Not afraid to take a risk: Kenny Bernstein
Fueled by food
Alumnus Kenny Bernstein hates to sit still.
He has raced cars at more than 330 miles an hour, setting world performance records.
He is the only race team owner to have collected wins in each of America’s three major motorsports series: NHRA Winston Drag Racing, NASCAR Winston Cup and IndyCar.
And he’s one heck of a businessman.
Bernstein’s work ethic emerged as a lad helping in the stock room of the Lubbock department store his father managed. At age 9, he ventured onto the sales floor and experienced the rush of selling socks at three pair for a dollar.
He proved his determination a few years later, as a 5-foot-7 linebacker at Monterey High School in Lubbock, regularly flattening huge offensive players. The trait served him well when, with no experience, he opened his first Chelsea Street Pub in 1973. Within five years, he owned 17 Chelsea Street Pubs, employing 2,700 people in five states.
Soon he sold the enterprise to return to his passion: auto racing.
As a teen, Bernstein turned the workaholic bent he inherited from his dad into a way of life. He chalked up a string of part-time and summer jobs to bankroll his desire for speed.
"My father taught me the value of money and that I had to make my own way," he said. "I wanted to own fast cars, and I knew if I worked hard enough, I could."
While his pals went around in clunkers, Bernstein drove hot rods. When he came to UT Arlington (then Arlington State College) to study business administration in the mid-1960s, he kept a race-modified 1953 Studebaker on a trailer outside his room. Racing had already become a big part of who he was, and the marriage of business and auto racing set the tone for his life.
To finance racing after college, he traveled Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee selling women’s fashions. He sold all week and funneled his earnings into ever-faster cars. Weekends he raced.
In 1970, he quit sales to open a wrecker service. He started with one truck and soon had nine trucks. Two years later, he sold the business.
Still he raced, but, frustrated by an inability to compete with the deep-pocketed race teams, he had some thinking to do. He started out to California to visit with friends and regroup.
On the way, he stopped in Lubbock to see a former employer. The West Texas town had just gotten its first shopping mall, the South Plains. The only other mall he had seen was NorthPark Center in Dallas.
Lunchtime rolled around, and the place had only one eatery—a hamburger stand. Bernstein sensed there was a market for a pub, similar to the John Bull Pub in NorthPark, where shoppers and merchants could have lunch and the college crowd could gather at night for libations and food.
Thus sprang the idea for the Chelsea Street Pub, the first of which opened less than two months later.
The plan succeeded—mall pubs in college towns—but the pace was a bit slow.
Did we tell you Kenny Bernstein likes to move?
In 1979, he hit the quarter-mile tracks in a car named for his pub’s signature sandwich, the Chelsea King. Later that year, he won several national events and in 1980 gained a Budweiser sponsorship that he has maintained for more than two decades.
Although recently retired from driving, Bernstein still owns his race team. Another Bernstein is at the wheel—Brandon, Kenny’s son.
It was great growing up with a father who raced cars.
"I’d open the papers and see his name and read about his races," the proud son said. Just before his high school senior year, Brandon went on the summer tour and helped work on the car.
Kenny notes that he continues to profit from his UT Arlington education, since the race team is a business with 16 employees.
"I’m still the owner," he said. "I pay the bills and Brandon gets to have all the fun."
— Sue Stevens