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Tribune photo by Rand Middleton Boys of summers past Red Ahl, right, and Charlie Nelson on Tuesday, Red's 79th birthday, at Perkins Restaurant in Willmar.

Willmar Notebook: For Red, it was Ahl or nothin'

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Red Ahl got out of the Army in 1956 and moved from Bird Island to Willmar. He started racing stock cars at the half-mile track at the fairgrounds in Willmar.

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He raced in jalopies and late models through 1976.

There was something about Red that made him one of the most popular drivers in the region.

"Well, he won a lot," said his pitman Charlie Nelson with a chuckle. "And he was always nice. He'd always stay and sign autographs."

He worked at his uncle's body shop and was a north-sider, the neighborhood surgically attached to the racetrack. Kids worshiped the smiling, lean red head. Many of them numbered their racing push-karts after Red's No. 97. He handed out the small checkered flags he received after each win.

Starting out, he raced, too, at dusty speedways at Sunburg, Atwater, Bird Island and Renville. Most of those tracks were short lived.

His hauler was a flatbed trailer pulled by a 1941 International Harvester with a 1941 Cadillac engine and automatic transmission. He raced at Faribault on Saturdays and Waseca on Sundays and other regional tracks across southern Minnesota.

There were other sir names that always came up talking about the old days -- Christianson, Davis, Jirasek, Vossen, Nielson, Jordahl, Johanneck, Watkins, Nelson and track announcer Ole Reynolds are the ones that stick in my mind, though, of course, there are many others equally famous at the time.

But I always wanted to meet this character named Red.

We visited Tuesday at Perkins Restaurant. Turns out it was Red's 79th birthday. He seemed to be doing great, nearly 100 percent, he said, after a stroke July 8 which required hospitalization.

Charlie joined us at the table. The photos you see on this page and on the preceding page come from Red's carefully compiled oversized scrapbook. Together with newspaper clippings, programs and pieces written for the Kandiyohi County Historical Society, Red's black binder may be the most thorough compilation available of local dirt track racing in the early era.

"It was a lot of fun," he said of those years. "We may have battled on the track and in the pits, but we mostly are all good friends and willing to help one another."

All those years at the track, Charlie said they never saw a serious injury.

"We'll always have our memories," said Nelson, who still is at the Willmar track every Thursday night sewing good cheer. "They can't take that away from you."

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Rand Middleton

Covers Willmar and area high schools and Ridgewater College, plus amateur baseball, stock car racing and fitness events in summer. Writes weekly column since 1980. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 

(320) 214-4334
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