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May 5, 2012

Bernstein, Childress, Force: International Heroes

Kenny Bernstein, Richard Childress and John Force were inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame on Thursday night.

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NHRA legends Kenny Bernstein and John Force and NASCAR team-owner Richard Childress were dressed to impress for their inductions into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame Thursday evening at the Speed Channel Dome adjacent to Talladega Superspeedway.

And for Childress, the black-tie ceremony was a lifetime removed from his first wide-eyed tour of the sprawling Alabama facility.

“In 1969, that’s where I got one of my biggest breaks,” said Childress, whose NASCAR career accelerated during a driver’s strike that threatened the high-banked, 2.66-mile trioval’s first race – the infamous Talladega 500 – on Sept. 14. When NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. was forced to look for replacement drivers in the face of safety concerns voiced by series regulars, Childress saw opportunity and signed-on.

“I remember going over to the Hall of Fame with Don Naman and just looking around and thinking, ‘Man, these are real heroes in here,’ ” said Childress, 66, now one of NASCAR’s most successful and wealthy team-owners. “To be able to go in this year is really, really special for me and my family. In racing, everybody sacrifices. And families sacrifice a lot.”

Childress warmed-up for his IMHOF induction with a similar ceremony during the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame awards gala at Texas Motor Speedway last month. Childress was presented the Bruton Smith Legend Award given to individuals who have made a lasting impact on motorsports.

“When I started, I didn’t think I’d be alive today,” said Childress, one of NASCAR’s top independent drivers in the early 1970s who switched his number from 96 to 3 in 1976 in tribute to Junior Johnson, “The Last American Hero.” Childress never won in NASCAR’s premier series as a driver, retiring in 1981 with six top-five and 76 top-10 finishes and a career-best of third (1978).

But Childress had the business savvy to hire Dale Earnhardt in 1981 for the first of their two stints together; the friends went on to win six of Cap E’s record-tying seven Sprint Cup titles. Richard Childress Racing also has posted four Nationwide Series titles and a Camping World Truck Series crown. RCR was the first organization to win titles in the Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.

“Anytime you can receive any type of award in this sport it’s very meaningful…quite humbling for me,” said Childress, whose off-the-track interests are highlighted by his award-winning Childress Vineyards in Lexington, N.C. “I didn’t get here (alone)…it’s all about the people with me. Anytime I receive an award I’m receiving it for the people that’s worked with me over the years – drivers and everyone else.”

Fittingly, RCR posted its landmark 100th Cup victory at Talladega in October 2011 with Clint Bowyer. In addition to current Cup stars Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard, Childress is focused on the budding NASCAR careers of grandsons Austin and Ty Dillon. Austin, the 2011 Camping World Truck Series champion, has graduated to the Nationwide Series for RCR. Ty, the 2011 ARCA champion, has replaced his older brother in the Truck Series.

”They’re definitely going to keep me in it a lot longer,” said Childress, a longtime partner with Chevrolet Racing. “Really proud of their accomplishments…and they want it bad. They know they have to perform and they’ve got to win races and championships to keep a job in this business.

“And I don’t have any plans to go anywhere. Now I’m kind of getting re-fired-up, re-energized just watching them and hanging with them. I love this sport. You know, I’ll be in this sport until they run me off or I do something and they run me off. Maybe I’ll only come to a few races some day _ the old clock ticks on all of us. I’m hoping to be around quite a few more years and watch these guys keep racing for championships.”

Bernstein and Force are the 10th and 11th NHRA inductees into the prestigious Hall, which features among its members a distinguished roster of drivers from all segments of motorsports including

Earnhardt, Mario Andretti, Richard Petty and A.J. Foyt Jr. Previous NHRA inductees are Mickey Thompson (1990), Wally Parks (1992), “Big Daddy” Don Garlits (1997), Don “The Snake” Prudhomme (2000), Shirley Muldowney (2004), Joe Amato (2005), Bob Glidden (2005), Warren Johnson (2007) and Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins (2008).

Bernstein was not only a gifted driver but also a pioneering businessman, headlined by his 30-year sponsor relationship with Budweiser. He remains the only team-owner to have collected wins in each of America’s three major motorsports series: NHRA, NASCAR and CART (Indy-car).

“The festivities surrounding the International Motorsports Hall of Fame are fabulous, and we couldn’t be any more proud and honored to now be a member of this elite group of motorsports luminaries,” Bernstein said. “In 1979 in an NHRA event in Baton Rouge, La., John Force and I faced-off in the final Funny Car round. It was one of the first times either of us had made it to a final round, and here we were racing each other.

“It’s ironic that 33 years later, we are both standing on this stage for this momentous occasion. If you had asked me in 1979 where we saw ourselves in 33 years, we never would have guessed our path would have led us here. John has been a good friend for all these years, and we’re pleased to have reached this destination together.”

A six-time NHRA world champion, Bernstein earned 69 national event victories and became the first to win world titles in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. He earned the title “King of Speed” after becoming the first driver to break the 300-mph barrier in Gainesville, Fla., in March 1992. Bernstein retired from NHRA as a team-owner at the end of last season.

“It’s also an honor to share the stage with Richard Childress,” said Bernstein, 67, who was presented for induction by NHRA announcer Bob Frey. “We were first introduced in 1980 by R.J. Reynolds motorsports boss Ralph Seagraves when Richard and Dale Earnhardt sewed up a championship at Riverside International Raceway. When we began fielding a NASCAR team several years later, Richard was the man who was always available to help me and give me direction, and for that we have been eternally grateful. It’s great to reconnect with Richard tonight.

“My son, Brandon, who has been a part of our racing operation for many years, is here tonight along with our special guest Larry McReynolds, who was our NASCAR crew chief for many years. We are proud that they are here to share the evening with us. Lastly and most importantly, I want to thank my wife, Sheryl, for standing by my side and working shoulder-to-shoulder with me for the past three-plus decades. She has been responsible for a great deal of my success, and we couldn’t have done it without her.”

Force has dominated NHRA Funny Car racing since the early 1990s and owns records for victories (134), No. 1 qualifying positions (139), elimination round-wins (1,102) and world championship titles (15). In 1996, he was named Driver of the Year for all of motorsports and became the oldest NHRA champion in 2010 when at 61 he earned his most recent world championship in a dramatic comeback effort. NHRA President Tom Compton presented Force for induction.

“You can’t talk about your career without leaving someone off of the list,” said Force, 63. “I don’t want to miss anyone, but there are key people that helped me get into the Hall of Fame tonight and one of the major people was (crew chief) Austin Coil. Without Austin, there is no way I am here accepting this honor. I also have to thank my wife, Laurie, for putting up with me. I always tell people she loves me, but she just doesn’t like me. We used to sleep in the cab of a truck and she did everything from writing my first contracts to most importantly raising our three amazing daughters: Ashley, Brittany and Courtney.

“In the early days, my oldest daughter, Adria, would help out wherever she could and now she and my son-in-law, Robert Hight, help me run this company. I still think back to the early days with Uncle Beavs and Dave Condit; we were a mess, but we loved to be at the track. I always wanted to be like Prudhomme and Garlits and Kenny. That was my dream, and to be here shows you what an old truck driver can do if he puts his mind to something and he has a lot of help from some really smart people.”

Force recently won the 2012 season-opening O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Super Start Batteries in Pomona, Calif., in his familiar Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang. “Brut” Force sits seventh in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series point standings.

“Castrol has been with me almost this whole ride, and I am proud to represent them as well as Ford, AAA, Mac Tools, BrandSource, Traxxas and Freightliner plus every sponsor that has ever been on my race car,” Force joked. “We are all going into the Hall of Fame tonight. For the NHRA, this is big to have me and Kenny go in together and I could not be prouder.

“I am so honored that it is hard for me to say how much this means to me. We have won a lot of races and championships, but I always just wanted to put on the helmet and hear the roar of the crowd. I am going to keep on racing until someone tells me I can’t do it anymore, and then I am going to go on tour. I also want to thank the media. They used to write stories about me just because I was crazy and caught on fire all the time. Thank you for every interview and every story. I have been a very lucky man.”

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