Art Arfons: Land-speed record-breaker

Arthur Eugene Arfons, racing driver: born Akron, Ohio 3 February 1926; married June LaFontaine (two sons, one daughter); died Akron 3 December 2007

Art Arfons was one of the giants of land-speed record-breaking. His Sixties duels with his fellow American Craig Breedlove on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, when they kicked the record from 400mph to 600mph with their new breed of jet-cars, were the stuff of legend.

Arfons became hooked on drag racing in 1954, and his Green Monster cars became part of the sport's folklore. He was a muscular six footer with movie-star white teeth set in a broad, tanned face, whose flat planes and high cheekbones bore testimony to the Greek ancestry of his father, Tom, and the Cherokee Indian of his mother, Bessie. For many years, he ran the family's grain store in Akron, Ohio, but the world came to know him as the "junkyard genius of the jetset" when he shattered the land-speed record in October 1964.

Breedlove's Spirit of America cost $250,000; Arfons's ingenious Green Monster used an improvised spaceframe chassis with a '37 Lincoln axle up front, a Ford truck axle at the rear, and steering courtesy of a Packard. For $32, Arfons built a machine to hand-build the body for less than $1,000. For $3, he rigged up a shotgun to fire the braking parachutes. Excluding the forged aluminium wheels and rubber tyres contributed by Firestone, the projectile cost Arfons $10,000.

He acquired the engine a damaged General Electric J79 from the F-104 fighter for $625. "When I got it home I called GE and asked them for a manual," he recalled.

They said no, you can't have one. Next day I had a colonel from the military stop by and he said: "That's a classified engine, you're not allowed to have it." I said: "Well, here's my piece of paper, where I bought it, because you guys didn't want it and had thrown it away."

Arfons stunned the military by rebuilding the engine without assistance. "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 waving a 45!"

At Bonneville in Utah, on 2 October 1964, Tom Green piloted the jet-powered Wingfoot Express, owned by Art's step-brother Walt, to a new record of 413.20mph. Three days later, Art Arfons donned his trademark black leather jacket and Navy surplus trousers and obliterated that with an easy 434.02.

Over the ensuing months, he and Breedlove played out their game of high-speed Russian roulette. Breedlove achieved 468.72, and then 526.28, before Arfons replied with 536.71. In 1965 Breedlove hit back with 555.48, before Arfons reasserted himself with 575.55. Breedlove had the final answer at 600.60mph. Neither of them had any illusions about the dangers of their calling.

On 17 November 1966, Arfons's final attempt to beat Breedlove went horribly wrong. The night before the run, Bob Hosking, the helicopter pilot due to be filming the event, had a nightmare in which the Monster crashed and threw a wheel up through his chopper's blades. The following dawn, Arfons sped down the course and was peaking at 610 when, incredibly, Hosking's dream came true as the right front-wheel bearing seized, pitching the car into a series of rolls that scattered it over four and a half miles of salt. One wheel really did fly as high as the helicopter, but mercifully missed the blades.

Incredibly, Arfons survived with only salt burns. He told rescuers: "Will you call June [his wife] and tell her I'm okay? She didn't want me to go fast."

After another accident on a drag strip, Arfons turned to tractor-pulling with the jet-powered Green Monster, his Bonneville heyday all but over. "I never sleep the night before I drive," he once confessed.

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 into the car, because I know that, at that point, fear and caution leave him.

It's the other me, climbing into that car; they tell me I'm white as a ghost. Then the motor starts and I'm in another world. Only after that does the fear crawl in again, like fog, telling me what a fool the other man has been.

He described Bonneville as "like a woman you keep quarrelling with but can't stay away from".

When I'm at Bonneville I can't wait to get away. But once I'm away, I can't wait to get back.

Arfons, a Second World War naval veteran, was an ordinary blue-collar guy who achieved extraordinary things through his courage and innate engineering skill. He is to be buried with wrenches in his hands, a J79 operating manual and a jar of his beloved Bonneville salt by his side.

David Tremayne

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...