Local mechanic, race car driver discovered his passion at early age

Don Ahrens, owner of Ahrens Auto Service in Gainesville, poses with his race car — a 1991 Mazda Miata.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 2:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 2:31 p.m.

With 250 trophies to his name, Don Ahrens' skills as a road racer are difficult to challenge. But his understanding of the sport goes far beyond the race itself. Ahrens is also the mechanic and engineer of his vehicle, a 1991 Mazda Miata.

Ahrens has owned Ahrens Auto Service since 1990. Located just south of downtown, the shop specializes in repairing Z cars — a series of Nissan-produced sports cars — as well as general auto maintenance.

“I do love what I do, and I enjoy helping other people. It's a gift that God gave me to understand cars naturally,” Ahrens said.

A Gainesville native, Ahrens grew up in the shop. His father owned an auto repair business, and as a high school student, Ahrens would work at the shop every day after school.

“It gave me a really good base for being an automotive businessman,” he said.

Ahrens said he has understood machinery since he was a boy. He remembers hearing stories of himself as a toddler filling the gas tank of his father's lawn mower with sand.

“My dad was still impressed, though, that I got the cap off, put the sand in it and put the cap back on,” Ahrens said.

Though his father was an automotive businessman, Ahrens said he was no fan of fast cars. It wasn't until he was an adult that Ahrens had the opportunity to begin racing.

At age 26, Ahrens began racing autocross after stumbling upon an event in a parking lot on the University of Florida campus.

Nearly 30 years later, Ahrens has accumulated an office full of trophies, sponsorship from Mazda and countless stories about his experiences on the track. He posted the best time in all four Sports Car Club of America national events in Florida.

With a tight, quick walk, it is clear Ahrens is comfortable with speed. But his thrill from the race goes beyond moving fast. He revels more in tricky maneuvers that require real know-how.

“There really isn't a strong feeling when you are going top speed. The adrenaline or the excitement comes from when it's time to transition from 160 or 150 back down to maybe 40 or 50 mph for a curve. We have lots of corners that we do that are at or above 100 mph. I find that way more exciting than just the actual speed on the straightaway,” Ahrens said.

While turning corners at top speeds, drivers are required to wear a six-point harnesses, a head and neck restraint and fire suits.

Ahrens said he has never been injured on the track, but has sustained several injuries while traveling to races in his pickup truck.

Five years ago, Ahrens' vehicle was totaled in a car crash on his way to a race at Sebring Raceway. A passing driver, who happened to also be a racer, saw Ahrens on the side of the road and offered to tow him and his car to the track.

“I sat on the pole for that race and won that race. And then I came home and found out that I had one ruptured disk and two with bulge,” he said.

Ahrens knows his car inside and out. He said it took him three years to modify the car so that it was competitive on the track, rebuilding the engine among other feats. While he says his mechanical skills come in handy, he attributes his success to confidence, drive and resourcefulness.

“You have to have courage, you have to have skill, and you have to have perseverance to be a good racer. You always encounter difficulties, and you have to figure out how to step around them. You know, whether it's a part that's not available and you have to substitute something else or it's just the fact that something broke and you are on limited time, but you got to fix it anyways,” Ahrens said.

Ahrens said he plans to be racing cars until he “can't climb in and out of the car anymore.” He said it is common to see road racers in the game at age 70 and 80. He said he is confident he won't lose his skill but intends to constantly stay one step ahead of his competitors.

“The way racing goes, if you don't continually improve your vehicle, yourself and the ways you gather knowledge and information, you will be left behind,” he said.

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