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Speed, fire and desire

Local fire station captain works in the hot seat and plays in the fast lane

Posted: January 27, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: January 27, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Capt. Johnny Ahten stands in front of the company fire engine at Fire Station No. 104 in Santa Clarita. Signal photo by Charlie Kaijo.

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At 275 mph, the captain starts to feel sensory overload.

There is a smell of methane. A vibration like he’s going through the atmosphere.

The acceleration causes his brain to work harder to receive an avalanche of impulses.

The captain’s peripheral vision begins to disappear.

There’s tunnel vision where the road narrows, and he compares it to watching the opening of “Star Wars,” which shows the words travel up and disappear in the distance.

In less than six seconds, it’s over.

That’s how Capt. Johnny Ahten describes the feeling of drag racing.

For three years, Ahten has been the captain at Fire Station 104 in Santa Clarita.

But the Newhall resident’s hobby is drag racing.

“It’s very addicting,” Ahten says. “The rush is indescribable. It’s like trying to describe what chocolate tastes like.”
Ahten’s love of speed parallels his desire for fire fighting.

Both were passed down from his father, retired fire Capt. Al Ahten.

“It runs in the family,” Al says. “I’m old enough to where when I was in junior high school, everyone had a fast car. And I grew into that culture. Through me, my two boys spent a lot of time at drag races. We slept in the trailer.”
Al worked at Station 73 in Newhall and retired as captain at Station 76 in 2004.

He also raced.

First, it was a ’59 Chevy, then a ’67 Camaro, then a dragster at raceways in Irwindale, San Fernando, Bakersfield and Fontana.

Johnny Ahten witnessed it and was hooked.

“Growing up, all I knew was the Fire Department and racing,” 42-year-old Johnny Ahten said. “I really look up to (my father) and follow in his footsteps.”

Johnny Ahten has been drag racing for a decade.

His biggest moment happened Nov. 10, 2013, during the NHRA Auto Club Finals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, the final race of the season.

With Al working down on the raceway and Ahten’s wife of nine years, Monica, and young boys Owen and Eli watching from the stands, Ahten won the biggest race of his life.

Ahten had never even finished as runner-up, but he made it to the finals of the Top Alcohol Dragster category and won it.

“I was speechless; (it was a) very emotional win,” Ahten says. “I had to beat the best. Everything went our way that day. I didn’t have the fastest car, but we were (fastest) each time we raced.”

Monica Ahten had mixed emotions. Personality-wise, she says, she’s the opposite of her adrenaline-junkie husband. She plays things safe. So she wouldn’t sign the paperwork to allow her boys to watch the race from the ground level.

Monica celebrated the win from above and regretted not having her boys closer to their father to immediately celebrate with him.

Monica Ahten recognizes the dangers of her husband’s job and hobby, and because of those dangers she keeps her distance.

“I’m usually in the stands with my boys,” she says. “When he’s racing or about to race, I try not think about it. A lot of times I don’t think one way or another. I want him to win, but any number of things can happen.”

However, she knows who her husband is, and he has been this way from their first date.

“He was the one who pushed me onto a roller coaster when I wouldn’t go on,” she says. “It drew me to him because we are opposites.

“I think it’s just his personality. He’s the type of person you say you can’t do that — andhe’ll work 10 times harder to prove you wrong. It’s not his wanting to be right; it’s about sheer determination.”

Ahten says the support system he has is incomparable. His wife, he says, is very understanding of who he is and the hours he puts into his passions. The money spent? That’s a whole other ball of wax, he jokes.

He says he doesn’t know the exact amount he spends, and all winnings go back into the dragster. He does get help from sponsors, as well.

“I don’t want to write up (the exact amount spent),” he says. “My wife would kill me.”

The push is on again. Al is working on the dragster in his shop. The season starts up again in February on that same racetrack in Pomona. Now Ahten has something to build upon from last season.

Fire and speed are two things Ahten is recognized for. He plans to add winning to that mix.


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