Art Arfons Passes

One of the legends of the 1960?s land-speed record holders passed away Monday at the age of 81. Art Arfons, along with his mutant jet-powered car ?The Green Monster? were an icon of 1960?s.

Arfons, who hailed from Akron, Ohio was an ordinary guy with an extraordinary dream. Like many of his age group, Arfons was a Second World War veteran (U.S. Navy), an ordinary blue-collar guy who pushed the land speed records (LSR) race to extraordinary levels. It was an era dominated with American daredevils such as Arfons, Mickey Thompson and Arfons? chief rival, Craig Breedlove. Arfons and Breedlove raised the LSR from 400 to 600mph on the salt flats of Bonneville in Utah.

It is reported that he?ll be buried in his home town of Akron with spanners in his hands and a J79 jet-engine operating manual and a jar of his beloved Bonneville salt by his side.

Starting on the dragstrips of Ohio in 1954, Arfons and his Green Monster cars became a part of drag racing folklore. Arfons ran the family’s grain store in Akron, Ohio, but achieved world-wide acclaim when he shattered the land-speed record in October 1964.
Arfons dealings in getting the powerplant for his car along with the ingenuity he showed when building the vehicle are almost unimaginable today.

The book, ?The Fastest Men on Earth? by Paul Clifton (John Day, 1966) describes the genesis of Green Monster thusly:

Late in 1963 Art got his break–or so he fondly hoped.

The telephone rang in his corrugated-iron garage on Pickle Road, Akron, Ohio. A friend was calling long-distance from Miami, Florida. A J-79 engine was going cheap at a surplus yard. Did Art want it?

The General Electric J-79 jet engine, Art well knew, drove the USAF’s F-104 jet fighter at a speed of 1,600mph. This surplus engine was the only J-79 in existence outside the Air Force. The punch of a J-79 would give him far more power than any other car possessed.

All that was wrong with the surplus engine, he found when he examined the engine himself, was that 65 of its 1,000-odd turbine blades were slightly bent. Otherwise it was as good as new.

The J-79 had cost the USAF something like a quarter of a million dollars. Art picked it up for about $5,000. In an interview Art remembered, “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 behind the shop and it was blowing boulders away! One time, a guy came after me waving a .45!”

The book continues,

When he tested his bargain buy–by lashing it with one-inch-thick wire between two trees in his backyard (sounds rather like one of my experiments…TTE)–its blast was so lusty that windows were smashed a block away, and the police came running.

The hot car Arfons built around the J-79 was put together from odds and ends, mostly surplus parts, in his little garage. The front axle came from a 1937 Lincoln, and the steering box from a 1955 Packard. The mechanism to fire the drag parachutes was made out of sawed-off 12-guage shotguns–cost: $3, instead of $1,000. The chutes themselves were made by a friend’s wife on her sewing machine. The car was kept low because it had to fit into an old school bus, also scrounged off a scrap heap and converted by Art that he used to transport his racing cars. The Green Monster ended up no bigger than a large Cadillac.

Firestone picked up the tab for the wheels and the tires. As Art did not bother with fancy blueprints, he just gave the Firestone engineers a wheel hub, mentioned the car’s total weight, and told them to take it from there.

Arfons and his neighbor, Ed Snyder (who worked the night shift operating a molding press at a tire factory and devoted his mornings and early afternoons to Art, snatching what sleep he could in the evenings), put about 5,000 hours into the construction of Green Monster. The total cost to Arfons was about $10,000 of his own money.

The finished Green Monster looked like a jet engine on wheels–and its howl sounded like that of a wild animal. The 17,000-pound thrust of the J-79 gave Arfons a big edge over the 5,700-pound thrust of Craig Breedlove’s 1964 version of Spirit of America and the 7,000-pound thrust of Walt Arfons’ Wingfoot Express. Walt is Art’s brother.

Art’s ugly beauty was, in fact, at the time, the most powerful car ever built.

David Tremayne wrote about Arfons? high-speed Russian roulette on the Salt Flats in 1964.

At Bonneville in Utah, on October 2, 1964, Tom Green piloted the jet-powered Wingfoot Express, owned by Art’s step-brother Walt, to a record 413.2mph. 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, 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 600.6mph.

Neither of them had any illusions about the dangers of their calling. On November 17 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 610mph 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 4.5 miles of salt. One wheel really did fly as high as the helicopter but mercifully missed the blades.

‘I never sleep before a drive’

Incredibly, Arfons survived with only salt burns. He told rescuers: “Will you call June [his wife] and tell her I’m OK? 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.”

Arthur Eugene Arfons, was born in Akron, Ohio, on February 3 1926. He married June LaFontaine (fathering two sons, one daughter). He passed away in Akron on December 3 2007.

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