how a man who had surgery to remove a herniated disc a couple months ago drives an NHRA Top Fuel dragster for a living.

This is no gentle business, in case you had illusions otherwise. A Top Fuel rail, as they’re called, runs on a lethal mix of nitromethane and methanol and will take you from zero to 100 mph faster than you can say “Holy —” It will fling you down the aforementioned 300-foot ribbon in the time it takes to count to three. And by that time, you’ll be pulling four G’s.

Four G’s on a freshly opened back. “Extremely difficult” might have been underselling it.

But by the time he got to Atlanta back in May, there was no way Bernstein’s season was going to continue unless he had the surgery. And so he did.

“I was just in massive pain,” he says.

And besides, it’s not like he had a choice. Blood pretty much demanded it.

Bernstein’s daddy, see, is Kenny Bernstein, and all you need to know about him is he’s in the Motorsports Hall of Fame. That ribbon of asphalt owned him all his life, and when Brandon got old enough it was going to own him, too.

“There was never a doubt I wanted to do anything but drag race,” says Bernstein, who’s 12th in the Top Fuel points, two position and 166 points out of a playoff spot, as he comes to the annual Labor Day weekend U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis. “I told my dad in high school when I got the bug of working on the race teams in the summers with him that I eventually wanted to drive one some day. He said, ‘All right, well, get your degree from college first and then we’ll talk.’ ”

So Brandon got his degree. And then he went looking for something fast to drive.

He ran for his dad for six years, and now he drives the machine for Morgan Lucas Racing. At the moment, he’s got 19 career wins and 38 career final rounds – plus a legacy of back issues that began when broke his back in a crash in 2003, and that’s left him this season with periodic numbness in his foot and sometimes excruciating pain in both foot and back.

All of which came to a head in Atlanta.

“That was the first race it really flared up big time,” says Bernstein, who missed four events after the surgery. “We ended up going to the finals that day and the whole day you’re just thinking, ’Man, can we just lose? I’m in so much pain.’ ”

He still is. Oh, it’s getting better – the acupuncture and cold laser treatments have helped some, he says – but he still has some pain and numbness on the top of his foot, and every once in a while some low-back pain. But he soldiers on.

He could hardly do otherwise, could he?

“You just block it out,” Bernstein says. “You have to. We’re there to answer to our sponsors and try to win races, and so, … I just kept blocking out the pain.”

And dropping that hammer.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.