Thursday, March 16, 2017

TDN Driver Profile: Ryan Bernal

Ryan Bernal

"An Appetite for Adrenaline"

As Dirt Racing fans, I think it's safe to say that we've all imagined what it is like to get behind the wheel of an 800-horsepower Sprint Car.  Could you imagine running up flights of stairs in a burning building, with nearly 100 pounds of firefighter gear on, in order to extinguish the fire and possibly save someone's life?  Ryan Bernal doesn't have to imagine, this is his life.

Ryan Bernal, 23, is a native of Hollister, California, which is about 40 miles Southeast of San Jose and about 80 miles Southeast of San Francisco.  An avid 49ers and Sharks fan, Bernal explained it was his father, Rick, who got him "hooked" on racing.  Ryan started racing at the young age of 4, wheeling a Quarter Midget at San Jose Speedway.  Never a stranger to success behind the wheel of a racecar, Bernal "graduated" to full-size Sprint Cars by age 14, primarily racing non-wing Sprints.

While Ryan's talent behind the wheel is unquestioned, he is like most drivers, in that he has had a lot of help and support throughout his driving career.  As mentioned, his father Rick is not only one of the primary reasons that Ryan became interested in racing, but he is also one of his biggest supporters.  Bernal also cited his girlfriend of 3 years, Gabrielle, as another key supporter.

Ryan pictured with his girlfriend, Gabrielle, at the 2017 Chili Bowl Nationals.  Photo Credit: TeeJay Crawford

Ryan didn't do much racing at the early part of 2016, picking-up midway through the season, at the early part of July.  This was due to the fact that he was pursuing a potential career, outside of racing: Firefighting.  Bernal explained that he "has always been interested in being a Firefighter", as he attended Fire Academy at Cal Fire and also volunteered at Hollister Fire, attending Academy there for approximately 6 months.  I asked Ryan if there was anything that he learned in Firefighting Academy that he may be able to apply to racing?  Bernal responded "absolutely, he gained a large amount of EMS Safety knowledge which can directly apply to racing".  Ryan also went on to say that he hopes to know "both sides" at racing events and suggested that he could possibly train Firefighter Crews, to help show them what they can do to help the driver, if a dangerous situation were to present itself.  Ryan confirmed that he will continue to pursue this career, between racing and that he plans to attend Medical Training in approximately 7 - 8 months.

Getting back to the topic of his girlfriend being one of his biggest supporters, I asked Ryan if there have been talks of him slowing down any time soon, or if there have been times where Gabrielle was concerned about the inherent dangers of racing.  However, Bernal immediately and confidently assured me "that is not a concern."  Ryan further explained that him and Gabrielle have developed lasting friendships with the McMahans (Paul & Jan), along with the Saldanas (Joey & Shannon).  Bernal went-on to say that Jan McMahan and Shannon Saldana have provided invaluable support to Gabrielle, especially when "coping" with the stress and fear that can often occur when a loved one is racing.

Beyond his family and girlfriend, Ryan mentioned two Team Owners that have been instrumental in supporting and developing his racing career:

Josh Ford Motorsports (JFM) is a Team stationed out of Oxnard, California, primarily focusing on non-wing Sprint Car racing on the West Coast, in both 360 & 410 competition.  They also field competitive cars at the Midget level, regularly racing in big events on the West Coast and the coveted Chili Bowl Nationals (Ryan drove for JFM in the 2016 Turkey Night Midget race, while "The Wild Child" Jac Haudenschild drove for JFM in the 2017 Chili Bowl).  More recently, JFM has even begun to "dip" into the Wing-side, competing occasionally with the World of Outlaws and other 410 Wing Sprint Car events.  Bernal explained that "JFM was a big supporter in the early part of his racing career."

Ryan has raced for Josh Ford Motorsports often.  Most recently at the 2016 Turkey Night Midget race, in California

More recently, Ryan has been driving for Mike Phulps Motorsports, in the familiar white/blue #56 livery!  Mike Phulps Motorsports is another California-based Sprint Car Team, competing in both 360 and 410 racing on the Wing and non-wing side.  Ryan typically races Phulps' Wing Sprint Cars in Northern California, while non-wing tends to be more popular in SoCal.  Bernal explained that there have been points in his racing career where he has gone "ride-to-ride", before landing his current seat with the Phulps Team.  He can attribute a large amount of his success and opportunities to these two Racing Teams, as they have helped him tremendously.

Bernal wheeling the Mike Phulps Motorsports #56 in non-wing competition, in Southern California
Ryan pictured here in-front of both Phulps non-wing 360 & 410 Sprint Cars during the 2016 Western World, in Arizona

Ryan was very candid during our discussion and admitted that he would prefer to race non-wing Sprints, over Wing Sprints, if all things were equal.  However, most Sprint Car racing enthusiasts and insiders will be the first to tell you that all things are not "equal".  Wing Sprint Car racing tends to be more popular, with its wide-open style and faster speeds.  It's also no secret that Wing Sprint Car races tend to pay a greater purse, as opposed to non-wing.  Bernal explained that corner entry is the biggest difference between the two styles of cars.  "Wing Sprint Cars tend to drive themselves more", Ryan stated, confirming that you want to get sideways the least you can, as that has a tendency to scrub-off speed.  Non-wing Sprint Cars generally have a much more aggressive corner entry and are much less aerodynamically dependent.

I asked Bernal what made him interested in "slapping" the Wing on, since his passion clearly lies on the non-wing side.  "Most big non-wing races are in Indianapolis", Ryan explained.  He also confirmed the tendency for higher payouts on the Wing-side, while also elaborating that he wanted to be more versatile and enjoys racing a little closer to home, in Northern California.  For those who didn't know,  Ryan competed in the 2015 Knoxville Nationals, which is the most prestigious Wing Sprint Car race in the world.  While he didn't make an A-Main event at Knoxville, which is known for having car-counts well in excess of 100, Bernal said that it was "a really cool event that was a lot of fun and that, overall, it was a really good experience".  Much to my surprise, Ryan also explained that the 2015 Knoxville Nationals were really the first part of his Wing Sprint Car racing career.

Bernal sported this black, white and gold scheme during the 2015 Knoxville Nationals

I asked Ryan what were the biggest differences between racing Sprint Cars with 360 cubic-inch engines, when compared to 410-cubic inch.  Bernal explained "the biggest difference is overall speed and throttle control".  He continued by stating that "you can stay in the throttle much longer and heavier with a 360 cubic-inch engine, whereas the 410 cubic-inch motor requires a bit more patience and finesse."  I asked Bernal what it was like for him, when competing outside of his home state of California.  He admitted that "the competition is much tougher" and explained that "you're at an overall lack of knowledge about the track and racing surface, so you're playing catch-up the entire night."

One of my favorite questions that I asked Ryan was why he races and what motivates him to race?  He quickly responded that he "likes the challenge of racing different styles of cars and that he loves having success, behind the wheel."  Bernal went-on to claim Calistoga as his favorite track and the Louie Vermeil Classic is his favorite racing event.  Not surprisingly, Ryan picked one of his biggest career wins as the Louie Vermeil Classic at Calistoga, along with his Trophy Cup triumph.

Ryan competed in the 2017 Chili Bowl Nationals, driving the #87 Midget for Crazy Eyes Motorsports, which includes ownership by Joey and Shannon Saldana.  2017 marked the 3rd time that Bernal has competed in the Chili Bowl Nationals, which led me to ask what his expectations were?  "Make the A-Main" was Ryan's simple, yet difficult response.  As most race fans know, approximately 300 Midgets converge on Tulsa, Oklahoma for the Chili Bowl Nationals, so simply "making the A-Main" is a huge accomplishment.  Unfortunately, Bernal's 2017 season started similarly to the way 2016 ended: with a lot of bad luck.  Ryan was not-only quick at the Chili Bowl, but he was also quick during the Junior Knepper 55, another indoor Midget race which is held a few weeks prior.  Speed did not translate to success, however, as Ryan suffered engine problems in both events and ultimately settled for making it to the F-Main, in Tulsa.

Ryan's 2017 Junior Knepper 55 Midget, ready for battle!
Bernal and teammate, Joey Saldana's cars lined-up in the close confines of the 2017 Chili Bowl pits, in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Thankfully for Ryan, his bad luck was finally put to the wayside, as he raced the 56 Phulps Motorsports entry with the 360 USAC West Coast Sprint Car Series at Las Vegas, this past weekend.  This event is held in-conjunction with the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars, so the non-wing Sprint Cars are somewhat of a "support class".  That didn't matter to Bernal, as he swept the weekend, pocketing the $3,000 payday on both Thursday and Friday nights, in Sin City.  What's more impressive, Ryan won Friday night's event from 22nd starting place after losing an engine in his Heat Race and tagging the field with a back-up engine!

Ryan (in blue), his father Rick (far left) and crew celebrate their victories in Las Vegas this past weekend!
Bernal scored this cool Vegas-themed trophy, to go along with a total payday of $6,000 for sweeping both nights!

Not only is Ryan Bernal a very talented Sprint Car driver, he and his father are really great people.  I met with Ryan during the 2016 Western World, in Arizona and arrived to his pit about :45 minutes before the driver's meeting.  Much to my dismay, Ryan was not at his pits, while his father and crew were preparing the race cars for the evening's events.  Rick immediately called Ryan and asked that he meet me at his pit.  While waiting for Ryan to arrive, Rick offered me a bottle of water, as it was a typically-warm Arizona day.  It was less than a few minutes before Ryan arrived, showing that he respects his father and my time.  Not only were they gracious with their time, they were very hospitable, even when work needed to be done to the racecars.

After such a great start, one would think that Ryan should race the full 2017 USAC West Coast Sprint Car schedule.  However, keep in mind that he may continue his career as a Firefighter.  This makes it somewhat difficult to predict where Bernal's racing career may lead.  He could potentially be one "big break" away from landing a well-funded ride on the USAC National Tour.  Even more intriguing, Ryan intends to further his career as a Firefighter and EMT, so it's possible that he may not have a full-time racing career.

One thing is for certain: Ryan Bernal is a hell of a wheelman in a Sprint Car and a great person outside of his racing seat!


Name: Ryan Bernal
Age: 23
Hometown: Hollister, California
Biggest Supporters: Father (Rick) and girlfriend (Gabrielle)
Biggest Career Wins: Louie Vermeil Classic at Calistoga and Trophy Cup

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