These 1966 photos, never seen before, reveal a Ford GT40 test session at Riverside

Laura Dapkus was sorting through some slides her late father-in-law had left behind when she found images from Ford GT40 test sessions at Riverside International Raceway.

“They were developed in March and June of 1966,” Laura explains while sharing them with us. “You can still see snow on the mountains.”

It startled her to find these pictures. She and husband Don had seen Ford v Ferrari, but until then she had no inkling her father-in-law had been part of the behind-the-scenes effort to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As “a brilliant former airman” educated as an electrical engineer, Don Sr. was dispatched by Ford Motor Co. to observe GT40 test sessions and stand shoulder to shoulder with team members. And, crucially, he carried a camera.

Don Dapkus Sr. at Riverside International Raceway

She says, “I DID NOT EVEN KNOW ABOUT ANY OF THIS until the Ford v Ferarri movie came out and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, he worked with those guys.’ I’m like, ‘What the hell?'”

Laura’s messages, written in her signature exuberant style, are an enduring pleasure and often screamingly funny. She may be self-conscious about it and all that it reveals, but she’s an American original and I’ve pushed her to let me share the details without bowdlerizing.

It so happens that I know Laura and Don from a VW New Beetle crazyfest car show in Roswell, N.M., way back in June of 2000. I covered that one for the late and much-lamented Automobile magazine. Sometimes you leave on business and return with new personal friendships. The car show wrapped up with an alien-themed costume party on that Saturday night, so I dressed as a futuristic beatnik in sunglasses and a silver lamé tam and smock. As a magazine reporter without a date, I asked Laura to dance. Don wasn’t moving from his seat, but I thought she might like to shake it.

Don and Laura Dapkus archival photo.

Twenty-three years later, Don seems to have forgiven me for cutting in; we’re still friends, always learning new things about one another and following one another’s adventures.

Our recent exchange found Laura further describing her archival discoveries among the transparencies.

“I was going through his slide boxes and I’m like HORSE CAMP?! Whose pool is this? A camper? A boat? ICE FISHING? You know where I went? Indian princess day camp put on by the City.”

Laura was an only child in Torrance, also the offspring of an engineer. She grew up to follow Exene Cervenka and John Doe in the L.A. postpunk band X. She loved VW Beetles. With an MBA, she immersed herself in corporate work until becoming something of a refugee from it, spending a few years raising sheep on an 18-acre farm northeast of Dallas.

She shares another thought about Don Sr.: “He was a super interesting dude. He went ice fishing on the Arctic Circle and things like that.”

The Shelby American crew makes adjustments to a GT40 during testing at Riverside. Photo by Don Dapkus Sr.

The Ford GT40 swept the top three places at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 19, 1966, just weeks after some of the photography shown here. Fifty-eight days after that race and the controversial finish, Ken Miles died at Riverside during another test session. In the new book Shelby American: The Renegades Who Built the Cars, Won the Races, and Lived the Legend, author Preston Lerner notes, “He was the third driver to die in a Ford prototype in five months.”

“Don’s dad was so devastated, he changed jobs,” Laura says. In fact, car magazine editors gradually shifted away from coverage of fireball wrecks and dead drivers to consumer-friendly new-car coverage and genteel sporting events and shows.

Laura points out details about the photos. For example, the white jeans. “I want to say that anyone who wears white jeans to deal with cars is cool AF.”

We see Don Sr. in a portrait with a distant GT40 poised to strike. It is impossible to determine whether he has a pocket protector.

This low-slung car, which may be a Lola T70, was nearby in the pits. Photo by Don Dapkus Sr.

The blue number 12 looks like a Lola T70, and we can’t explain its presence. The Union 76 trash can is a special ornament (and choice way to convey the brand message).

Laura Dapkus photo.

The pit lane scene depicts a crew member in the “Cobra” shirt and the brimmed hat. Matt Damon’s portrayal of Carroll Shelby in Ford v Ferrari includes wearing a wristwatch on the right arm, but we showed the photo to Lerner, who thinks Shelby wouldn’t be wearing a uniform and we may be looking at engineer Carroll Smith. In an early 1965 photo included in Shelby American, Smith is seen also with a watch on his right wrist, the “cool AF” white jeans that even Shelby is wearing, and tasseled loafers. And Lerner adds that Smith wore a bush hat.

We are struggling to I.D. the others. At far right is the Goodyear tire man. And who is that photographer?

The guy in the light blue jacket at far left must be looking for spies from Maranello.

There’s a reason this report posts on Valentine’s Day.

“The Ford pics,” Laura says, “I am making 3 of them into gallery wrapped prints for Don for Valentine’s Day. It’s going to be a very cool arrangement.”

Happy Valentine’s Day to everybody: Get up and dance!

Preston Lerner’s new book ‘Shelby American’ has made its way into my line of sight

The mail brought a copy of my friend Preston Lerner’s new book, Shelby American: The Renegades Who Built the Cars, Won the Races, and Lived the Legend. I didn’t even pay anything!

Shelby’s persona always put me off. He seemed like a bully. My favorite figure of the 1960s was Jim Clark.

The Cobra roadsters were something else, though.

Because Preston wrote it, I want to read. He worked hard on it, and the literary quality is not going to be in question.

Matt Damon’s sympathetic portrayal of Shelby in Ford v Ferrari did contribute to my being disposed to learn more.

So watch for a report.

Leaving the auction stage, how could the driver not pause for a glory shot?

One of the best cars I ever drove was a vintage racer, but instead of being on the track, it was in an auction and I didn’t drive very far.

In saying “best,” I mean “favorite.”

The sale was conducted by Auctions America and held in Burbank, California, Aug. 2 to 3, 2013.

I went undercover for the late and much-lamented Automobile Magazine as a driver in the auction and reported on my experience.

Now my notes seem to be lost, and I can’t find the story.

From the two days of the sale, I remember driving a Ford Model A, a Fiat 1100 station wagon, and the single-seater pictured above. I don’t remember what else.

We drivers were supposed to receive random assignments, but I made sure to get the race car. It stirred up long-dormant feelings of excitement from my youthful days at the local speedways.

This car had a rasping, inline six-cylinder Ford engine, probably from the 1950s. It was easier to drive than expected. The engine wasn’t “cammy” and the clutch throw was not an athletic event.

When I got onstage I handed my phone to a publicist, asking for a picture after the lot was hammered down. (No recollection of the price.) It was a glory moment, and I’ve always treasured the picture.

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.

An advanced tech vocabulary and lots of folksy sayings when I was eight

I have mentioned before how my father, Walter C. Ahrens, Jr., while thinking out loud, imparted an advanced technical vocabulary to me from my eighth year. He expatiated about reciprocating mass, chassis balance, spring rates and unsprung weight, carburetor jetting and the venturi effect, valve clearance and camshaft profiles, harmonic resonance and even volumetric efficiency.

The venturi effect was a tough one for me because in 1964, before my ninth birthday, the golfer Ken Venturi won the U.S. Open. How could he have anything to do with those three side-draft Weber carbs that Walter would be mounting on an overhead-valve V-8 in 1966?

Walter was a stealthy student of the language and especially liked colloquial expressions, slang from the early 20th century, and fart jokes. Here, for the first time, is his mid-American list:

skillet licker (dog)

snotlocker (nose)

crumbsnatcher (kid)

house ape (kid)

Snickelfritz (nickname)

horse padunkey (I guess at the spelling but he meant …

road apples, a.k.a. horse droppings)

cackleberries (chicken droppings, a.k.a. eggs)

boneyard or marble orchard (cemetery: marble was stone of choice for grave markers)

crossbar hotel (jail)

chief cook and bottle washer (proprietor)

Track photo of Walter Carl Ahrens, Jr. with his #69 stock car racer, as seen above, in 1957, when he was 25 years old.

When I stood in front of the TV (which he otherwise claimed he wasn’t watching because of his newspaper), he would say, “You make a better door than a window.”

If someone took a tumble, they went “ass over appetite.” A painful but survivable moment led him to say, “It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”

Advice on how to do something involved “take and put.” As in: “Take those flowers and put them over there in the garbage.”

Getting license to do something was to “have at it.”

In distinguished professor mode, he used high-flown phrases such as “for all intents and purposes.” He was a total phony in this mode because he mispronounced multi-syllable words. Erudite, for example, was “ee-ROO-dite.” Words and phrases of foreign origin–bueno, deja vu–gave him fits.

Yet he persisted. To dismiss someone’s point, he said, “It’s immaterial.” There is nothing to it, no evidence, no substance–absolutely of no consequence. Hard to figure out where he got this glossy superiority.

I guarantee it wasn’t from reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “You will be given a perfectly free hand. Surely the actual name of your client is immaterial.”