Jet junkie

For ’60s speed king Art Afrons, the lure of the Bonneville Flats will never wane. David Tremayne on the ‘Junkyard genius of the Jet-set’

When Craig Breedlove and Andy Green wage their supersonic duel later this year, a 71-year-old speed king will, at least in spirit, be riding with them, reliving his own glory days of the ’60s.

Arthur Eugene Arfons became hooked on drag racing in 1954 and his Green Monster cars became part of the sport’s folklore. The son of a chickenfeed farmer from Akron, Ohio, Art was a muscular, charismatic six-footer with movie star white teeth set in a broad tanned face whose flat planes and high cheekbones bore testimony to Greek and Cherokee Indian ancestry. The world came to know this ‘junkyard genius of the jet-set’ when he shattered the land speed record in October 1964.

While rival Breedlove’s Spirit of America cost $250,000 well beyond Art’s means the Green Monster owed everything to a genius for improvisation. Arfons welded the spaceframe chassis with sidekick Ed Snyder and sat it on a ’37 Lincoln axle up front, a Ford truck axle at the rear, steering via a pre-war Packard system. For $32 he built a forming machine and hand-built the body for only $1000. For $3 he rigged up a shotgun to fire the braking parachutes. Excluding the forged aluminium wheels and rubber tyres contributed by Firestone, the Monster cost Arfons a mere $10,000.

For years rumour said he acquired the engine a damaged General Electric J79 from the F-104 fighter for $5000, but Arfons recently put that right “I picked it up in Miami for $625 with FOD damage on the label. When I got it home I called GE and asked for a manual but they wouldn’t let me have one. Next day a colonel from the military stopped by and said: ‘That’s a classified engine, you’re not allowed to have it.’ I said: ‘Well, here’s my piece of paper. I bought it because you guys threw it away.’

“A friend worked at Wright Patton and he got me the tool I needed to fix it. I can make most of the stuff I need, but this was real special. He would sign it out and drop it by the fence to me. I’d then use it during the day and have to get it back to him so he could sign it back at the end of his shift.

“I took that engine to pieces and found that the blades were all damaged, so I just removed every third one. Never did balance the thing. I just put it back together that way and it ran fine. It had all the power I needed. It shoulda’ had an air start but I couldn’t run to that. I just hitched up a Buick with a driveshaft to the front of the engine and spun it over real well. Then I let the fuel in and hit the hot streak and away it went.

“The first time we tied it down and ran it, we dried up a small creek out back of the ‘shop in Pickle Road, and it was blowing boulders away! One time, a guy came after me with a 45! Another time a neighbour said, ‘Every time you fire up that goddam thing it loosens the tiles in my roof.’ I said ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ People round here been trying to get me out for a while, but I was here long before any of them. I got a ruling says I was here long before they zoned the place!”

At Bonneville on October 2, 1964, Tom Green piloted the jet-powered Wingfoot Express, owned by Art’s step-brother Walt, past Donald Campbell’s wheel-driven Bluebird and Breedlove’s jet Spirit to establish a record 413.20mph. Three days later, Art donned his trademark black leather jacket and Navy-surplus trousers and obliterated that with an easy 434.02. For many years the two brothers had been estranged after falling out for reasons neither has ever disclosed. Even today, they still don’t talk. That week in Bonneville certainly can’t have helped.

Over the ensuing months Arfons and Breedlove played a chilling game of high-speed Russian Roulette. Later in 1964 Breedlove achieved 468.72 and then 526.28 before Art replied with 536.71, but in 1965 Breedlove hit back with 555.48 before Art reasserted himself with 575.55. It was Breedlove though, who had the final answer for the season at an incredible 600.60mph.

Neither had any illusions about the dangers of their calling. “One time at Bonneville, Firestone was making a movie about me. They wanted me to walk over to the wreckage of Glenn Leasher’s car from 1962 and sort of look at it. I said: ‘Okay, I’ll do it tonight.’ They said: ‘No, you’ll do it now. Maybe you won’t be coming back tonight.”

On November 17, 1966, Arfons very nearly did not come back when his attempt to beat Breedlove’s 600mph mark went horribly wrong. The night before the run, movie helicopter pilot Bob Hosking had a nightmare in which the Monster crashed and threw up a wheel through his chopper’s blades. Next dawn Arfons sped down the long black line, hitting 585.366mph through the mile and 589.597 through the kilo, accelerating hard as he cleared them. While peaking at 610, incredibly, the premonition came true. Suddenly the right front wheel bearing seized, pitching the car into a sickening series of rolls that scattered it over four-and-a-half miles of salt. As the Monster exploded, a wheel really did rip off and fly as high as the helicopter. Mercifully, it missed the blades.

Unbelievably, Arfons was still alive when fearful rescuers reached the shattered hulk, the Monster repaying all his loving hours of construction work. “I think I’m all right,” he told them. “Call June and tell her I’m okay. She didn’t want me to go fast.”

Like Campbell before him, he joked in the ambulance: “Don’t drive this thing too fast, we don’t want to have an accident.” Salt packed under the lids made his eyes “sting like the Devil” and his face was raw, but that old leather jacket had saved the rest of him and he simply walked away from the world’s fastest land accident. To avoid scaring his wife June he took cotton pads off his eyes on the plane home to Akron. By the time he arrived he was already envisaging a supersonic version of Green Monster…

When the rebuilt car later crashed at a drag meeting killing its passenger, a Texan reporter, Arfons switched to tractor-pulling until the lure of Bonneville again proved too much. “I never sleep the night before I drive,” he confessed to AP’s Oscar Fraley, before making a frank disclosure of his true feelings: “You think about everything that might happen. But I worry most about the other man inside me and what he’ll do when he gets in the car. I know then that fear and caution leave him.

“It’s the other me, climbing into that car; they tell me I’m white as a ghost. But then the motor starts: it’s a Jekyll and Hyde thing. The power becomes music to me and I’m in another world. Only after that does the fear crawl in again, like fog.

“When I’m at Bonneville I can’t wait to get away. But once I’m away, I can’t wait to get back.” In 1989 he did go back, with a tiny 5000lb car Green Monster No 27 that ran on solid aluminium wheels and reversed his power-is-all philosophy of the ’60s. Age 63, he rolled it at low speed and, when he returned in 1990, he told current fast man Richard Noble: “I just can’t steer the damn thing.” It seemed he was retiring for good this time but, as late as 1995, when visiting Noble in England, he admitted: “Maybe go back for one last shot. They said I was retiring before, but I never said that.”

He shot a nervous look at June as he said this.

Clearly they are a close couple, after 47 years together, and he turned down the chance the next day to see Cobb’s Railton in Birmingham so she could go shopping in London. Even today, she has never seen him race on the salt. “After I saw what happened to Leasher, I never let the family come when I raced. But maybe I’ll go just one more time…”

The tone was wistful, one of the record breaking world’s true greats torn not just between family, the passing of time and restless ambition, but between two very different women. June figured it was time her husband started acting his age and concentrated on sightseeing. But still that old siren calls. “Bonneville,” Art Arfons said thoughtfully, “is like a woman you keep quarrelling with but can’t stay away from.”