When Curt Ahlers crawls into his race car, any troubles from the day disappear and his focus is on the oval track in front of him.
“For me, it’s a stress reliever,” he says. “When you’re in that race car, you don’t think of anything else because you can’t.”
It’s one of the reasons the veteran driver from Flandreau keeps racing after starting the hobby 40 years ago. His first car in 1978 was a street stock model, and this is his eighth year in the B-mod division. He races Friday nights at Rapid Speedway in Rock Rapids, Iowa, and Saturdays at Nobles County Speedway in Worthington, Minn.
At 61, the Flandreau businessman is one of the most consistent and competitive drivers at those tracks.
Last year he finished second in point standings in Worthington and tied for fourth at Rock Rapids. He also was voted the 2017 Sportsman of the Year in Worthington, an award chosen by other drivers.
Dereck Van Der Brink, manager and promoter at Rapid Speedway, says he has gotten to know Ahlers during the years he has raced at the track and appreciates that he stepped forward this year to sponsor the B-mod class. That division is popular, often with more than 20 cars entered a night.
“He’s a very clean driver. He’s got a lot of experience. With that level of experience, he raises the level of competition,” Van Der Brink says.
Ahlers, who owns Curt’s Collision Center and J & L RV, started racing at Huset’s. “It obviously must have been a lot of fun or I still wouldn’t be doing it,” he says.
“I started pitting for Krulls. That’s how all of us started,” he says of a contingency of drivers from Flandreau that have populated the tracks over the years. “Then I thought I wanted to try it once.” He put together a car and was hooked.
He’s put in 25 years on the track in various types of cars from his first street stock model, to late model, a couple weeks in Dave Ekern’s sprint car and his current USRA B-mod, a limited modified with an open front end and a restriction on the motor. His office walls are decorated with photos of the different cars he has driven for himself and others, along with awards he has won.
He’s raced on tracks across the Midwest, including Huron and Hartford, Rapid City, Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas.
He raced from 1978 until 1982 when he won a points championship and took a break. In 1986, he started driving for a couple of other car owners until 1988. At that point, he bought his own car in 1989 and raced until 1996, switching to a late model class in 1997. He also drove a Wissota street stock car a year or two and switched to a B-mod eight years ago, racing with Wissota in Huron and Montevideo and Madison, Minn. He switched to USRA, racing in Hartford until that track closed, and he then moved to the Rock Rapids and Worthington tracks.
When he started driving a B-mod, his son Andrew Ahlers joined him in the same class with his first car. The older Ahlers is number 15A, while his son is 14A, together representing Ahlers Racing.
The first year, it was a family competition, Curt Ahlers says. He didn’t want to let his son beat him. “It’s just a lot of fun now.” His son placed second in the A feature recently at Rock Rapids, and Curt Ahlers placed fifth, but a lot of times they race side by side.
“Last week (May 19), one lap I passed him. Then he passed me,” he says. They also work on cars together and will help each other on the track. “If he ever gets out front, I’m going to block.”
Andrew Ahlers says he remembers the first time he passed his dad on the track. “To this day, we race each other harder than anyone else.”
He says his dad has taught him everything he knows about racing and most importantly has reminded him to have fun.
“I’ve been watching since I was a little kid spending nights at the shop while he worked on the old street stock,” Andrew Ahlers says. “Whether it’s maintenance on the car or trying to trouble shoot engine trouble at the track, I still find myself asking for his help or advice about something almost every time we go to the track.”
Curt Ahlers is waiting for his son to win and knows he will because he has placed second several times, including races in which the leader won by a few seconds.
“I’d like to win a race again this year, get Andy to win one. We’ve got some good cars so we’ve got a good chance,” he says.
Father and son have kept learning how to make their cars work better during their races by attending racing schools in the winter a couple of times recently. It helps them stay competitive.
“I have so many laps, racing so many different kinds of cars. It’s a lot more fun since we went to school and learned how to set up our cars and make our cars work,” Curt Ahlers says.
Learning little tricks and realizing he needs to keep changing his car’s set up to stay competitive has helped. “It broadens your perspective,” he says. “If you don’t keep trying and don’t get better, pretty soon you can’t win anymore.”
While he approaches every race with a competitive spirit, he also relies on common sense. He’d rather finish a race than wreck and has learned how to find the fast lanes but get out of the way if needed.
Racing is a physical sport for drivers, one he compares to getting in a 140-degree sauna fully dressed in coveralls, gloves, socks and shoes, a helmet and then working as hard as he can for the duration of time on the track.
“That’s why you see every driver crawl out, and they’re wringing wet,” he says.
His goal also is to have fun each night.
“I like to whoop up on those young guys,” he says. “I wanted to win a race before I retire, which I did do.”
Racing has provided a family bond for the Ahlers, with young grandchildren already telling him they want to get in a car someday and family members helping in the pits or cheering from the stands.
Ahlers once told a group of young drivers who wondered how long he will race that he’ll be there until he can’t keep up. They looked at each other and agreed it would be a while then.
“That made my whole day.”
Racing, like life, has its ups and downs, but circling the track has gotten Ahlers through some bumps in the road. “If you have a really stressful, crappy day, and you crawl in there and you do good, the day was OK.”