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

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