By Drew Hardin
Photo Courtesy Petersen Archive
Most of us would probably consider ourselves fortunate to be remembered for doing one thing really well. As we look back on the life and achievements of performance pioneer Louis Senter, who passed away in May at age 95, the circumstance is different. Senter did so many things so well that it’s difficult to single out one accomplishment as the cornerstone of his legacy.
His racing days began early—as a preteenager—when he won the original Soap Box Derby in Los Angeles. He ran on the dry lakes and at Bonneville, raced midgets, drag raced, even raced boats.
His vocational training was as a machinist, and after World War II, Senter worked for Eddie Meyer and Frank Kurtis—an experience that provided an introduction to the top names in open-wheel racing. He attended his first Indy 500 in 1946 and was still involved with fielding Indy cars well into the ’90s.
His time with Meyer and Kurtis primed him to open his own machine shop, which eventually became Ansen Engineering when he took on engine builder Jack Andrews as his partner. (Ansen is a contraction of their last names—An for Andrews, Sen for Senter.) The business became one of Southern California’s earliest speed shops and was one of the first to sell mail-order parts through a catalog.
Ansen was innovative on many fronts, from its earliest Ford Flathead speed equipment to the development of the Posi-Shift kit, which moved column shifters to the floor and reportedly inspired George Hurst to do the same. Arguably, Senter’s biggest contribution to the aftermarket industry was his design of the Ansen Sprint aluminum wheel, which brought Indy-racing wheel technology to the street and created a boom in aftermarket wheel sales.
In 1963, at about the same time that he was developing the Sprint wheel, Senter collaborated with several other members of the performance industry to create a trade group, the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association, which has since evolved into the Specialty Equipment Market Association, or SEMA. One of the organization’s earliest goals was to help formulate safety standards for automotive racing, an area Senter was already actively pursuing.
He developed some of the first fireproof materials for driving suits, and set himself on fire while wearing one to prove its effectiveness. He also engineered aluminum bellhousings that would protect a driver from potentially lethal flying shrapnel in the event of a clutch explosion. That, too, he demonstrated graphically in a couple of articles for Hot Rod magazine by deliberately running a clutch to failure on an engine dyno and then pointing out the ugly results for Eric Rickman’s camera—along with the unscathed housing, as seen in this late 1962 photo.
And maybe that’s the cornerstone of Louis Senter’s legacy in the performance world. It’s one thing to develop speed parts to help others go faster. But helping them do it more safely is an achievement of a higher order.