GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With NHRA’s 60th anniversary celebration officially beginning during the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway this past weekend, several NHRA legends were in attendance and two of them — “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Kenny Bernstein — received special recognition.
The NHRA saluted Kenny Bernstein for breaking the 300-mph barrier at Gainesville Raceway and renamed the race track 301 Bernstein Way. His famous 301.70-mile-per-hour run came in Gatornationals qualifying March 20, 1992. Bernstein, who forever will be hailed as “The King of Speed” for the achievement, said that moment “always will be in our hearts.”
He said he had no idea his Budweiser dragster would crank out that number, leapfrogging from 297 mph to 301. However, unbeknownst to him, his Dale Armstrong-led crew was aiming for the 300, he said.
“We didn’t realize how big a deal it was. That didn’t hit me for two weeks,” Bernstein said.
He found out when he attended a NASCAR race and later the Indianapolis 500, tending to the two other teams he owned at the time. When he climbed into the grandstands to take his seat as a spotter at the Winston Cup race, NASCAR fans called out to him, “Hey, 300-Mile-An-Hour Man!” He got a similar reaction when his driver, Roberto Guerrero, earned the pole position at the Indianapolis 500. “They were paying attention,” he said, gratified.
“It was the last barrier in drag racing,” Bernstein said. “We don’t need to go 350. It’s pretty ridiculous now, as fast as they go. Cars go 300-plus all the time now. That’s the magic number. That’s the key — it always has been and it always will be.”
In pre-race ceremonies, the NHRA named a section of the grandstands in honor of Garlits, a Tampa native and longtime resident of Ocala, Fla.
“I look at this place and it just boggles my mind,” Garlits said of Gainesville Raceway, “because I remember when they built it and we had the Turkey Trot drags here. And we never dreamed it would ever be anything like this. Here we have one of the major drag-racing facilities on the entire planet, and it is an honor to have it here in Florida.”