Art and his designs

When it came to setting Land Speed Records, no one did it quite like the late Art Arfons
By Richard Heseltine

He’d faced down danger before but this was different: not only Plan A but Plans B, C, and D had been exhausted. The right rear rubber had detonated just past the final Bonneville speed trap. Art Arfons was scorching the salt at over 500mph, strapped into a home-built car in which his total investment was just $10,000. Remarkably the Green Monster stayed true, but drainage ditches and telegraph poles lay past the end of the course. The junkyard genius deployed the parachute – only for a dragline to snap. Killing the jet engine until he could safely scrub off enough speed to release the back-up, he was still travelling at over 400mph when his reserve ’chute disintegrated within moments of being popped. He tried the brakes but the hydraulic lines were shot. There was no choice but to ride it out. Coming to a halt some half a mile later, the ever-modest speed freak was unruffled, elated even. It was October 1964 and he’d just taken back the Land Speed Record with a two-way average of 536.71mph.

Arthur Eugene Arfons epitomised the right stuff. Preternaturally brave and endlessly self-reliant, this son of a Greek immigrant father and half-Cherokee mother survived countless crashes that by rights should have claimed him. Improbably, he lived life at full tilt comfortably into his seventh decade and only eased off the gas relatively recently. He died on December 3, 2007, aged 81, and was buried in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, along with a jar of Bonneville salt, a manual for a J79 jet engine and a spanner in each hand. His is a story that defies convention and perfectly illustrates how lateral thinking and a lot of willpower can go a long way.

They had to. Growing up during the Depression, Arfons worked alongside his two half-brothers in the family mill after school was over. At 17 he enlisted in the US Navy, training as a diesel mechanic and seeing action in the invasion of Okinawa, returning home after a three-year stretch. By 1952 he was married and a father but that year would prove a watershed: he and his half-brother – and future rival – Walt discovered drag racing. While serving his country, Art had learned to fly and bought a training plane for $500. One weekend he and Walt turned up at the local airfield to make a flight only to find the landing strip blocked by cars racing each other.

They were hooked by what they saw that day, swiftly cobbling together a contraption powered by an ancient Oldsmobile V8 and hand-painted with a coat of green tractor paint. Mocked by a track announcer at their first meeting only weeks after discovering the sport, the tag ‘Green Monster’ became a constant for virtually all of Art’s subsequent creations. Even those that weren’t green.

A year on, the duo lashed together an altogether more extreme dragster with six wheels and a monstrous 450bhp Continental radial engine housed out back: it would do until a blown Allison V12 – all 27 litres of it – became available. “I traded a $50 electric motor against it,” Art recalled in 2002. Ever more elaborate machines followed, Arfons winning the 1954 World Series of Drag Racing and becoming one of the first drivers to reach 150mph in the quarter mile with his four-wheel-drive Green Monster 6, the half-siblings having by now parted ways. Art famously beat the hitherto dominant Floridian Don ‘Big Daddy’ Garlits on his home turf in 1959, and aeroplane engines were subsequently outlawed from frontline competition. Match-racing Walt Arfons’ creations in exhibition events paid the bills but ended in mutual enmity – a situation not helped by the fact that their workshops were situated side-by-side.

No matter, Art had bigger fish to fry, his Allison-powered Anteater chasing the Land Speed Record in 1960. Intended to resemble his idol John Cobb’s Railton Special, this distinctive creation was unsuccessful in several attempts, making a best of 313.78mph in ’61 with a burnt-out clutch.

That year Arfons and his fellow hot rodders were given a wake-up call by the arrival of Dr Nathan Ostich’s jet-propelled Flying Caduceus. While it didn’t claim the ultimate prize, this contrivance clearly represented the future. Arfons used his connections in army surplus to land an engine out of a B-47 bomber for his next challenger, the resultant Cyclops making 338.791mph at Bonneville in 1962 – on remoulds. And with an open cockpit.

Four jet cars had turned up in Utah that year, Craig Breedlove’s among them. In 1963, the charismatic Californian smashed the 400mph barrier. Knowing that he couldn’t match his rival’s budget, Arfons did what he did best: he started scavenging. After locating a J79 jet engine that produced 17,500lb of thrust (compared to the J47 in Breedlove’s Spirit of America that made 5200), he handed over just $700 and dragged it home. It had failed after a shard of metal had been sucked into the intake and damaged 60 turbine blades and should have been scrapped – a point not lost on the government after Arfons contacted General Electric for a manual. A day later a senior Air Force colonel arrived in Akron demanding the engine be returned: it wasn’t intended for civilians. “I showed him my receipt and said it was junk and you guys threw it away,” Arfons later recalled.

Predictably, GE refused to help so Arfons stripped the engine and made repairs himself. Then, needing to test it, he strapped the jet to a chassis chained to two trees behind his workshop – and lit her up. The engine was eventually found 50ft away after it had incinerated a chicken coop and mowed a path through woodland. The fuzz weren’t impressed. Nor his neighbours whose foundations had been rattled.

Suitably emboldened, Green Monster 11 was cobbled together with a ’37 Lincoln front axle, a ’55 Packard steering rack and a ’47 Ford truck rear end. The 6500lb device may have looked ungainly but it recorded 434.02mph at Bonneville in ’64 to take the three-day-old Land Speed Record set by Tom Green – who’d been driving Walt Arfons’ Wingfoot Express. Eight days later Breedlove raised the bar to 526.28mph before crashing out. The salt crust was damaged and bad weather was on its way but Arfons didn’t want to wait another year to drive again. Part-way though the following bid, he was forced to abort after the passenger canopy flew off. His next outing saw an average of 515mph. With time running out, he took his wild ride with a flailing tyre on that remarkable 536.71mph run.

Not to be outdone, Breedlove returned to Bonneville a year on with Spirit of America: Sonic 1 and on November 2 reclaimed the prize at 555.127mph. After an interminable wait while Breedlove’s team went after countless other records, Arfons took to the salt later that month. He’d exceeded 600mph when a tyre exploded. His cockpit filled with smoke and, unable to see, he punched out the canopy: with his face seared by the air stream, Arfons broke the record at 576.553mph. Within a week, Breedlove reached 600mph and the race was over.

There would be other attempts and equally hairy rides, including a crash at over 600mph in 1966 where a tyre was apparently found four miles away from the wreck, but Arfons would never hold the title again. Unbowed, he changed tack and had a stab at the Water Speed Record instead, typically without much in the way of sponsorship. After only one aborted attempt, our hero wryly concluded that he “didn’t much like water”.

But he did still like jets, helping launch the sport of tractor pulling and building a raft of turbine-powered mud pluggers, campaigned late into the last century. He even returned to the hallowed salt in 1989 – at the age of 65 and a decade after triple heart bypass surgery – with a leftfield two-wheeled device, but vibration issues hobbled his bid. Another attempt a year on ended in a sickening accident at over 400mph, and came just two weeks after his nephew Craig had perished after crashing his jet-powered hydrofoil. Arfons would likely have kept on returning, but as he commented at the time, “my wife would likely divorce me”.

Nobody before or since has gone faster for less money than Art Arfons. His ‘can do’ spirit and lack of guile endeared him to millions, even those of us who weren’t alive to witness the ‘summer of speed’ as he battled ‘Brave Speedlove’ to be the fastest man on earth – but wished we had been.