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National Hot Rod Association Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Drag Racing Topics:  NHRA

National Hot Rod Association Media Conference

Brandon Bernstein
Robert Hight
May 9, 2007

THE MODERATOR: We'll get started with our teleconference today. We'll like to welcome the media and our special guests to today's NHRA Power Drag Racing Series teleconference. We're joined today by two of the season's hottest drivers, Brandon Bernstein, driver of the Budweiser Lucas Oil Dragster in Top Fuel; and Robert Hight, driver of the Auto Club Ford Mustang Funny Car.
Both drivers are currently second in the NHRA Countdown Championship in their respective categories. Only ten races remain until the Countdown to Four begins at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals and Championship contenders are established as the top eight racers in each pro category and Championship points are reset.
Brandon has earned two victories in three final rounds and currently trails Top Fuel Series leader Rod Fuller with 23 points heading into next week's weekend O'Reilly NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at scenic Bristol Dragway in northeast Tennessee.
Robert has won two times and has advanced to four final rounds. Robert has also earned two No. 1 qualifying positions. Robert is currently 121 points behind Funny Car Series leader Ron Capps.
We'll open it up to questions from the media in a moment. Both drivers are on the call now and available for questions. Before you ask your question, please address it to either Robert or Brandon.
Brandon, we'll start with you. Now that we're seven races into the season, the Countdown to the Championship Playoffs is fast approaching. Do you feel that there's been a higher sense of urgency these first races compared to past seasons, and has it affected your team's race-to-race strategy?
BRANDON BERNSTEIN: Well, I think there's definitely an urgency to be in that top eight. To begin the season, we know it's a long season, so there's going to be a lot of cars and a lot of changes in that top eight. But we just try and focus in on trying to be in that top eight.
You know, it's kind of just changed our dynamic just a little bit just to know that the eight number is the key number, and you have to be in that, and we just kind of race to be in that top eight and hopefully be up there in the top two, three, four, and be able to be in a good position with points.
THE MODERATOR: Robert, when you look at the competition in Funny Car and the quality of cars that haven't been qualifying in every race, does that give you a certain sense of pride to know that your team has been to four finals in seven races this year?
ROBERT HIGHT: Yes, it does, but at the same time, also, it gives you a little fear, too, because there are so many good Funny Cars in this class, and you know you could be on the outside looking in on Sunday if everything doesn't go just right. It's a little scary, last weekend in St. Louis having only two qualifying runs, and you know, I think the Countdown does help a little bit early in the season so that if you're not perfect but you're steady, you're going to be in the top eight. But there are no guarantees in Funny Car or Top Fuel, that's for sure, with the amount of good cars.
You know, our focus still is to go to each race and do the best we can, and I believe with the Countdown or without the Countdown, either one, the best car is still going to win the Championship.
THE MODERATOR: Now we'll take questions from the media.

Q. This question is for both of you guys. Looking ahead to Bristol a little bit, they've just kind of fixed the whole launching area there, and it hasn't -- nobody has run on it yet. Does that change anything about you guys' setup or your approach or anything heading into the Bristol race?
ROBERT HIGHT: My crew chief Jimmy Prock was actually at the Bristol track this morning, and he was looking it over, and with the way NHRA prepares the racetracks today, it'll have plenty of rubber, and it'll be seasoned by the time we get there.
BRANDON BERNSTEIN: I feel that Tim Richards, our crew chief, does the same thing. Once he gets to the racetrack he'll make that assessment, and the way that NHRA does prep the tracks down and the amount of sportsman cars that we have going down the track, it does help out a lot. So I'm sure that that track will be just fine.

Q. This is another question for both guys. I'd like to know, having multiple wins this early in the season, how much pressure does that take off of you as far as sponsors and other outside interests like that?
ROBERT HIGHT: Well, you know, we finished last season on a pretty good roll, you know. We were basically -- going into last weekend in St. Louis, we had been in seven of the last ten finals leading back to Indy last year. So we had been on a pretty good roll and had a good race car. But you always want to start the season on a high note. Everybody takes the off-season off and works on new things and you go testing.
Everybody has high hopes going into the season, and you know, guys like Mike Ashley, he stepped right up to the plate. He's been No. 1 qualifier the last three races, and he's on the verge of winning a lot of races here.
To have already been to the finals and won, it's a big deal, but we've got to stay focused and continue going to the final.
BRANDON BERNSTEIN: We feel the same way. Obviously getting some wins early in the season, it does definitely take a little bit of the pressure off of the team, off of the sponsors, everything, because you know if you get going in the season, and say you're 10, 11 races into the season with no wins, it just kind of feels like a snowball effect, like, man, are we ever going to win a race? Or how long is it going to take?
So it's nice to be out there early in the season and get those wins.

Q. Robert, I'm just wondering, what do you think it's going to take to jump ahead of Capps in the points standings?
ROBERT HIGHT: It's going to be tough, I'll be honest with you. He's already out to a pretty big lead on us, and there is no sign of his team struggling. They go a lot of rounds. They go down the racetrack probably more than anybody else. You know, they don't make the big runs that a lot of the teams make, but they make good enough runs to win a lot of rounds.
Since we missed Houston from Eric's accident, you know, that put us a little behind. But to still be second here, you know, with the competition that we have, I'm pretty proud of our team.
But I'll tell you, I don't see Capps faltering any time soon. We've actually been about the only car that can beat him this year. So we've got to do it on our own, that's for sure.

Q. Do you think his experience, as much experience as he has, you know, is really the difference?
ROBERT HIGHT: Yes, I do. You know, he's been at this a long time. He's been runner-up to John quite a few times. You know, that team has stayed together over there, and that's a big part of it is keeping all of your guys and the whole team together year after year. That's how I believe some of John's success came along, because he had the same team year after year, same guys, everybody knew their routine, they just did a perfect job, and that's what they're doing right now.

Q. Is there such a thing as a tune-up book for Bristol, and since the race has been in April and a lot of rain and now in May, can you throw that book out the window? This is a pretty wildcard race for you guys.
ROBERT HIGHT: Well, because it's in a different month this year, and also since it's a brand new racing surface, you're right. What we did last year is probably not going to apply this year.
But in all honesty, what we did last year with our race cars doesn't usually apply the next year anyway because there's so many changes. To be the best and get better and run better all the time, you're always continuously changing things.
You know, we know that Bruton Smith is going to prepare that place first class, and it's already a first class racing surface. It's going to be fun going to a new surface and letting the crew chiefs get in there and do what they do.
BRANDON BERNSTEIN: I agree with Robert. I think that definitely with Tim Richards, our crew chief, is going to look at some past data. But for the most part, year to year the tracks change, atmospheric conditions are so different, and obviously it being a different month, we're going to see some different climates. It's just going to be one of those deals where we just go in and try and race the racetrack.

Q. The major question on this end, of course, has been pretty much covered by everybody, being at the tail end here. Just wondering if there is anything that is particular that's done special for competition at the Bristol track that you don't see anywhere else in the country. For either one of you.
ROBERT HIGHT: No, I would say no. You know, I would say if there's one racetrack that we do different things at, it would be Denver because of the high altitude. But the rest of them, basically the same tune-up will apply. You have your track temperature, you have your atmospheric conditions, and you have your elevation.
All the crew chiefs have formulas for how they prepare the race car based on what we have at that given time, and the only really different place, like I say, is Denver with the high altitude. You know, we have to add compression and we change pistons, and it's a pretty big ordeal to go to Denver. A lot of fun, though.
Anyway, the other places you can basically look off of -- I believe once we make a run in Bristol we'll be able to go back to what we did at St. Louis and compare and make changes.
BRANDON BERNSTEIN: Yeah, I totally agree with that, Robert, with what Robert said. It's definitely the only place really that we see that is obviously Denver, like he said. You're going to see in Bristol, obviously it's going to be a great surface and it's just going to be good racing.

Q. My question is mainly for Robert. I'm interested in the safety changes now in the cockpit. When you guys went to Vegas, John expressed his concerns about the safety changes with the added padding and so forth, and then you went ahead and raced in Vegas anyway. You've had a couple of races now, a couple events under your belt. How is it in the car? Are you comfortable? Are there more changes that you think need to be made?
ROBERT HIGHT: Yes, I'm very comfortable in the car right now, actually more so than I've ever been, which actually that's a good thing.
I believe that our seatbelts, the way we've changed them, has been one of the biggest changes. It really holds you in the car and in that seat to where you cannot move around. Being able to be tight is a good thing. But it also makes you more part of that race car, and I think I can feel things and feel what the car does better than I used to. So that's a plus.
But what we can't forget is we've got to keep looking forward. You know, I'm sure we don't have perfect environment yet, and we've still got to get with experts and people that really know what they're talking about and ultimately get the safest race car we can.

Q. This is, again, for both you guys, kind of touching on safety again. Over in NASCAR they've made a big push to kind of change the cars and all that. If you guys had one thing that you could add to the cars or change about the cars to make them more safe and make you feel more safe in the cars, what would it be?
ROBERT HIGHT: Boy, that's a good question. You know, there are so many -- everything you do, every accident is going to be different, and the outcome could be different. So it's -- and you could also make a change in your race car that will affect and maybe help what happened to Eric, but it'll hurt something else that could go wrong. So you can't have knee-jerk reactions that you just go and fix this one thing for this one occasion and you mess up what could really happen, because what happened to Eric, it's pretty remote; it hasn't happened.
So to fix that and hurt something else like just slapping the wall real hard and making the car worse for that, that's not a good thing.
I believe I've got a safer race car than I used to have, a lot more padding around my head. So I think we've already done it, what you're asking, and I think we've already made the changes to where I feel safer in the race car with the padding around my head.
BRANDON BERNSTEIN: Yeah, and to just kind of reiterate what Robert said, I mean, obviously in our Top Fuel car, we made the changes and put the side padding by the helmet and everything, and that's something that I didn't have obviously before the accident with Eric. But it's definitely made my car -- made me feel a lot more safe. But like he said, we don't want to make too many moves toward different things because that was an isolated incident. We want to make sure that we're not making something worse if we have, say, a head-on collision or a side impact to the wall, what that's going to do.
So it's a different situation for every crash, and we just try and learn the most out of each crash and make those adjustments.

Q. Brandon, while we're talking about the safety stuff, I was curious how the cockpit has changed since your racket English town. You've had a miraculous comeback. I was wondering if your college education in sports medicine helped you heal up, and also a few comments about this season of yours where you're in second, won two races and you still had a DNQ, so that's living on the edge.
BRANDON BERNSTEIN: Yeah, thank you. That's just an a testament to our team, and after that Gainesville not qualifying, come back and win two races and just stay ahead strong on it. As far as the safety goes and what -- since my crash, obviously when I crashed, we didn't have these molded seats that we do now. We had an upright car that was right on my spine that NHRA mandated that we have both of those uprights moved to the right and left of our spine so we have two uprights.
So there's been a lot of things that are different in the cockpit as far as Top Fuel Car because of crashes, and obviously with Darrell Russell's crash, we learned to close up the roll cage area and make those shields.
There's a lot of things that have come out of these crashes to make these cars safer, and that's the main thing that we have to take from these, you know, these unfortunate tragedies that we've lost two of these racers. We need to make sure that we don't lose any more, and that's what we're trying to do.

Q. Do you guys have any predictions for Bristol? Will some records fall?
BRANDON BERNSTEIN: I would think that there's going to be quite a few records fall. We've seen obviously quicker times in both categories here in the last few races. I mean, you look at Atlanta, of all places, we had a very, very quick field there. So you're definitely going to see some good runs there in Bristol.

Q. If both of y'all could just give your overall impressions of Bristol, if you look forward to coming here, if it's a track that's difficult for you. I know, Brandon, you've won here before; Robert, you have not. So just basically, are you looking forward to getting here?
ROBERT HIGHT: I definitely am always excited about going to Bristol. I love the town, all the fans are great. Bruton Smith has a first-class operation there and a big NASCAR track across the street. One year we actually went to a concert after the drags were done, and yes, I always look forward to it. It's a challenge.
I haven't had much luck there the previous two seasons I've driven, but that gives me a little more added incentive to come there and try to win. That's what this Auto Club team is going to try to do this weekend.
BRANDON BERNSTEIN: You know, I love coming to Bristol. It's really one of my favorite tracks. You know, just the way that it's built in the side of the mountain, and it has so much history as far as Thunder Mountain. It's a great place. You drive into it and you see the huge NASCAR track right next to it, and it's just a feeling that you get like, man, this is a really cool racetrack.
The city is great and obviously all the fans are traffic there, so we always look forward to coming to Bristol.

Q. It's been such a difficult season, does it feel like things are getting back to normal now at John Force Racing?
ROBERT HIGHT: It's definitely starting to. One thing I can say is since the accident, John has just -- he's not been himself, and you could start to see him getting somewhat more back to normal on Sunday this last week. He finally won his first round, and he was excited coming to the racetrack Sunday to race. This just took a lot out of him.
Everybody has to deal with things differently, and he gets back here to the shop, and you know, he's still not himself. I think he needs to be out there at the races and racing and getting his car back in top form. They've struggled this year.
That doesn't have anything to do with Eric's accident or John's driving. Austin Coil, they've had a hard time. But they're starting to get there.

Q. Robert, I wanted to know if since you've been racing over the last few years if there's one thing that sticks out in your mind that you've learned that has been real helpful for you racing. And also, did Eric's accident give you pause, or what did you come away from that with, something positive?
ROBERT HIGHT: Okay, well, I've learned a couple things after driving -- this is my third season. If you ever go out and you have a run, and you think, boy, this is starting to get easy, and if you have that attitude, you'll go out there the next run and you'll drive it out of the groove or you'll make a mistake. I've learned real quick that this will humble you fast.
I try to take the approach that I know I'm still a rookie at this, I'm still new, I have a lot to learn, and I don't ever try to get complacent that I've got it figured out because I know I don't, and I'm going to continue to make mistakes, continue to learn.
Fortunately I'm in a real good race car, and that makes a big difference. Jimmy Prock has given me a car that qualifies near the top every week, and if I do my job, we're going to win races and go rounds. That definitely makes it easier for me for this transition.
But as far as what happened to Eric, it's still hard for me to see anything positive about this because we're going -- we go to the races now without our teammate and our friend, and it still doesn't seem real that he's not just going to walk in here to the shop and work on these race cars with us and do all the things that we used to do.
The only thing that I see positive is safety. You know, we've got to learn from what happened here and try to predict and learn from what else could happen and make these things safer.

Q. My question may not have come out the right way because I understand that there really -- other than, like you said, the safety, there isn't really anything positive. I guess what I was trying to ask is if it caused you to make any changes in the way you live your life. That's kind of more what I was asking.
ROBERT HIGHT: Definitely so. You know, they show all these video clips, and you see all the pictures of Eric, and there's never a picture that he didn't have a smile on his face. You know, I try to be really focused, and I'm probably a little more intense, but you know what, I want people to see me like they saw Eric.
You know, you could see just from the expression on his face just how much he enjoyed doing what he did, and I want people to realize that about me, as well. I am very fortunate to have this job, fortunate to be racing for John Force, driving anything, actually, and I want people to know how happy I am about that.

Q. This question is for Robert. With John Force over there, nobody can question really his greatness as a driver, but what are your impressions, especially through all this, of John Force as a leader, kind of the guy that a lot of us don't get to see? What's his leadership been like through all this?
ROBERT HIGHT: Well, that's one thing that I've always been impressed with John is how he can motivate people. You know, for a period of time here after the accident, he was kind of lost because, you know, he's in different territory here, didn't know what to do.
Still, you know, uncertain about how things need to be. He's got his daughter driving this year. And she's doing a very good job, by the way, too. Anyway, you know, you see that, you know this is dangerous, you know things can happen. For the most part, we don't have very many incidents in drag racing and NHRA, and that's thanks to their safety.
But still, it's hard to know what the next move to make is. I think it's very, very classy that he sat out Houston. Even if our race cars would have been ready to go with the new safety implementations, we were still sitting out. It was just not right to go there under these circumstances, and we needed time to deal with everything and be with John Medlin and his family. That's what impressed me most about John.

Q. Brandon, it dawns on me your dad might be a little difficult to deal with this week, and of course there's a big photo of his face on the Bernstein grandstand there in Thunder Valley. I think he'll be a crowd favorite. What's his drive and determination like heading into Thunder Valley after a DNQ in St. Louis?
BRANDON BERNSTEIN: Well, obviously you hate that the Monster Car didn't qualify there in St. Louis, but his drive and desire is just to get out there and win. I mean, this man is totally determined to win a championship for Monster Energy Drink and for Kenny Bernstein Racing, and he's going to be right out there. It's unfortunate that they didn't qualify, but it's kind of hard when you do have only two runs to be in there.
But coming into Bristol, he's definitely got a passion to win, and they're going to definitely go out and try and qualify and obviously try and go some rounds on Sunday.

Q. He likes Bristol pretty good?
BRANDON BERNSTEIN: He loves Bristol. He's had some success there, back when he was racing it and when it was called Thunder Valley way back when. He loves that place, and he's definitely going to have a determination to go out there and win.

Q. Do you have any childhood memories of the place when he was running --
BRANDON BERNSTEIN: You know, not really, because this was one of the races that I never went to as a kid. I only went to a handful of them as a kid, and so I don't recall anything back then.
THE MODERATOR: I think that wraps up our questions. I'd like to thank everyone for joining us on the call. There will be an audio replay of this on the internet and we'll send that information out. There will be a transcript we'll put out later today, and we'd like to thank Robert and Brandon for joining us on the call and wish both of them the best of luck for the remainder of the season.

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