Retro Rumblings – Hi. I’m Monty Berney!
When it came to Goodguys Vintage Drag Racing in the ’90s, Sears Point Raceway and Bakersfield were the two anchor facilities. It just so happens today’s rumbling is about one fall morning at Sears Point (now Sonoma Raceway) outside Sonoma, California.
In addition to our full drag racing program which many of you fondly remember, we usually looked for a “hook” to stir up hype and reach as many fans as possible. One year, we booked a match race between Monty Berney and another guy from the Fastest Street Car circuit. Berney was a Bay Area resident but had international reach and popularity due to his 3,400-pound, all-steel, 7-second ’55 Chevy he called “Bertha.” It’s no easy feat to get a heavy car under 8-seconds in the quarter mile and back then, the Fastest Street Car scene was wildly popular thanks to Hot Rod magazine and the National Muscle Car Association. The entries had to be 100-percent street legal and registered with state DMV.
Through the pages of Hot Rod and promoter NMCA, the Fastest Street Car in America events drew thousands of door-car-crazed fans to Memphis, Tennessee and Orlando, Florida. Berney’s “Bertha” shoebox was one of the most popular cars in the field and it was the only ’55 Chevy in competition. He was an emerging star. We had never personally met, and I had no idea what he even looked like.
Being solely focused on our own VRA series, several of us Goodguys didn’t realize just how popular Berney was at that time. When we booked him to run, it got out on the national wires. It was the shot in the arm we needed.
But Berney came with a posse. A big posse.
In those days, Eugene “Geno” Gastellum and his team parked the race cars in the pits. My job for the first part of race day was to greet and hold the racers at the gate. Geno and his helpers Mike and Sally would go back and forth on golf carts to lead them to their pit space. We parked three hundred cars from dawn until around 10 am. It was stressful as hell. When I say we parked race cars, I mean the truck, the trailer, and in most cases an additional camper or a motorhome. The pits were only so big, so space was tight. It was like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle under a time crunch.
The morning of this particular race, there were several passenger cars parked at the locked pit gate before sunup. “We’re here with Monty Berney” they said. We let them in and told them to park in the spot we set aside for Berney and his match race opponent. Thirty minutes later, more cars and motorhomes rolled through – “We’re with Monty Berney,” they said. We waved ’em in and Geno got them out of the way. This went on for what seemed like hours. Both Geno and I were completely worn out by the Monty Berney entourage.
At about 10:15, a coach and motorhome rolled up to the pit gate. A bright faced, mustached guy with a faint Canadian accent leaned out the coach window and said, “Hi. I’m Monty Berney.”
After hours of the Monty Berney parade, Geno and I were over it. Hell, we booked Don freaking Garlits one time and he didn’t have half of Berney’s entourage. With a red face and steam coming out of both ears, I looked at the man in the coach and said to him “Get the ‘Eff’ out of here buddy. We are sick and tired of hearing about Monty Berney. There is NO MORE ROOM FOR MONTY BERNEY. Hit the road.”
He had a puzzled look on his face. “But I’m Monty. It’s me. You guys paid me to show up! Look, here’s my driver’s license.” He produced his license and low and behold, it was the one and only Monty with Bertha in tow. I profusely apologized for telling our guest of honor to Eff off. We both started cracking up and he got out of the coach, handed me a pastry and said how much he appreciated us taking care of all his family and friends who had come to watch him race.
Quite an introduction. The race went off without a hitch and the crowds that came to see our program rose to their feet to watch Monty and Bertha do their thing. It’s pretty damn impressive to see an original steel Tri-five Chevy ripping off 7-second runs, nitrous purging out of the hood as he inched towards the staging beams.
Berney’s popularity only continued to climb. Partly because he hauled ass, and partly because his car was as American as apple pie. The funny thing is, he really didn’t talk too much. The press and fans liked him because he let Bertha do the talking.
National editors and reporters like David Freiburger, Jeff Burk, Bobby Bennett, Bret Kepner, and other guys needed something to talk about other than the NHRA National circuit and the Fastest Street Car scene offered the perfect outlet. These guys were weekend racers with fresh stories to tell and had very fast, streetable cars.
Berney had amazing success and eventually built “Bertha II” in 2005 and later, “Bertha III” – both being powered by supercharged engines. After the Fastest Street Car craze began to fade, Berney ran his succession of Berthas out West in Mel Roth’s Pacific Street Car Association. Berney continued to run hard. In 2006, he took Bertha II back to Orlando for the World Street Nationals where he won the Heavy Street class beating everyone with a 7.177, 199.95mph time.
Bertha III got Monty well into the low 6-second zone. There was talk of yet another Bertha shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer. His doctor gave him six months to live but in typical Monty Berney fashion he outlasted the diagnosis like he outlasted his drag racing competitors. He lived with cancer for years but did finally succumb, passing away peacefully in 2014. Unlike that fall day at Sears Point, Monty Berney wasn’t turned away at the Pearly Gates.