On Saturday, at the NHRA museum in Pomona, California, a group of people gathered together to remember and celebrate the life of a legend. The people assembled in this hallowed hall had little in common. There were smaller groups of business owners, drag racers, street racers, sprint car racers, midget car racers, hot rod builders, boat racers, architects, doctors, lawyers, housewives, and members of the media – People from every walk of life – that were linked by one man: Louis Senter.
It’s not surprising that such an eclectic group would surround Mr. Senter, after all, it was one of his legacies. Being an early pioneer in high performance machines and manufacturing, everyone that wanted to climb to the top of the ladder approached Senter. It was no secret, if you wanted to make it to the Indy 500, that road went through the west coast and Ansen Automotive Engineering. If you wanted to win the Nationals in the NHRA, or win National Sprint car championships, or set a land speed record, you went through Ansen. If you wanted to compete in speedboats, that path went through Ansen, and we discovered on Saturday, if you wanted to start your own aftermarket auto parts manufacturing business, that road also went through Ansen Automotive and Louis Senter. All paths to high performance went to one place and Louie Senter was the gate-keeper.
Senter may not have wanted to be the gate-keeper of high performance, but he was. He didn’t seek out the role as the dean of speed – it simply found him.
What Made Him Great
Louie Senter was gifted with mechanical aptitude in the top one percent. He was also gifted with above average intelligence and a tenacity that is rarely seen. Senter also had a foresight that rivals any crystal ball. His vision into the future matched anything that Nostradamus offered the world. He spotted talent immediately, and he instinctively knew potential when it appeared. The list of employees that passed through the doors of Ansen Automotive Engineering read like a who’s who of mechanical geniuses.
The Creation Of SEMA
It was this ability to forecast the future that led Senter to evolve an idea that his wife Betty had, into one of the industry’s greatest organizations, the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA).
Betty Senter established and ran the Credit Manager’s Association for High-Performance/Hot Rod Manufacturers Industry, an organization that was designed to help small business deal with customers that habitually failed to pay. Many of these customers were would-be business owners that tried to establish their own companies under shady practices.
From this organization, the Senter’s sold the idea to several other business owners who joined together to create the Speed Equipment Manufacturing Association. The infancy of SEMA was cohosted with Phil and Joan Weiand. It was this version of the organization that would become the SEMA that we know today that battles government regulations and regulatory over reach, keeping our hobby alive.
Senter was not a man that sought out the limelight and after he guided the founding of the new organization, he persuaded Ed Iskenderian to be the president of the group. He then convinced the other members of the group to vote for Iskenderian to head the organization as the first president.
Grandson Shane Scully, a longtime open wheel racer and 1995 Western Midget Rookie of the Year, recalled his grandfather’s support. “He was at every race, and there were probably several that he didn’t want to go to, but he was always there,” Shane recalled. Granddaughter Lindsey attributed her “success in a male dominated industry to my grandfather’s lessons. We hit the jackpot when it came to Grandparents.”
How Other Legends Saw Him
Iskenderian spoke kindly of his lifelong friend on Saturday, explaining how Senter helped Iskenderian Racing Cams launch their company. “I took my first camshafts, they looked pretty good, to different people but no one wanted to try them,” he explained. “Finally, I took them over to Louie. Louie would try anything, and that’s how we got started.”
Nick Arias echoed Iskenderian’s words explaining how Senter offered to sell Arias the Senter forged piston line. “He sold us the piston company and told me that if it didn’t do well, he’d buy it back. No questions!” He said. “You don’t find anyone that does that. Not in business. All sales are final. That was the kind of guy Louie was.”
“Tell Louie Senter that something was impossible and two hours later he’d come back with one,” Doug Dwyer offered as another view of Senter’s personality. “I first met Louie around 1964 while I was working at Carroll Shelby’s racing tire shop, just around the corner from Ansen Automotive.” Dwyer went on to explain how the Ansen Sprint wheel was developed from that relationship.
“Ten years later I was assistant sales manager at Appliance Industries. I was called into the office to meet a man that W.R. Grace felt could help us with several areas,” said Dwyer. “I was told that I was in charge of the man, so I became Louie Senter’s boss. That was impossible! I felt like a mouse crawling up an elephant’s leg with rape on his mind.”
Nothing could top the personal observations of Dan Rackemann, a former Ansen employee. “Louie was my boss and I looked at Betty as a mother figure. She was like my mom. I was a single guy and had a little money because I was working for Louie, He was generous as a boss,” explained Rackemann. “I would do some carousing at night. Just doing my thing… y’know? One day I got this rash in my crotch area. I didn’t know what it was but I was afraid. I was scared so I started asking questions of Betty.”
Rackemann continued his story; “Betty said ‘show it to me,’ so we went to an office upstairs and I pulled my pants down and tried to move my private parts over to the side and keep them covered. Betty took a look and yelled down the stairs, ’Louie, come take a look at this.’ The boss runs up the stairs and there I am, pants down with the bosses wife staring at my crotch,” he said without laughing. “Louie said, ‘what the hell is going on here?’ and Betty explained the problem. Louie took one look and told me to call his brother, who was a doctor.”
The Final Word
Louie’s life and career was filled with many firsts. He was the first winner of the soap box derby, created the first aluminum racing wheel allowed in the Indianapolis 500, he developed the first three-piece sprint car wheel that allowed changing of the backspace for performance. The first kits that allowed car owners to change from drum to disc brakes, or to move the gear shift from the steering columns to the floor, were ideas that came from the Ansen Automotive genius. Senter held too many patents and created too many automotive parts to go into detail here, but someone counted over 200 original Ansen Automotive Engineering components that were offered to customers. There was a reason that Ansen Automotive was the first chapter in the famous book Merchants of Speed. The west coast speed industry all started with Ansen and Louie Senter.
The many facets of Louie Senter could not possibly be covered in a simple article. Fact is, these exploits were barely covered in a full lifetime. Senter was the energy of west coast high-performance, and he led a life that was well lived. He extracted everything there was to get out of a body in 95 years. Only when he had used up every bit of life did he give way to the next realm. What he left behind is a family that learned to be as caring, giving, and as kind as the man that raised them. Louie’s greatest achievement was teaching others how to live a great life. Through that spirit, Louie Senter continues to live. Long live the King.