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Art Arfons

An Article By Harvey Shapiro

Art Arfons was born February 3, 1926, the son of Tom and Bessie Arfons. He was the youngest of four children. Brothers Walt and Dale were Bessies children from a previous marriage. Lou was the only girl in the family. Walt was 10 years older than Art, Dale eight years and his sister 18 months older. Tom Arfons, born in Greece, came to the United States when he was 14. He died in 1950, at the age of 52. Art's mother, half Cherokee, died in 1984 at the age of 84.

Tom Arfons operated his feed mill business in rural Northeast Ohio. "I came home right after school,"recalls Art,"and my job was to sweep the mill. We had the cider press running in the Fall and it was my job to wash the press. I'd come home about 3:30 in the afternoon and work until 9 or 10 at night." Life was hard. We were definitely poor, but so was everybody else. I was telling June (Art's wife of almost 50 years) the other day we had an outside toilet, an outside water pump.

"Dad would walk from the Firestone plant to save a nickel on the bus fare. We never had the extra nickel. My Mom used to give me a dime to get a big box of Post Toasties and she said I could have three cents for candy. I'd get the whole bag of candy." He helped his father at the mill working-on machinery, until he talked his parents into allowing him to enlist in the U.S. Navy. America was at war. Art Arfons was almost 17. He enlisted at the end of his junior year of high school and was assigned to diesel mechanics school, then to the Pacific Theater of War aboard an attack landing craft, "I was a mechanic and operated the door," he vividly recalls. "I dropped the door and let the troops out then wound it back up. I also kept the diesels running. The landing craft could hold 50 troops".

We also had a gunner's mate on the landing craft which was equipped with a pair of 50-caliber machine guns. You lowered and raised the huge steel door with a big double crank. He got on one end and I got on the other. We had armor plate around and if you could stay down you were pretty safe."But it was a slow, tedious process. From the enemy's point of view, it was a real shooting gallery. Heads pop up and down. So I decided to do something about it."

That something was lowering and raising the door mechanically. "I kept a starter motor and put a cable in it. I'd lay down, just touch a button and the old door would fly open. It went down quick and came up quick. It was neat." Arfons was involved in two invasions including the bloody battle of Okinawa. Fortunately, he was not injured and was discharged from the Navy after a three-year hitch. He was a Second Class Petty Officer.

Arfons returned to Akron, Ohio to work with his father in the family business. When I came back I was making $35 a week." By 1952 Arfons had married and had an infant son. He was earning $50 a week. When you've been brought up in the Depression, he says, "you watch your money kinda careful. I was satisfied."

Walt Arfons, who would becqme a land speed rival, was also working at the mill back in 1952. One incident would change both of their lives. "June was with me that Sunday,' recalls Art. 'We were heading towards the airport, but the highway was closed where you go into the airport. You could hear the noise, so we went down to see what was going on. We saw a crowd of people and a drag race was going on. I wasn't aware of drag racing until that day. It was fascinating; smoking tires, the screaming engines. A lot of horsepower running wide open. When I got back home I told Walter about it. He hadn't heard about drag racing, but he was excited. I looked around the mill and found engines that we used for power.

"There was a six-cylinder Oldsmobile engine laying there. There was also a nose wheel off one of our planes. I welded a frame, stuck this nose wheel in front of the engine. I got a Packard rear-end and bolted it to the back of the engine. It was just a three-wheel thing. we put it together in a weekend. They topped it all with same green tractor paint. It was the only paint The Arfons Brothers had available at the time. The following week, they took their dragster to the local track. The three-wheeler shut down on it's maiden run. On the second attempt Art Arfons hit 85 MPH but the winner's speed was 105.

During that first appearance, as the legend goes, the car drew laughs from the crowd.

"It's a monster," someone yelled.
"That's a mighty fine description,agreed the track announcer.
Okay folks here it comes; The Green Monster."

By 1953; Art and Halt Arfons were consumed by drag racing. By the middle of that season, "Green Monster No. 2" was hitting peak speed of more than 100MPH. It was a six-wheeled, 20 foot long beast powered by an Allison World War II aircraft engine, generating 2,000 horses.

Estimated top speed of the car was 270. Acceleration was estimated at 0-to-140 in about eight seconds. The front was painted to resembled the feared Flying Tigers emblem. The legendary Tigers flew P40s against the Japanese prior to America's formal entrance into World War II.

My mother painted the mouth of that car," says Art Arfons. "That was her idea. In fact, she always wanted to drive one of em, She was really enthused about racing. She jumped up and down. She liked it."

And the speeds kept increasing. Arfons was hitting 132 miles an hour on tires that were safe at 50. "I had 616 car tires. I was running 132 just 10 miles an hour off the world record." He earned top speed honors of 132.35 at the first World Series of Drag Racing at Lawrenceville, Illinois. "I was running gas, but we could run for top speed in the meet." Later, Art Arfons hit 145.16 in No. 2. That was a world record at the time. "Even Hot Rod Magazine publicized it." But it wasn't until 1956, until "Green Monster No. 6" that Art Arfons made drag racing history. Hot Rod was looking for the first driver to hit 150 Miles an Hour. The prize "a jacket." I got the No. 1 jacket for the 150 Miles An Hour Club. A funny thing, two of us did it on the same day. "I went 150 at Ransas City and some other guy went 152 on the West Coast. By the time the year ended, I think there were four of us in the club." "Number 6 was a big heavy tank. It was powered an an Allison, had six wheels, duals in the back and front-wheel drive. We had truck tires on it."

By the late 1950s, Art and Walt Arfons went their seperate ways. They would become land speed rivals, and each would be successful in that quest.

Of all his piston-powered dragsters, Arfons considered No. 11 as the best. He hit a top of 191 against the legendary Don "Big Daddy" Garlits in a winner-take-all match in Florida. "The Chamber of Commerce would bring in a new guy each week for Garlits to beat," Arfons fondly recalls. "I said to the guy, 'What makes you think he's gonna beat me? what will you give me if I beat him? "He said hed give me a five-year college scholarship but I said I couldn't use it. How about cash? I kinda pressed the issue and finally he he said they'd pay $500 if I could beat Garlits.

"That was incentive enough to haul all the way down to Florida; That was big money in those days. We ran at an old airport, on a concrete runway. "Concrete isn't slippery like asphalt. It was fantastic. It picked up one wheel right at the starting line. I went on three wheels all the way down, ran 191 and collected the $500."

But by then Arfons was turning his attention to the land speed record of 394 MPH set by the late John Cobb of England in 1947. Cobb was Arfons' idol, so he designed the rear-end of his wheel driven, Allison-powered "Anteater" to resemble Cobb's famed "Railton Special." "It was a good handling car," he insists. "I sat way up front. It's scarey. You can't see nothing except salt rushing at you. It really gives you the sensation of going fast. "But what's bad about sitting so far forward is that if something happens and the back end starts to drift out, you wouldn't know it until it's too late. You wouldn't have the feel."

It cost about $10,000 to build Arfons' first land speed car. "The biggest expenditure was about $4000 for the body and Firestone paid for that. I probably had $5000 in the rest of it." He tried in 1960 and again in 1961 with the cart hitting top speed of 313.78 before a burned-out clutch knocked him out of contention. "The car has the potential of 450 miles an hour," he says. "I just wish I had it back." Arfons sold it to Bob Motz, a fellow Ohioan who once drove Arfons' jet dragster. However, Motz won't sell it back.

In 1962, Arfons took his jet-powered dragster,"Cyclops" to Bonneville against the likes of Doc Nathan Ostich's "Flying Caduceus", the first jet in land speed history, Craig Breedlove's three-wheeler, "Spirit of America", and Glenn Leasher in Rameo Palidedes' "Infinity".... also jet cars.

Ostich spun out at 331 miles an hour, Breedlove's car wandered all over the track, Leasher was fatally injured, marking the second fatality in three years. Athol Graham of Salt Lake City was killed in his home-built car in 1960. Arfons' 8000 horsepower "Cyclops" might have been fine for the drag strip, with it's short runway, but at Bonneville there just wasn't enough fuel capacity in a 20-gallon tank. Nevertheless, he averaged 330.113 for the measured mile. It still may be the fastest anyone has ever gone in an open cockpit car.

"It was really a bitch," he says, "but I couldn't put a canopy on it. If I'd have closed it in, I'd had taken air away from the engine. I was sitting right down in the engine. "A friend of mine, Charlie Nesbitt, taped my glasses to my helmet 'cause it (the wind) was tearing my glasses off every time, If my head got turned, I couldn't straighten it. Some fun."

The jet was unique in the fact it was the first time in land speed racing that a wing was utilized. It was situated right behind the cockpit. " The car wasn't streamlined and I was afraid the ground effect air would pick it and take it make it light where it wouldn't steer. So I put a wing to hold it down. It was geared to the suspension. It was a huge wing, but it did the job."

In 1963, Breedlove got his act together and averaged 407. The era of jet and rocket propulsion had truly begun.

Arfons sat out the '63 speed show. He was occupied with the building of what was to become his most famous "Green Monster", a snub-nosed creation powered by the most powerful powerplant of its day, a General Electric J-79 jet engine boasting 17,500 horsepower with four-stage afterburner.

The same J79 that was supposedly classified by the military, and yet Art Arfons drove to a Florida scrap dealer, paid $600 in cash and hauled away the damaged engine. I didn't try to chisle down the price. I never said nothing, just gave him the money and we put it in the bus. Of course, I didn't even know at that point whether or not the engine would run.

"There was no sense in trying to straighten out the blades, so I just pulled them out. I figured the engine had more than enough power without them. A few days after I called General Electric, told them I had a J79 and asked them to send a manual.

"The guy said, you don't have that engine. You can't have that engine. And I said, 'well, I sure do.' The next day or the day after that a Colonel from Washington showed up at the shop and said that's a classified engine and I can't have it. I said I bought it; and showed him my sales receipt.

The Colonel stomped out. Then I got a legal letter from the GE a real nasty letter saying the J79 was made for Marine and Air Force use and it should never be put in a race car."

Art Arfons ignored the officer and ignored the letter.

The concept wasn't terribly sophisticated, but it worked. "I hung the engine up and built the car around it." That "Green Monster" set land speed records of 434, 536 and 576 miles an hour in 1964, in the blistering battle of jets.

During that span a total of eight land speed records were set and the speed increased from 407 to 600.601. Breedlove enjoyed the last laugh, crashing the 600 MPH in his coke-bottle shaped Spirit of America-Sonic I."

Arfons returned to Bonneville in Novenber 1966 with his streamlined Monster. In addition, dual tires were installed in the rear end, to neutralize the torque effect when Arfons unleashed the burner.

He had already survived several high-speed blowouts, the last during the return run to cement his 576 MPH record. Arfons' 1966 Bonneville assault ended during unlucky run No. 7.

He had been plagued with problems, managing a top speed of 554.017. But that wasn't good enough. While it was too gusty to run on Wednesday November 16, Arfons felt confident the faulty afterburner problem had been solved. At 8:03 Utah time on Thursday morning November 17, 1966, he stepped into the cockpit. He said softly yet firmly: "I'm going to stand on the accelerator through the mile. The "Green Monster" whined and screamed as it started and left a brilliant trail of orange flames as it roared out of sight. He was clocked in 585.366 for the mile, 589.366 in the kilo which indicated the car was still accelerating as it left the timing traps. Shortly after streaking past the final timing lights, the car veered to the left of the black guide line. Arfons turned the steering wheel hard right, trying to get back on course . The Monster pitched violently on it's right side, then hit nose first.

The car became airborne atleast twice and skidded for long distances on it's right side, finally settled on it's belly, almost one mile past the traps, some 100 yards off course.

Parts of the car were strewn all over the Flats. Huge chunks were torn out of the salt, some as deep as 12 inches. The left cockpit was splattered with blood, the instrument panel smashed. Arfons was pinned in the wreckage for five minutes before rescuers could free him. "I'm alright," he said. "Take your time getting me out of here." He was placed on a stretcher' and flown in a private plane to Salt Lake City.

Arfons' eyes were covered with gauze, the skin around his eyes and cheekbones raw from salt burns from flying glass. His body ached, but miraculously he suffered no broken bones.

Although under sedation, he talked about his 610 MPH crash, "I couldn't really tell what happened, I suddenly noticed I was left of the black line, tried to correct it and lost control." He released his chutes "but before I could tell whether they worked, I was upside. Once home he examined the mangled wreckage, what was left of the car he affectionately called "my baby." Cause of the crash was a frozen wheel bearing.

Prior to leaving for Bonneville and again before his ill-fated run, Art Arfons experienced a dream. "I just knew I was gonna have a crash. It never happened to me like that before and it's not happened since." He left Ohio unable to shake the dream and with a wife begging him to stay home.

"June really raised a ruckus. I can still hear her saying, You can't go. Stay home. Allison (his daughter) is your baby, too. You have to help me raise her. But when it came time for me to leave, June had my gear packed. She knew I was going."

The next day, he flew home, already talking about a lighter, more powerful, more streamlined "Green Monster." He would build that car, but would never try for the world land speed record.

Wealthy California rancher Slick Gardner made him an offer for the 700 MPH Monster he couldn't refuse. By the early 1970s, Art Arfons had changed careers, from drag racing to professional tractor pulling, and became an instant star on that coast-to-coast circuit, campaigning a jet-powered tractor called "Green Monster." Naturally!

Yet, he never gave up his dream of snaring a fourth land speed record. In 1970, Californian Gary Gabelich, in the rocket-propelled "Blue Flame" beat Breedlove's record with a two-way average of 622.407.

Thirteen years later, and after two years of failure, England's Richard Noble fulfilled his fantasy, pushing his massive, jet-powered"Thrust 2" to a new record of 633.4 MPH.

As the years passed, Noble was hoping someone would do him one better. He had plans for "Thrust 3" but couldn't attract British backing until he was ex-King Richard.

Art Arfons hoped to oblige him. A planning-building stage costing $100,000 out of his own pocket resulted in Art Arfons' smallest land speed challenger, "Green Monster No. 27." Completed in 1989, the 1800-pound, 22-foot long missile was actually a two wheeler. "I wouldn't be making this attempt if I didn't think f could break the record," he said before leaving for Utah that Fall. "Ever since I crashed, I've wanted to run, There's no doubt in my mind I'11 reach 650. I11 just go out and do it. If I don't do for then I would have designed something that is worthless. But I won't go out and shoot myself if I don't."

On his third run, the two-wheeler went airborne at 350. Arfons escaped serious injury. The radical machine was just too unstable. In October 1990, Arfons had converted the jet into a four-wheeler. He had runs of 177, 308 and 338, but experienced violent cockpit vibrations andsuddenly announced his land speed retirement. Noble, who had flown from England to Bonneville to cheer for his speed rival, returned home disappointed that his new-found friend had called it quits.

That 'retirement' lasted only until Arfons returned to his Akron workshop and began trying to correct the problem. In 1991 it tried once again making two law-speed runs. Each time he tapped the afterburner, the car cocked hard right.

The car remained in a trailer for more than a year before this 'speed junkie' was hooked once again. For all of his long and distinguished racing career, he simply doesn't believe he'll be killed in a race car. He admits the feeling is always the same . "When I leave home, I wonder whether I'll be driving back, it's always on my mind, when the hell do they send the body back?

"I've never been afraid to get in a race car, I was a hell of a lot more reckless driving a dragster than I ever was setting three land speed records.

"I'd get consumed with horsepower and I could drive it into a brick wall if I had to go faster. I run where I bet my life on a chute at tracks that if the chute failed I'd be gone."

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