My father, Walter Carl Ahrens, Jr., passed away on Nov. 10 at age 85. Two days earlier, while he was driving home, he struck a pole. Despite heavy damage to the car’s left front, the airbags didn’t deploy. Walt was in his seatbelt and “alert” when EMS arrived. It was discovered he was paralyzed on his right side, and he was taken to the hospital, having suffered a major stroke.
Walt was born on July 11, 1932 in Columbus, Nebraska. In 1953 and 1954 he served in the United States Army. He was stationed at the West Point, N.Y. garrison that supported the United States Military Academy. Here, as a truck driver, and he took pride in being able to shift the gears of an unsynchronized transmission without the clutch. He also told of lots of garrison Ping-Pong and poker as well as occasional visits to New York City.
He married Mary Catherine Tillotson on Jan. 10, 1955, and because of his drafting skills he eventually found his way to a job at Nixon Engineering, the Omaha company that assisted small, private Nebraska and Iowa telephone exchanges in modernizing their central offices. I was born on Sep. 11, 1955. My sister Kate (Mary Catherine) came along on Sep. 4, 1956. Brother Dan, sister Julie, and brother Robert would join the family, too.
Walt found that going to work in a crowded office environment made him susceptible to a bug–the racing bug. (Maybe it was something he contracted in Nixon’s infrared room, where the blueprints were produced.) Having earlier learned some driving moves in his white 1940 Ford sedan, sliding it around on eastern Nebraska’s gravel roads, he felt ready to race on oval tracks. He and younger brother Merle dragged home a ’34 Ford coupe they’d bought from a farmer for $85. This was made into a “modified” car for local tracks. Shave off the bumpers and fenders. Weld in a roll cage. Ready by June of ’56 for action at Playland Park Speedway, just across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the coupe was painted white with a blue stripe, the livery that identified American entries in international racing events. And because Walt felt the devil inside, he chose the number 69 in bold numerals on the doors.
Walt made headlines in Omaha in 1957 and 1958 with his feature race wins at Sunset Speedway, a quarter-mile dirt oval that had just opened outside Irvington, northwest of Omaha. “A crowd of 3,189 saw Walt Ahrens take the 25-lap feature,” reported the World-Herald. “He grabbed the lead at the fifteenth lap and finished well ahead of Bob Parker.” His second feature win in 1957 came after he “gained the lead in the eighth lap … and held it despite a minor collision with another car.”
Oh, the adventure, the glory!
Walt raced again around 1964 to 1966 after building a new car, a ’32 sedan. If at first it had the old flathead V-8, he upgraded to an overhead-valve Ford V-8 and even synched up three side-draft Weber carburetors. This was also the era when fat, lower-profile tires were added. It’s too bad no pictures are known to survive. Number 69 was a cool-looking car. Not finding as much success as before, though, Walt put Bud Aitkenhead, a proven veteran driver, behind the wheel for at least one race at Sunset. He also induced the hard-nosed, hard-charging Dave Melbourn to drive in the Nebraska State Fair. Walt came home disappointed, but I remember a good finish, well inside the top ten, after that outing.
Two things happened around this time. One was that my friends alerted me to the fact that the number 69 represented a dirty sex act. When I mentioned it, not quite understanding every nuance, Walt changed to 94 in a paint scheme that matched Melbourn’s 97. “They’re starting to find out what it means,” he bragged to someone. But by then, he was just about done running his own car. The local tracks were offering cards with “late models” instead of modifieds. It would have meant starting over and building another car. Drivers now entered Chevelles and Fairlanes. They no longer flat-towed their race cars to the tracks: there were trailers behind pickups and larger crews for each car. Some teams even made racing a nominal business venture.
In years to come, Walt would crew for Melbourn, Keith Leithoff, and Phil Reeves. Those guys won some races. Among other things, Walt regarded himself as a suspension doctor, and he always had the same arguments with them about using a lighter-rated right-rear spring as a way of getting the chassis to rotate in mid-turn, enabling the car to bite and then accelerate hard into the straightaway.
He really wasn’t cut out to be in a supporting role. Finally he decided to break out and go for it in the biggest way. Teaming up with Bob Hatterman, winner of Sunset’s 1973 sportsman class (and thereby required to move up to the Pro division), he drew up a car that reflected his interest in sports-prototype racing. Expending an elaborate amount of effort, they created a beautifully wrought space-frame chassis of welded steel tubing. It was lightweight and very stiff, allowing for the favored, softer spring rates. Rear disc brakes were mounted inboard—an ever-so-exotic setup for dirt-oval racing. Chevelle body panels were hung on the outside of the frame. And Walt purchased not one but two big-bore Chevy engine blocks. “They might stop making them,” he reasoned, mindful of the gas crisis. The big-block V-8 would give the car the speed it needed at Sunset—now three-eighths mile—and imposing half-miles in Corning and Harlan, Iowa.
With the inexperienced Hatterman at the wheel, though, the results were anemic. An early-season crash off Turn Two at Corning, where he spun off the track into an infield light pole’s surrounding barrier, rang the driver’s bell and caused much of the tube chassis to be rebuilt. Beyond this, Walt had chosen an improvident carb-jetting scheme that resulted more than once in burned pistons, an expensive and time-consuming rebuild. Meanwhile, he had started to question Hatterman’s ability aloud. He even insisted on driving the car in practice at Harlan, a steeper-banked and faster track than any in his past, in order to refute Hatterman’s assertion that the rear end wouldn’t come around. On the first green flag lap of the session, Walt barreled too hot into Turn One, looped around high in the groove, and nearly caused a big collision. Then he brought the car back to the pits claiming a false victory: Hatterman was wrong about the unpersuadable rear end.
It now seems unlikely the team even finished the season.
Beyond the Ford miracle, the automotive story that most engaged Walt was news from Europe, where genius engineers pushed development of overhead-cam engines and lightweight chassis. Colin Chapman was at the peak, and Walt followed the efforts of Chapman’s Lotus cars, driven by Jim Clark, at Indianapolis. He regarded Parnelli Jones’s 1963 victory over Clark, when Parnelli might have been black-flagged for leaking oil, as a travesty. Clark’s dominating 1965 win was vindication.
In his other automotive tastes, Walt reviled General Motors’ styling—except for the Corvair Monza. He thought electric cars were a waste of time. He referred to a Toyota cylinder head as “jewelry.” He disdained luxury cars. Not long ago, comparing the Mustang and Camaro, he just referred to the latter as “the Chivvy” and mentioned how ugly it was. He was a Ford guy, although he had worked in a Volvo and Nash Metropolitan before he was too far into his 30s. In the 1980s, though, he called everything into question by purchasing a Renault Alliance for Mary to drive. (Well, it had been named Motor Trend‘s Car of the Year.) And later in the decade he pronounced the Hyundai Excel “good looking.” (Well, the drawings had passed over Giugiaro’s desk, hadn’t they?)
After the failure in ’74 with Hatterman, Walt turned his attention to the digital realm. He liked to lecture about how a freebie pocket calculator with a few functions had as much processing power as the computer system that had taken up a whole room at Hunt Telephone, in Blair, Nebraska, where he worked after Nixon Engineering. He would repeat this lecture in updated form the rest of his life. Every device was oceans more powerful than its predecessor. If he had a religion, he belonged to the sect that followed Moore’s Law.
Meantime, the Maverick and Fairmont cured him of Fords. His next car was an all-wheel-drive Toyota Tercel wagon, a delight to him for many years.
In 1986, Walt and Mary sold their house and moved to Clearwater, Florida. They ended up settling in a pleasant ranch-style in nearby Dunedin. After about 10 years he hired on with Walmart and found happiness in the job. Coworkers respected him as the mainstay of the electronics department for two decades. He was driving his 2014 Ford Escort home on his lunchbreak from Walmart when he had the stroke. The car still smelled new inside.
It’s a blessing he didn’t linger, surviving just another 48 hours or so and passing away 355 days after Mary. He leaves five sons and daughters, seven great- and three great-grandchildren, to mourn him. His Walmart family centered around Elva and Kim. Arrangements are by Veterans Funeral Care, of Clearwater. Memorial contributions may be made in his name to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary of the National Audubon Society.
Here’s hoping the Escort is fixable.