COLLYER — A steady breeze blew through the shop doors, providing a natural cooling effect from the afternoon sun directly overhead.
It was one of those lazy afternoon days, when the June temperatures were starting to get warm but not unbearably hot. It was a dog’s-day afternoon — literally — as two canines curled up on their dog beds in the office section.
Then a car pulled up to the shop doors, and a man sporting a button-down blue shirt walked into the building that served as a gas station several decades ago.
“Is there a gas station or gas pump in this town?” the stranger said.
“We were just talking about that,” Blaine Walt said with a laugh. “Where you headed?”
“No place really. I’ve got 2 miles left,” the man said.
“Well you’ve got 8 miles to the west (to Quinter) or 12 miles to the east (to WaKeeney),” Walt said. “Those are the closest two places. We’ve got some we can give you though.”
Larry Walt leans back in his chair and smiles, then lets out a chuckle as his son goes into the shop to offer the man assistance with some fuel he has stored in a plastic container, saving the traveler from becoming stranded along the main thoroughfare through the state.
“When people need gas … that’s why we always have jugs of gas sitting around,” Larry Walt says. “Every time we go to town, we take jugs and fill them so we have some. It’s just things you have to do when you live without a grocery store and a gas station. You just get used to it. The benefits of rural America. I wouldn’t want to live any place else.”
And, coincidentally, he hasn’t really lived anywhere else.
Instead, Larry Walt has created the pounding pulse of the small town of Collyer in western Trego County. And Walt’s Repair and Machine, located on the main road that runs north and south through town, has been a staple in the community for more than 50 years.
“We’re a small-town family business,” he said. “We have pretty loyal customers over the years. We still have some customers that I can remember as a little boy who still bring stuff to us. There’s pretty good loyal customers in the area. With the performance engines and dirt-track and circle tracks in the area, that brings in more.”
Walt remembers going down to the shop’s location as a child. Then, it served as the gas station and still has the resemblance today with its red brick and awning on the front corner.
He pumped gas in those days, when it was much cheaper — “29, 30 cents.” Eventually, the pump dials couldn’t keep up with rising prices and measurements.
Walt’s Repair and Machine got its start when Larry Walt’s father, Ted Jr., figured out there wasn’t going to be enough room for himself on the farm, so he moved into town to find a job.
In 1963, his father decided to start his own business. The business once was in a former creamery in Collyer. Then around 1972, the old gas station went up for sale, and Ted Jr. bought it. And in the late 1970s, he began building engines.
“He started accumulating machine shop equipment and went from there,” Walt said.
Larry Walt went to grade school in Collyer and was a 1980 graduate of the nearby high school in WaKeeney. He later returned home and began helping his father. Larry and his wife, Angie, bought the business in 1996.
“This has been a lifetime deal,” he said. “We’re just staying here and keeping working at it.”
“My wife tells me I couldn’t work for anyone else. She says I’ve been on my own for way too many years that I could never work for anyone else. She’s probably right.”
Walt has been his own boss for several years now, and he’s accustomed to putting in long hours to get the job done. But when his son Blaine graduated from Fort Hays State University in 2009, he came back to help at the business.
“We had more work. I was working 14-, 16-hour days every day,” the father said. “He came back then. We still work a lot of hours. But it took a lot of load off that he could do a lot of the stuff, too. So that helped. Now he’s been here since 2009.”
Blaine and his wife and young daughter live in the small town, as does Derek, Larry and Angie’s youngest son.
Blaine, on top of working at the shop, also has a mowing business, and Derek is involved in construction with a cousin.
“Sometimes I get mad at what my dad and my grandpa taught me,” Larry Walt said. “But they taught us how to work and do all our own stuff. You do your own carpentry work, you do your own concrete work, you do your own plumbing.”
And you do what you enjoy.
That’s evident in the fact the repair shop began specializing in performance racing engines in the mid-1980s, when Larry began hanging around some dirt-track racing friends.
Now, he estimates 70 percent of the business is based on performance-related engines.
“The performance stuff is always neat because you get to see the results on the track or on the street,” Walt said. “The person is wanting to increase his performance. Cars and pickups that need maintenance or are broke down, most of the time those people need them fixed because that’s their work vehicle and they’re counting on it. That’s kind of the everyday things you need to do. But the performance stuff is fun because you get to see an improvement and results. But it can be awful frustrating, too.”
The shop has built engines for all types of racers, from stock cars to Northern sport mod drivers. In fact, Blaine races a Northern sport mod of his own — and has had an abundance of success including an IMCA state title in 2012.
“About every night you go to the race track, you learn something new, too,” the father said. “And there’s a real good group of people we race with. It’s fun to go out there and be better than the other guys. Sometimes you are, and sometimes you aren’t.”
In February 2015, Walt’s Repair and Machine added a SuperFlow AutoDyn 30 — a two-wheeled dyno machine that can check the whole system of the car, as Larry Walt puts it, from the front of the car to the rear wheels.
“You get pretty true results in that configuration,” he said. “Most of the times the test we run is an acceleration test that starts when it starts rolling to 30 to 40 mph. Then we load it, put a load on it and do an acceleration test. We go from 30 to 40 mph to 80, 90 or 100 or 120. You take in acceleration of motor, the way it accelerates through the fuel curve and everything. It’s really like driving on a road or driving on a track.
“The flywheel dynos, the ones I’ve been around when we’ve tested with those, most of those are wide-open throttle dynos where they open the throttle and put a load on it and then open the throttle wide open. They get everything going that way and then do a sweep test on it. That’s a fantastic tool. They give you a tremendous amount of information. They’ve both got their place. But there really wasn’t any chassis dynos in the area, and we kind of wanted to enhance our business with something like that and use it as an engine dyno to an extent.”
Several area racers have been on the machine, and Blaine’s car has been as well — just one of the perks or working for his father.
“I enjoy everything except having to work underneath the dirtiest vehicles,” Blaine said jokingly, perhaps not. “Probably my favorite part is working on the performance side, the cylinder heads. That’s my main job. I do a lot of other things, but being able to take things that have a problem and fix them the way they should be, I like that challenge — and messing around with the dyno.”
“Blaine likes the dyno because he said it’s instant results,” Walt said. “You can make one change and know if it helped or hurt it instantly.”
Helping in the shop also is Leroy Schmidtberger, who’s been working away for 20-plus years with Walt. He lives a block away and walks to work, and the owner said Schmidtberger is a key to the growth and success of the business.
While Walt’s Repair and Machine might be in a town of approximately 100 people, it has a regional draw — thanks to quality work it has provided through the years.
A lot of that credit goes to the owner. That work ethic and integrity was ingrained in him since he was a little boy from his father, who died in 2012.
Now, it doesn’t take the owner long to answer if he’d rather be spending his hours doing anything else.
“No. I’ve done it too long,” he said, leaning back in his chair, his energy and vigor for the business still on a full tank.
“I’ve done it too long.”