I consider myself fortunate enough to meet some great people in the automotive industry, just because of the work that I do. I’ve been lucky enough to have an occasional lunch with Dan Gurney, or visit the local dirt track with Parnelli Jones. I’ve done several interviews with Mario Andretti, and have had the great fortune to interview Speedy Bill Smith several years before he passed away. However, there was one man that I had the greatest pleasure talking with – and that conversation will stand out for the rest of my life – exceeding any brush with greatness that I had previously experienced. Louis Senter (Louie to his friends), was the most memorable conversationalist.
By the time I first met Mr. Senter, it was difficult for him to speak, and he had a hard time hearing. He walked very slowly, with a cane, and a lot of assistance. Mostly, he sat in a chair and took everything in. He earned that right. He was, after all, 90 years old.
Despite the maladies of age, Louie made his presence known, mostly with facial expressions and his eyes. Those all-knowing eyes that had seen a lifetime of experience. Things that most of us could not imagine, let alone dream of. Louie’s eyes told a story and responded to every question. His eyes said more than anyone else’s voice at the table.
I learned everything that I needed to know about automotive performance that evening at Vic Edelbrock’s garage in Torrance. Ed Iskendarian, Nick Arias Jr, Ed Pink, Alex Xydias, George Barris and Louie Senter all contributed to a conversation on engine performance – the likes of which will never be repeated – and I was there to witness it. All of them gave credit to Senter. There is no doubt that Louie Senter left an indelible mark on my conscience that day. He was a friend to everyone, even if you only met him a minute ago.
Sadly, Louie Senter passed away just a few hours before the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500. I’m sure that he had the best seat in the house to watch the race.
Louie was a humble man that never bragged on his achievements. He didn’t need to because he was very confident in himself. For those that did not know Louie Senter’s achievements, let me boast for him now that he is gone:
A 12-year-old Senter won the very first Soap Box Derby, held in Los Angeles and sponsored by the Gilmore Oil Company, years before the race was moved to Akron, Ohio.
After learning machine shop work in a high school vocational class, he set up the family garage with a metal lathe, drill press and welder, where he continued to practice his craft.
World War II broke out and the young machinist was offered a military service deferment to support the making of war equipment. He turned down that offer and joined the Navy as a Machinist Mate. It was at this time that he met his future wife, and the love of his life, Betty Calderon. They were eventually married, a union that lasted for the next 70 years until Betty passed.
Louie started working at Eddie Meyer Engineering at the end of the war, which brought him into his second greatest love, the auto industry and racing. Eddie Meyer was famous for making performance equipment for flathead Fords. Brother of Lou Meyer, the three time Indianapolis 500 winner, Eddie handled most of the mechanical duties for his brother’s Indy efforts. Senter received a first class education from both of the Meyer’s brothers.
It wasn’t long before Senter learned all he could at Eddie Meyer Engineering, and he decided to open his own machine shop on Crocker Street in Los Angeles. Almost immediately Senter was working with some of the best in open wheel racing. One of his early contracted jobs was machining Casale rearend parts for Ernie Casale. The Casale rearend were popular in midget car and sprint cars at that time.
Shortly after, Senter was hired to do work for Frank Kurtis, founder and owner of Kurtis Kraft, builders of the famed Kurtis midgets. Senter worked on the distinctive radius rods and nerf bars for these racing machines. They also took in a lot of work from the local Hot Rod car clubs.
The shop moved to Jefferson Boulevard in 1947, when he joined forces with acclaimed engine builder Jack Andrews. They changed the business name to Ansen Automotive Engineering with Andrews as the AN, and Senter represented with SEN in Ansen.
After taking on a business partner, Senter was able to compete in everything from boats to open wheel cars and dragsters while still operating the business six days a week.
Ansen started developing new parts like motor mount kits, pressure pumps, steering wheels, manifold adapters and a full line of V8 equipment in addition to their Model A and Model B Ford equipment. Some of the more interesting items in the portfolio included a kit to convert mechanical brakes to hydraulic on early Fords. Ansen became very popular for their dropped axles for Fords and the huge line of flathead Ford accessories.
Senter began moving in the speed merchant’s circle of industry pioneers becoming friends with Ed Iskendarian, Vic Edelbrock Sr., and Phil Weiand. Not surprisingly, Senter became more involved in racing and performance.
The California dry lakes are a big part of high-performance history and Senter began to etch his name into the history of dry lake events. Senter even created a 1954 Studebaker, known as the Ansen Belmont Special, that went 247 miles per hour at Bonneville. The world record run was thwarted when the rearend blew up at the end of the run preventing a return pass that is required for a record run.
Senter also dominated in drag racing, starting with the Santa Ana strip in Los Angeles. Later he moved to the Saugus Drag strip where he acted as the promoter for Sunday races. The shop became so busy that Senter had to hire Lou Baney and Bob Corbett to run the drag strip so he could catch up with the workload.
About this same time Senter became involved in the Indianapolis 500. Eventually he was selected to become a member of the Old Timers Club at Indy and made the annual trip to the brickyard. He did a lot of work for Jim Hurtubise’s roadster that became the fastest roadster to ever run at Indy.
Ansen’s flathead Ford parts, specifically the lightened, balanced and polished flathead crankshaft and complete engines, which became favorites to the NASCAR market. Around this time the partnership between Andrews and Senter dissolved, leaving Senter the sole owner of Ansen Automotive again.
Senter moved his company to a building on Normandie Boulevard in October of 1950. Ed Pink worked there, along with some other future legends including Lou Baney and Jim Kavanaugh. They continued to race every type of vehicle under the sun and moved into doing work for the movies when Hollywood came calling. Ansen Automotive did a lot of work with Barris and was involved in the Munsters car along with the famous coffin car, Drag-U-La.
Another major breakthrough came when Senter developed the first aluminum wheels approved for the Indianapolis 500. An aluminum sprint car wheel followed shortly, then a street wheel for the high-performance enthusiasts. His Posi-Shift kit that moved column shift to the floor was equally successful and was the inspiration for George Hurst to develop the Hurst shifter.
Senter’s wife Betty founded the Credit Managers Association for the High-Performance/Hot Rod Manufacturers Industry, which in 1963 led Senter, along with Roy Richter (Bell Helmets), Willie Garner (Trans-Dapt), Bob Hedman (Hedman Hedders), Robert E. Wyman, John Bartlett (Grant Piston Rings), Phil Weiand (Weiand Automotive Industries), Al Segal, Dean Moon (Moon Speed Equipment), and Vic Edelbrock Jr. (Edelbrock Performance), to evolve the organization into the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA). This association was designed to help control safety standard in the high-performance industry, and to have representation in Washington, D.C. regarding legislation that might affect the high-performance industry.
In the early 1960s, Ansen Automotive was on the move again and relocated to a building that was constructed specifically for the company on Western Avenue in Gardena. Rapidly expanding, Ansen now manufactured their own forged-pistons and forged-steel rods. Tailored to the drag racing crowd, Ansen offered aluminum connecting rods and safety bell housings that eventually became mandated at all drag strips. Ansen’s piston department was sold to Nick Arias Jr., which became the Arias pistons known world-wide. Ansen’s rod department was sold to Miller Rods, which also became a big name in the industry.
Senter continued to develop more products and race cars until 1969 when he decided to pull back from the industry. He sold Ansen Automotive to the Whittaker Corporation, acting as a consultant to the business until 1974. He then became a consultant for W.R. Grace which held Mr. Gasket, Lakewood, and Hickey.
Inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame in 1978, he worked in partial retirement, never fully retiring until the new millennium came along.
Senter was elected to more high-performance Halls of Fame than we can list here, and has been awarded with honors beyond anyone else during the same timeframe. Despite the obvious impact he had on motorsports, Louie Senter was a nice guy and a friend first. It was my privilege to meet the legend and spend a couple of evenings talking about things that we both love. Cars and engines.
Betty and Louis had one child, Marsha Senter Scully and son in law, Rodney Scully. A granddaughter, Lindsey Scully, grandson, Shane Scully and wife Roxanne Scully and several great-grandchildren. We wish the family of friends of Louie Senter our most sincere condolences and warmest thoughts in this time of loss.