Family lore about early track success in 1958 and then an abandoned summer

The asphalt surface of Playland Park Speedway, Council Bluffs, Iowa, circa 1958. Ed Ryberg (82), possibly John Nelson (3), Bud Burdick (V8), and Uncle Mike Tillotson (32).

In the past, I’ve saluted the racing activities of my father, Walter Ahrens, Jr., failing to mention Uncle Mike Tillotson, who also brought home laurels from Sunset Speedway.

Uncle Mike, a teenager, campaigned Number 32 in the 1958 season.

He was a champion wrestler in the 175-pound category for Omaha North high school, but when he wasn’t grappling with an opponent, his mind was occupied with the stories from hot rod magazines. He got his hands on a 1932 Ford coupe, prepared it for action, and took the model-year for his competition number.

Of course, the 1932 Ford was particularly revered for having introduced the V-8 engine into the popular price category. It had a 106-inch wheelbase.

Walter Ahrens, Jr. at Playland Park.

Already by the late-1950s, the supply of ’32 Ford coupes was drying up, so Mike’s was especially prized.

My father’s Ford was a ’34, with a 112-inch wheelbase.

Even as a rookie driver in the 1958 season, Uncle Mike distinguished himself early, winning a heat race and placing second in the A-feature on May 25.

He took the big race June 1.

The reason neither he nor my father finished the season emerges from the murky depths: a road accident.

Walter won the May 25 trophy dash as well as back-to-back feature races during the early summer.

The Sunset Speedway Story, by Mark Woods, says the June 29 victory was controversial. “Ahrens’ car was torn down [after the race] but was found legal after three protests. He went on to win the following week (July 4) before a fireworks display.”

Walter liked to push the edge of rules, so no surprise.

I can’t put a date on it and have no available memory of the event, but we were involved in a serious traffic accident that summer. It must have ended all racing activities.

The story survived in two forms.

On the way home from the races on a Sunday night, Walter and Uncle Mike were in the front seat of a Nash Metropolitan convertible borrowed from my father’s boss, while my mother and I at three years sat in back. There was a collision with a Chevrolet at a country intersection, and all four of us were thrown from the tiny car. My mother suffered broken vertebrae in her lower back, broken ribs, and a punctured lung. Mike had a shoulder injury. Locating me took some doing; I was in the ditch with a minor wound atop my head.

I speculate that it was from the windshield frame. If so I was lucky the contact wasn’t from a different, lower angle, which would have rendered me senseless and then dead.

Of course my father landed in the roadway having sustained a few bumps and bruises.

Both versions of the story had Uncle Mike panicking and running the three and a half miles home to his parents, my grandparents.

That version promulgated by my father placed all the blame on the Chevy, with two Air Force boys who were stationed at the North Omaha Radar Station. They were said to have been racing and blew through a stop sign.

North Omaha radar station.

Another version of the story is based on a comment of my mother’s when I was 14 years old and asked anew about the accident.

“He was showing him what it would do,” she said.

In other words, we hurtled along, 60 mph at best, when the collision occurred.

How you drive through the cornfields on a summer night in a convertible without hearing a roaring Chevy engine and noticing the headlights leaves me stumped.

I never checked with my father about that because he was a tyrant, but Mike did tell me it was a fact that he ran home while we went to the hospital.

My father has passed away. Uncle Mike remains with us, but his coruscations are never welcome.

Uncle Mike’s hoard with a lot of Fords.

Because of the injury, Mike lost his wrestling scholarship to the University of Nebraska. He never married and is still living in the ancestral manse in the Ponca Hills area north of Omaha. Last I checked, he’d built an enormous hoard of old cars and parts (rumors say inside the house too). His last Christmas card said, “The electric car is nothing but a bad dream.”

For many years, I had the wood models he’d made of Numbers 32 and 69–charming hand-painted replicas. After I left home, they disappeared, and I do not hesitate to lay blame at the feet of my younger brother, Robert, whom I always called “Destructo.” Each of my plastic models bit the dust as well.

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