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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Male Behaviour Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

£55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

BA/PM,EMIR/Dodd-Frank,London,£450-650P/D

£450 - £650 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

SEN Learning Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

£55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

Key stage 1 and 2 teachers required for the Vale of Glamorgan

£90 - £110 per day + Travel Scheme & Free Training: Randstad Education Cardiff...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz