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Democrat Photo by Ted Waddell

Morgan Bernas in her 1979 Chevy Malibu

The Queen of Speed

By Ted Waddell
KAUNEONGA LAKE — November 17, 2000 – Move over Speed Racer, the Queen of Speed has arrived at Kauneonga Speedway.
Nineteen-year old Morgan Bernas of Cochecton likes to beat up guys, but it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to get her arrested.
For the class of ’99 graduate of Jeffersonville-Youngsville CS, it’s a case of assault on the asphalt, as she won two feature races this season in her rookie year as a stock car driver at the quarter-mile oval.
In a sport that has a reputation for being dominated by guys in backwards baseball caps and nicotine stained fingers, women are making their mark.
At Kauneonga Speedway, a backwater track that’s getting back on the road to success after years out of the limelight, Bernas is part of a trend that’s making local stock car racing a bit more than a bad-boy sport.
For Bernas, it’s surf’s up this season as she won a couple of 6-cylinder feature races in #03B, a stripped-to-the-bare essentials 1979 Chevrolet Malibu.
This is a young driver who takes a rather lighthearted view of herself as she takes on the predominately male field out there on the asphalt, often showing them brake lights as she cuts through the pack around the oval.
In a sport where logos give spectators an idea on where the driver’s head is at, Bernas’ car is emblazoned with “Bride of Chuckie” surrounded by a screaming skull and flames on the windshield, and a rear deck featuring “19 and Life to Go”.
According to veteran track announcer Fred Mulharin, Bernas won her class on June 10, followed by another trip to victory lane on October 7.
Mulharin added that Bernas is often joined by fellow rookie Tina Ribble of Cornwall and Alvera Pacer, a high school music teacher from Port Jervis.
“I’m not the only female racer out here,” said Bernas. “Normally, there’s two of us, once in a while three.”
Mulharin is a real racing fan, and from the announcer’s booth high above the track, has the best seat in the house.
“Both Morgan and Tina are very strong competitors,” he said. “They came in this year as rookies and when they get up near the front, they make it real hard for the guys to get around them.”
Morgan Bernas has a laid back approach to the racing scene, a persona that’s belies her strong desire to be at the head of the pack.
Asked what got her into stock car racing, she replied, “My boyfriend… I had nothing better to do, so I just decided to do it.”
Does Bernas think she’s a pretty good driver? “Yep!,” she said.
Bernas learned to drive in a Dodge Shadow as a 16-year-old. Three years later, she found herself behind the wheel of her boyfriend’s old race car, peeling rubber off the tires in search of the checkered flag.
Bernas’ stock car ride isn’t the prettiest thing on the block, with its banged up bodywork and a rear bumper attached to the frame with chains. But it sure gets down the track with plenty of speed: the performance of the stock block 3.8 liter six has been tweaked a bit with a bigger bore and a higher lift camshaft.
The car is sponsored by J & A Graphics, M & M Sanitation, Parksville Homes and Sullivan Structures.
The folks at Snider Chassis and Goodyear Tire also lend a hand.
“We’re lucky to be pushing 200 horsepower,” said Bernas’ 21-year boyfriend and pit crew, Charlie Houghtaling of Parksville. “The motor has over twenty wins on it, it’s there.”
“I had this race car, and one day she decided she wanted to go racing,” said Houghtaling. “So here we are.”
While most young couples head off to the movies to take in a flick or the local tavern for a brew on Saturday night, for Bernas and Houghtaling, it’s Saturday Night at the Race Track. She competes in the six-cylinder division, while he races #03 in hobby stock. Both cars have “indented” paint jobs.
“It’s just the two of us,” added Houghtaling, who started driving in 1996. “We’re here every week putting in our dues. She had two wins in her rookie year, and some say that’s pretty special for a girl.”
#03B has a bare bones interior; empty except a stark aluminum framed driver’s bucket seat, a Super Pro 8000 r.p.m. tach and a couple of gauges to measure water temperature and oil pressure. Add a roll cage, a set of racing tires and some raw courage and you’re all set to go racing.
On July 1, Bernas got tangled up with the wall during her weekly outing at Kauneonga Speedway and earned a trip to the hospital instead of a trophy.
“I had a good run going but spun out coming from the back of the pack,” she recalled. “Something just let go in the car, and I hit the wall head-on real hard.”
After the wreck, they used a backhoe and a bulldozer to pull Bernas’ race car back into shape.
“What got bent, ain’t no more,” said Houghtaling. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
While Houghtaling crews for Bernas’ car, does she serve in the pits for her boyfriend? “Nope,” Bernas replied.
“You don’t like to hit the wall [because] that hurts,” said Bernas of her rookie year as a stock car driver. “Once in a while it’s scary and nerve wracking, but it’s fun beating all the guys.”

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