But when one has broken the bonds of nature,...there is nothing that can reunite those whom knots so strong could not hold together: One hates with excess when one hates a brother.
LA THÉBAIDE OU LES FR√àRES ENNEMIS RACINE
The brothers Arfons, Walter and Arthur, designers and builders of wild, gleaming machines that flash across the Bonneville Salt Flats at speeds close to sound, work in adjacent garages on a small, junk-strewn plot of land on Pickle Road in Akron. First you come to Walter's shop, a dark place with grimy windows looking into a clutter of jet engines, shelves lined with aircraft instruments and cannibalized parts of old automobiles and airplanes and trucks. Then you come to a narrow buffer zone between the brothers' workshops, and finally to the two small, windowless buildings where Arthur Arfons designed and built the Green Monster, the jet car with which he has broken the world land-speed record three times in two years. Except for excursions to drag strips, where they command top appearance money, and except for an annual pilgrimage to that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land of speed, Bonneville, the brothers are more or less confined to their two-acre world on Pickle Road. But even though they come into shoulder-rubbing proximity almost daily, and even though the sons of one brother are likely to be found clambering around the latest experimental car of the other brother, Walter and Arthur Arfons do not speak. Each professes to be profoundly disturbed by this slate of affairs, and each insists that it was not he who engineered the events that sundered them, and each seems to be busily widening and deepening the chasm. "If someone stops at his garage and wants to know where my garage is," Arthur says in a typical diatribe against his brother, "he don't know where it is, even though it's next door. He don't know what my phone number is or nothing. My brother has a real good personality; he's a real pleasant guy, and he is sharper than anyone gives him credit for, and he knows how to make an ass out of me eight ways from Sunday."
Says Walter, in the cheek-turning manner that nettles his brother: "I like Arthur. I want to be his friend. But I'm even afraid to go over and talk to him now. Being that he give me the cold shoulder so many times. I don't want to be turned down. Hell, if I'm turned down then I really feel lousy. In front of people, you know? So I don't know what to do. What should I do?"
Arthur says Walter is a hypocrite and should come right out and admit his hatred. "I think if you're mad at somebody and you're not gonna speak to 'em," Arthur says, "why be two-faced about it?"
November 29, 1965
For his own part, Arthur is frankly antagonistic. When a photographer mistakenly called him "Walt" on the flats this year, Arthur said coolly and evenly: "What'd you call me?"
"I mean 'Art!' "
"That's better," Arthur said. "That other's a dirty word!"
The world land-speed record, which both the brothers Arfons have held and for which they remain in lusty competition, has a fine old family history dating back to 1898, when the French Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat tore off a dazzling 39.24-mph run on the straight stretch of road at Ach√®res, outside of Paris between the villages of St. Germain and Constans. At first the French tended to look upon the record as a private affair; the first 10 land-speed marks were set on the roads of France, a happenstance that Gallophiles attributed to the dash and verve of the French spirit and less partial observers laid to the fact that Napoleon had built the straightest roads in Europe. Through the years, the land-speed record has been overseen by the French, and even today the ruling body of speed is the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, headquartered in Paris.
Chasseloup-Laubat's claim of a record infuriated a Belgian inventor, Camille Jenatzy, who knew that his own electric car was faster. Then, as now, there was big money at stake. Jenatzy had just begun his own electric-car company, and the public was ready to enrich the man who made the fastest automobile. Jenatzy used the formal language of the dueling challenge to invite the Frenchman to a mono a mono contest over the same stretch of road, and forthwith spun through the flying kilometer at 41.42 mph for a new world land-speed record. The count ordered the course cleared, revved up his Jeantaud electric car and returned the record to France with a speed of 43.69 mph before burning out his motor. Jenatzy, his batteries exhausted, sulked to town for a recharge, and 10 days later he won back the record with a speed of 49.92. A month later Chasseloup-Laubat had gone 57.60 for the glory of France, and Jenatzy realized that his car could never top that speed. Back he went to the drawing board, where he designed a bullet-shaped new automobile, the first streamliner in history. He dubbed it Jamais Contente (Never Satisfied) and proclaimed that he would fix the count's clock. On April Fool's Day, 1899, Jenatzy and the Never Satisfied whirred along the road at Ach√®res so breathtakingly fast that everyone in the crowd knew the record had been retrieved for Belgium. But helas! The French timers had been busy with other matters at the very time that the car raced by. "Mille fois pardon!" the timers told the Belgian. They had not recorded his speed. What a shame that his batteries were now exhausted! Jenatzy's reply, as he sat atop his electric car in the faint odor of ozone, was not recorded by the historians of the era.
One month later the persistent Belgian returned to Ach√®res, lectured the timers sternly, checked over his ammeter and voltmeter carefully and then turned a flying kilometer in 34 seconds for a speed of 65.79 mph, or 105.88 kph, shattering two barriers considered as formidable then as the speed of sound is considered now: 60 mph and 100 kph. Before Jenatzy's bold sprint, it had been supposed in some quarters that no human being, least of all a non-Frenchman, could survive the damage to the respiratory and nervous systems that was bound to result from traveling at more than 100 kph or 60 mph. But here was the Belgian, unruffled in his wool coat, climbing down from the Never Satisfied with a very satisfied look on his usually fiery countenance. The Count de Chasseloup-Laubat, good sportsman that he was, announced loudly that the best man had won, whereupon the two speed merchants retired to drink red champagne and tell lies. There was glory enough for all; Camille Jenatzy was not from France, to be sure, but his native tongue was French. If he had been a Flemish-speaking Belgian—now, that would have been a total catastrophe.
Starting with those quaint fin-de-si√®cle speeds, which are now topped by little old ladies from Pasadena, the world land-speed record edged upward, often over the dead bodies of the French timing authorities. At first almost any new record that was not established on the soil of France was disqualified on the ground that it was not timed properly, i.e., not timed by Frenchmen in France. (As recently as two years ago, when Craig Breedlove went 407.45 mph at Bonneville in his three-wheeled Spirit of America, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile refused to recognize the record on the theory that a vehicle with three wheels was not a car; Breedlove's three-ton vehicle was officially classified as a motorcycle.) One of the earliest holders of the land-speed record was the American millionaire W. K. Vanderbilt Jr., who went 76.08 in a gasoline-powered car, the first such vehicle to hold the record. Then Charles Rolls (the Rolls of Rolls-Royce) managed 84.73 mph on a private track in Clipstone, England, but the French authorities refused sanction for the usual reasons.
Even Henry Ford took dead aim on the record, and for much the same reason as Jenatzy. Ford had only recently quit his job with the Detroit Edison Co. to go into the automobile business when he decided that the quickest route to solvency was to bring the LSR to the Ford Motor Company. In a harrowing ride in 1904 across a stretch of clear ice on Lake St. Clair, bumping over cracks and whipsawing all over the course, Ford personally pushed his four-cylinder Arrow to a record of 91.37 mph. Naturally, the mark was not recognized by the FIA, but that did not keep Ford from writing out orders for the Model B until his hands ached. As Paul Clifton noted in The Fastest Men on Earth:
Henry Ford's breaking of the flying mile record made the reputation of the Ford Motor Company. The strong liquid cash position that resulted (a gross income of $1,162,836 by the end of the first year) enabled Ford to keep the bankers (and their nephews) out of his company, and so permitted him to translate his own dream of a cheap mass-produced car, to provide transportation for the ordinary man, into reality. The record set up by The Arrow on ice thus directly paved the way for the Tin Lizzie, and so helped to put the world on wheels.
Until comparatively recently at Bonneville, assaults on the land-speed record were hardly more exciting than spins on the Boston Post Road. Although the speeds were high, the runs were made on straight, flat stretches where there was nothing to hit if the driver "lost it," where frightful errors in steering and control were forgiven by the sheer expanse of salt flat. But with the LSR nudging toward sonic speed, the 10-mile-long course at Bonneville has seemed to shrink, and accidents are happening. Nowadays there is an eerie tension before a speed run on the flats. Says Harold (Humpy) Wheeler of Firestone's racing division: "Bonneville has become worse than Darlington or Daytona or any of the major places where the death factor is present. Nothing approaches this place for tension during a week when somebody's going for the land-speed record. It's much more tense than the Indianapolis 500. You can lose control at Indianapolis at 180 miles an hour and hit the wall and walk away 90% of the time, or you can crack a stock car at Daytona at 200 miles an hour and walk out. But if a guy gets into a problem at Bonneville at anything over 350 the sheer speed figures to kill him no matter how he's protected."
In 1960 Athol Graham, a garage mechanic from Salt Lake City, concocted an LSR car in his spare time and powered it with a 3,000-hp V-12 Allison aircraft engine. Running on the salt flats, he flipped and skidded out of control for a mile, and died an hour after being admitted to Latter-Day Saints Hospital in Salt Lake City. Two years later a Californian, Glenn Leasher, arrived with his jet-powered Infinity, the car exploded at the end of a run and Leasher was killed. The Utah State Police collected the bits of Infinity and put them in a neat pile alongside the main highway at Bonneville as a warning to others chasing the LSR. The scraps stayed there for two years, or long enough to annoy Arthur Arfons. "Glenn Leasher was a hot-rod buddy of mine," Arthur explained, "the kind of guy you run into maybe once a year but you get to like. Seeing that junk lying out there bothered me, it sure as hell did."
Donald Campbell, with $4 million and five dozen British corporations behind him, managed to get into a nearly fatal crash at Bonneville. His car spun out at 300 mph, rolled on one side, then sailed 235 yards in the air. Campbell got away with cuts and bruises. Even luckier was Craig Breedlove, who lost all control when his Spirit of America became airborne at 500 mph on a record run last year. Breedlove's main parachute ripped off, his safety chute shredded and his brakes melted completely away the first time he touched them. He coasted down the course totally helpless, snapping off a telephone pole and finally going up and over a dike and into an 18-foot-deep canal. When Bill Neely of the sponsoring Goodyear team pulled up in the chase car, a drenched Breedlove was already walking over the dike, announcing: "And now for my next act I'm gonna set myself on fire!"
The near-sonic speeds and the frightful expense of mounting an LSR assault have cut the number of aspirants to almost nothing. As Humpy Wheeler says: "You take the most difficult, the most dangerous things in the world: mountain climbing, bullfighting, deep-sea skin diving, and you only find a few masters at them, maybe just three or four in each field. But in the land-speed record business there are only three or four that are even trying it." For those three or four the rewards, and the tensions, are correspondingly high, and it is little wonder that the competitors are not friendly. A few years ago the British LSR challenger Donald Campbell had a chat with Arthur Arfons on the salt flats. "I was wearing Steve Petrasek's jacket, with his name sewed on it," Arthur recalls, "and Campbell said, 'Nice meeting you, Steve,' and I thought, 'Why, you son of a bitch, if there's only three or four men in the world running for the record, and you don't even know my name....' If I meet him again I'll say, 'Campbell? Campbell? I've heard of you someplace. Wasn't your dad in this business?' " Arthur says he likes the youthful Breedlove, but "the little so-and-so lied to me. He told me he wasn't gonna have a car this year. He was gonna take it easy for a year, and here he had his new car half ready!" Arthur considers this a doublecross, when in fact it is simply standard operating procedure to the highly competitive land-speed record line. "I guess I'm just a sorehead," says Arthur, laughing at himself. But when he discusses brother Walter he does not laugh at all.
Arthur Arfons talks like Mr. Peepers, and at first meeting it taxes one's credulity to equate his pipsqueak voice with the fire-breathing Art Arfons of the drag strips and the salt flats. At 39, Arthur has two modes of speech. He speaks garage-mechanic English around his friends. The more negative he wants to sound, the more negatives he packs into his sentences. "Now don't no one walk behind here no more!" he shouted as he started to fire up the Green Monster for a practice spin a few weeks ago. But in public appearances, such as press conferences after his various record-smashing performances, he speaks simple, clear and grammatical English. "That's my false front," he says modestly. He is a handsomely swarthy man of medium build, just under 6 feet tall, with deep-brown eyes, wavy black hair and a coppery skin that bespeaks his American Indian and Greek ancestry. He walks with toes angled outward, like a hayseed character in an old movie, and he has that special capacity to evoke sympathy and compassion so often seen in the youngest child of a family. He does not seem to be interested in anything that is not an engine or a car, and his attention tends to wander when any other subject is brought up. His social life is limited, and his interest in what is happening in the nonspeed world is negligible. Last year he was introduced to Rex Harrison at the International Automobile Show in New York, and the pair chatted amiably for 20 minutes about British speeders like Sir Malcolm Campbell and John Cobb. "Gee, he really knows a lot about cars," Arthur commented to a friend later. "Does he work here?" Arthur's interest in books is likewise minimal, and may be gauged by the fact that not long ago he started reading one called Art Arfons, Fastest Man on Wheels, but he did not finish it. All his intelligence and aptitudes seem to have been dedicated to the design, creation and manipulation of vehicles that go from nowhere to nowhere faster than anyone has gone from nowhere to nowhere before.
"He is the most ingenious person I've ever run into," says Firestone's Wheeler. "Our physicists and engineers talk to him and go away shaking their heads. He knows things intuitively that they had to go to school for 10 years to learn. Years ago the scientists came up with a slide-rule theory that a car with four wheels couldn't possibly go over 168 mph in the quarter mile from a standing start. It was mechanically impossible. Arthur disagreed, and two years later he was turning 175, 180. Now he's gone over 250 in the quarter."
Improvisation has become such a way of life with Arthur that he tends to shun anything that he has not worked up with his own hands. "He began as a junk operator," says a close friend, "and he'll never get out of that stage. He'll never do anything in the way of a real scientific approach. Firestone has given him tons of money to build things with scientifically, and he always winds up making them the same old way, out of improvised junk. His idea of heaven on earth is to go to Seattle, where they build airplanes and where they have a lot of junkyards full of airplane scraps. Going through those places, he's like a little kid at Woolworth's."
Firestone has fought long losing battles with Arfons over the ancient bus in which he hauls his superduper jet cars around the country. "What kind of a traveling advertisement is that, with Firestone written all over it?" says Wheeler, laughing in spite of himself. "He bought this bus as scrap and put in a GMC engine and ripped all the seats out and put bunks in so they can sleep alongside the car when they're on the road. I looked at the tires this year and they were just about worn through, and I says, 'Art, I'll have some new tires over in the morning.' Hell, if he asked me for a gross of tires I'd have them there. And he says, I don't need 'cm. We've got plenty of tread left.' It's just ridiculous. All we need is a nice big blowout on the way to Bonneville with 'Firestone' in all the newspaper pictures.
"I don't know what we're gonna do about that bus. And he insists on driving it himself, 60, 70, 80 miles an hour, downhill. I said to him last year, 'Art, at the auto show in New York, if you show up in that old bus the teamsters'll run you right off!' So finally we bought him a brand-new truck, and we told him, 'Don't argue about it. We've already bought it and here are the keys.' So now he begrudgingly uses the new truck and the old bus together. This year when he showed up at Bonneville I said, 'Art, did you have any trouble getting here?' He said, 'Not with the bus, but the new truck broke down!' I swear he was happy about it!"
If Arthur Arfons is the eccentric genius, the brilliant Mr. Fixit, his brother Walter is the nice guy next door, the entrepreneur and coordinator, the man who is not necessarily the best at anything but who can put three or four modest talents together and make them add up to more than the sum of their parts. Walter Arfons is a short, chunky man of 48 with curly, graying hair, plastic-rimmed glasses and a voice only a few decibels louder than his brother's. He is a gracious, companionable host who pours drinks, offers cigarettes and goes out of his way to make people around him feel at home. If there are 10 men in a room and the ginger ale runs out, Walter Arfons will be the one who goes to get it. His most obvious characteristic is his carefulness, not only about himself but about his money, his family, his stable of drivers, his cars. He carries an oversized wallet in his pocket attached to his belt by a heavy chain. He almost never gambles, but when he does he is careful to make sure he is getting a fair shake. One night at a borderline joint in Nevada, during this year's Bonneville season, he slipped a quarter into a slot machine while on his way to dinner and, to his surprise, hit three plums for 14 quarters. Playing on the house's money, he kept going for nearly an hour. When he got a payoff, he would stop and count the coins before going on, and once he complained to the change girl after a machine paid him only 10 quarters when it should have coughed up 14. An engineer with a Mediterranean cast to his features appeared out of nowhere, took the front off the machine, probed around and said, "You got 14."
"It only paid off 10," Walter said, smiling pleasantly, "but I don't want to start an argument about it."
"You got 14," said the engineer.
"Perfectly all right," Walter said, still smiling. The machine had jazzed Walter out of $1, but when one had to choose between friendliness and obstinate accuracy, friendliness was clearly more important. Walter extends the same hand of fellowship to all the world's drag racers, especially to the ones who travel about the country showing and racing his own cars, and seems to feel that he stands in a paternal relationship to them and bears some proportion of guilt for any evils that befall them. Perhaps this is not an unnatural attitude for a man who once dragged his own jet cars and now is benefiting financially from the risks taken by others, but Walter Arfons carries his concern to extremes. When one of his jet cars went out of control and disappeared from sight at the Detroit Dragway last year, Walter and a friend jumped into a pickup truck to give chase. "All the way down the strip Walter was beating on the dashboard with his fists," the friend recalls, "and he was crying and shouting, 'Oh, my boy! My boy!' We drove as far as we could, and then we came across the collapsed parachute from the car, and we started running across a field where the car had gone. I finally found the car and driver across a road and into a woods, and the driver was O.K., and then I realized that Walter wasn't with me. We found him lying a couple hundred yards back with a heart attack, the second one he'd had. Later, after they had taken him to the hospital, I took a look at the dashboard of the pickup truck. It was caved in three inches, where Walter'd been pounding on it."
"Walter dies every night when one of his boys is driving," says another friend, Pete Biro. "He makes 'em phone him right after a run, no matter where they are, and if he doesn't get the phone call he's scared half to death."
"The thing is," says Walter, "I want to be driving myself, I think I should be driving myself. But the doctors say nothing doing. There for a while I'd take my drivers out and make the first few runs myself, teaching them and also checking to make sure the car was O.K. But I never sit in my cars now. I haven't sit in the last couple of cars I've made. Because I'm afraid if I sat in one they wouldn't be able to get me out. I sometimes swear I'm gonna drive my new rocket car. But I'd get tense, and when I get tense and all drawn up, that's when I go to pieces. So all I can do is sit around and worry about my boys, worry about everybody that's drivin'. I think the one thing that'd hurt me more than anything else in the world would be to build a car that would hurt another man."
Does this amorphous fear for other drivers include his brother? "Certainly I worry about Arthur. He's been pushed a lot financially. He's got everything he owns invested in that car of his, and he was being pushed so hard he had to do it. I'm the same way this year, but I'm trying not to push so hard, because there's another man's life involved, not mine. With Arthur, he's risking his own life every time he drives that car of his. I worry about him plenty."
Says Ed Snyder, Arthur's partner and chief mechanic and best friend: "Don't let him kid you. Walter doesn't give a damn about Art. He doesn't care if Art lives or dies." Arthur feels that Snyder's evaluation is not entirely inaccurate.
Whatever is eating the two brothers, it is not clearly traceable to their childhoods, or at least to their childhoods as they remember them. As young boys they were barely acquainted. Their mother, Bessie, now 65 and living in retirement in Ormond Beach, Fla., was married twice, and the boys had different fathers. "But Tom Arfons was really the only father either of us ever knew," Walter says. "Arthur didn't even know we were half brothers till he was in high school." Their childhood seems to have been uneventfully pastoral. "We never did anything together," Walter says, "because I was 10 years older. I took care of him and changed his diapers and all that, and I had to baby-sit for him, but then when he started to go to school I went into the Navy, and soon after I got out of the Navy he went in. So we really didn't get to know each other as buddies till after the war."
"Arthur was the baby of the family and naturally spoiled," says the widow Arfons. "He always had to be the best in everything. He's real smart; he was teachin' his teachers in school. He'd study till 2 o'clock in the morning. He's a genius, Arthur is. He kinda kept to himself as a child. He never played with boys and never went with girls till he came back from the service and then all of a sudden he was married."
Arthur speaks of childhood: "The best friend I had was Ed Snyder; he's my partner now. I couldn't have been anywhere without him. He's been a brother to me more than any brother I ever had. Ed lived on a farm down the road. He moved there when I was 10 or 12. I played with him a little, but old Ed had a tough time and they had work for him to do, and there was no playing in them days. It was the Depression, and kids had it rough. I've actually wondered what happened to me when I was a kid that made me the way I am nowadays and why I do things like I do, but I don't know. I haven't the slightest idea. As a kid I never played baseball, football or nothing. Not only did I never play on a team, I never played them at all. We grew up in the country and there was no other little kids my age around, so I entertained myself. I went to my father's feed mill and Dad let me take one pulley. See, all the power in the mill came from water power onto pulleys, and he give me one pulley, so I run a belt up to the third floor of the mill, and I'd tinker around making shafts run, making a whole bunch of nothing run. That's how I'd spend my time, alone. We were a below-average family in income. We never had nothin'. Maybe never havin' nothin' has driven me a little, I don't know."
In 1946, Arthur and Walter Arfons (then 20 and 29 years old), both back home and working at their father's mill, discovered that they had common interests even though they had hardly noticed each other all through childhood. "We both had motorcycles," Arthur recalls, "and, hell, we became as close as any two guys can be for years. We did everything together. We even bought an old BT-13, a basic trainer, bought it surplus in a basket and put it together. It was a dandy airplane. We used to fly it under the bridges where they were building the Ohio Turnpike. We cut six feet off the wing tips so it would fit under the bridges. The plane got so hot, it'd stall at 95!" Not surprisingly, the speed-crazy brothers turned to drag racers. Their first car was a collection of spare parts from the basement of the mill and nearby dumps and included a 1940 Oldsmobile front, an old Packard rear and an airplane wheel welded to the frame to make it a three-wheeler. Green tractor paint was all they had available, and the announcer at a nearby drag strip labeled the car the Green Monster to the laughter of the crowd. Halfway down its first run, the Green Monster fizzled and quit. That was just about the last failure the brothers had with dragsters. Soon they were weighted down with trophies and earning a fair income from purses.
Of the two brothers, Arthur was the wilder-eyed driver; he could take a car that had an absolute top limit of 165 mph and squeeze 175 mph out of it every time. He enjoyed speed, and he did not always seem aware of its dangers. Once he piled some friends on top of one of his early dragsters and took them for a spin on a lonely country road. Oblivious to their cries of panic, Arthur gunned the car up to 150 mph. Terrified, his passengers insisted on walking home. "I used to have guts in those days," he says in his small voice. "Now I lie awake nights scarin' myself to death about the stupid things I did with the airplane and lettin' those guys hang onto the car. I used to have a lot more guts than I have now. You should have seen me."
Walter Arfons had courage, too, and before heart trouble sent him to the sidelines he had racked up more than 600 runs at 200 mph or faster. But he was a different sort of driver. It is Arthur's theory that his brother's heart trouble might have been brought on by his driving. "Walter was never a natural driver," Arthur says. "He would get so shook that we'd have to lift him out of the car. He'd get the shakes, he'd get pale. It takes guts to drive when you feel like that. It takes more guts than when you don't feel like that."
Without knowing exactly why, Arthur began to feel competitive toward his older brother, even though they were partners both in the racing and in the feed mill. Walter first noticed the animus in 1955. "He had one car and I had another, and we carried another for a spare," Walter says, "and everything we made we split after expenses. So it didn't matter which one of us won. You got so much money for top time, $50 or $100 usually, or if it was a big meet $250 or $500. But I began to notice that if I'd come through with the top time and I had the money earned, he would have to go out and beat my time even though we had the money already. He was endangering the car and his own life just to beat my time! And he done that so many times. And then I wouldn't go back for more, because I knew better. Why should I endanger my life and the car when we've already got the money?"
Once Arthur almost wrecked his car trying to beat his brother's time. It was at a drag meet in Columbus. Walter was in first place with 152 mph, and Arthur lay second at 150. Arthur remembers: "My mother was with us; she used to help us out, paint monster faces on the front of our cars for us, things like that. And she called me over and she says, 'Your brother has got top time. You're always winning. You always have to win. Now stay out of the car and let him win!' Well, when I made my run I got down near the timing clocks, and I remembered her saying to take it easy and don't break the 152, and I had a temper tantrum. I just sorta put my foot clear through the radiator, and I did 167. I tore a wheel off right through the clocks, and it went 60 feet in the air, but I was able to stop the car. And then I remembered my mother had said if I beat Walter she'd never speak to me again. So I went back to the other end, but she was gone."
Says Bessie Arfons: "Yes, I got real angry with him that day. He was winning all the time, and Walter had a nice little car and I guess Arthur couldn't stand for somebody to beat him. Ever' kid has their own pride, regardless of what they are. They want to be top dog."
Says Walter's wife, Gertrude: "Arthur's big problem was he's a bad loser. Lots of people are bad losers, but he's an exceptionally bad loser."
From the beginning, Gertrude Arfons and June Arfons, Arthur's wife, had failed to hit it off, and little by little the whole atmosphere soured. Soon there were veiled hints from the wives that one or the other brother was being exploited financially. "And then we began to argue," Walter says. "All of a sudden we just couldn't seem to get along. Arthur is hard to work with, anyway. Things has got to be done his way. If I have a good idea and try to work it out, nope, he won't want to do it that way. We have to do it his way. And when you start arguing like that, you just can't work together." The brothers ended their business relationship by splitting up the old mill, which had been left to them by their father, and Walter feels he was even scragged on that last financial deal of their partnership: "I always wanted the piece that he has now, and that held up the deal for a year, because he wouldn't have no other piece but that. I didn't want the old mill and the old house, they were all run down and just junk, and the part he wanted had one new building and a nice piece of land. But he was stubborn and so I had to take the old junk. We had two and a quarter acres in all. I have less than an acre now, and he's got all the good land."
Arthur says they divided the property fairly, "and I thought, now that we've split the place right down the center, we own nothing together. I thought, 'Well, hell, there's nothing to argue about now,' but things never did heal up." And so they went their separate ways into the drag-racing world, each still building Green Monsters, each claiming that the other was benefiting unfairly from the Green Monster label and each steadfastly giving the other the brush as they fabricated their weird creations in the shops on Pickle Road.
It only took a few years for the Arfons brothers, operating individually, to enter the royalty of hot rodding. Trucking their various Green Monsters from strip to strip, they flourished in that honky-tonk atmosphere of blocked-off country roads, amber-lighted dragways, dusty abandoned airports in the Midwest, baking in 105° of heat. Their purses were sometimes guaranteed and sometimes merely promised and sometimes simply ignored; their spectators were death wishers salivating at the prospect of a hot car going out of control, serious young men of the business who saw life as a succession of motor tunings and valve jobs, and the kids, dedicated ones for the most part, whose hobby was acceleration and whose heroes were the Arfonses and Craig Breedlove and Mickey Thompson and Don Garlits and the other folk giants of fiat-out speed. Walter expanded, kept several different Green Monsters running at once, watched his nickels and dimes carefully and became financially solid even as his heart trouble was retiring him as a driver. Arthur remained what he had always been, what a close friend affectionately called "a one-man circus." He refused to allow anyone else to drive his cars ("If somebody got hurt in my car it'd probably ruin my life," Arthur said, sounding like Walter, only more so). His narrowest squeak was at Chester, S.C. in 1957, when his Allison-powered Balony Slicer rolled 14 times after a front wheel tore loose. The strip was torn so badly that it had to be closed for repairs, and the car was a total loss. "Arfons had to be dead," said one of the race promoters, "and when we got to the car he sure looked dead. But he ended up with a couple of cracked ribs and a permanently bent finger." As soon as Arthur left the hospital he was out dragging again. "It was all I knew, and I enjoyed speed," he explained. "You know how real good music affects some people? You can just get in a trance, not over this damn jazz but concert music or something like that. Well, power affects me the same way as good music. It just takes over. I can be a little scared, but as soon as I get the engine fired nothing bothers me. I'm off in another world, all by myself, and that car is moving out and the noise is blasting my ears off, and fear is something that doesn't even exist. Sometimes I'm scared to death later, sure, but never when I'm in the car."
During those years on the strips Arthur's and Walter's cars frequently showed up at the same places, but the brothers maintained their antagonistic stances. Well-meaning friends tried to reconcile them, but nothing worked. "It was a terrible thing to see," says Jim Tice, president of the American Hot Rod Association. "Each one of them is a good friend of mine. They'd come to my house and stay with me, both a couple of wonderful guys, but you couldn't mention one of them to the other. I could never get them together."
When, a few years ago, it became obvious that Walter and Arthur Arfons, along with one or two others, had become the best hopes to return the land-speed record to the U.S., the brothers found themselves signed up to commercial sponsorships, Walter with Goodyear and Arthur with Firestone, and thus ended any easy route to a reconciliation. As standard-bearers for the two biggest rubber companies in the world, with gross annual sales in the billions, the brothers became the cutting edges of forces vastly more powerful than themselves. Goodyear, nicknamed "The Gumbo Tire & Rubber Co." by its archrival, and Firestone, derisively called "The Flintstone Tire & Rubber Co." by its competitor on the east side of Akron, had been feuding far longer than the Arfons brothers. Top brass of the two industrial giants might crack jokes and play golf together at the snobbish, conservative Portage Country Club, but underneath the friendly badinage was competition of the bitterest kind—"all-out, bloody, stinkin' war, as rough a competition as any two companies ever got into," says a Firestone spokesman. Victor Holt, a former All-America basketball player at the University of Oklahoma who went to Goodyear to play for the company team and stayed on to become president, sounds a typical battle cry: "We're the No. 1 in the business. We have been for 50 years. Firestone's our No. 1 competitor. The thing has fluctuated up and down. Right now we're over half a billion ahead. But they're still our No. 1 competitor, and they're tough as a boot!"
For something like half a century Firestone had the automobile racing world almost to itself. Every year it could take advertising space far in advance, trumpeting to a world of potential tire buyers that the first 10 finishers at Indianapolis had run on Firestone tires. Firestones won big American road races and many of the races abroad; dragsters ran on Firestones, and so did stock cars at dirt tracks and sports cars at Sebring and Elkhart Lake and Daytona. Then Goodyear jumped pell-mell into racing, and what had already been a hot competitive situation turned into an industrial bloodletting. Explains Victor Holt: "When we came into racing five, six years ago, hell, this was an insult to Firestone. It's as if they'd come out with blimps. Now we're over in their ball yard and they don't like it. And we're in it to stay. The only place we haven't whupped 'em is down in Indianapolis, and we're still workin' on that one."
The record shows that Goodyear has whupped and been whupped in return, and the Firestone forces are holding their own even though their near monopoly in racing publicity has been ended. But Holt's enthusiastic statements are merely standard table talk in the rubber city. Every time a big race is run the folks get together on Firestone Parkway, Goodyear Boulevard, Seiberling Street, General Street and every place else under the miasmic, burned-rubber canopy hanging over Akron and argue about the results. Insults fly back and forth:
"Listen to the Voice of Firestone: 'Blooey!' "
"Did you hear about the new Good-years made in China? Chungking Specials!" ("Chunking" is an old and serious tire problem in which chunks fly off the tread.)
"That wasn't a sonic boom. That was a Firestone tire blowing!"
"Know why Goodyear has more public-relations men than Firestone? 'Cause they've got more stories to tell!"
Executives of each company's racing divisions run around predicting disaster for the other company's racers. "You wouldn't get me near Walt Arfons' rocket car," said a Firestone man. "It's unstable."
"Firestone hasn't done a damned thing about Art's tire problem this year," said a Goodyear man. "He'll blow that tire sure and he's in mortal danger."
Each fall the competition peaks at Bonneville. As Firestone's Wheeler explains: "The world land-speed record is probably the most sophisticated thing a man can do in motor sports. Winning the driving championship in Europe is prestigious, but breaking the LSR in the past has been something out of the realm of just racing, more in the realm of climbing Mount Everest or a Jacques Cousteau-type thing. Now to build a tire for Bonneville is the ultimate thing a tire company can do. And after you build it, you've got to do one more thing: you've got to win with it. Public relations is what the land-speed record is all about." To that end, the Arfons brothers, still working in adjacent hauteur, suddenly found themselves the beneficiaries of tens of thousands of dollars' worth of technical help, equipment and just plain money, Walter from Goodyear and Arthur from Firestone. It did not take Arthur long to get into the spirit of industrial competition. The Bonneville Speedway Association assigns weeks on the speed course to specified racers and companies, and in the middle of one of Walter's weeks for Goodyear last season, Arthur drove into town at the wheel of his Firestone-emblazoned bus. "He parked that thing right under my motel-room window," Walter says astonishedly, "and he flew a Firestone flag about 20 feet in the air, a flag that musta been 15 feet long, and it was all Goodyear here then, it was my week here! He come in on a Wednesday of my week! Can you imagine? Why, when I'm out here during one of Firestone's weeks, I won't even wear my Goodyear jacket. But he had the nerve to fly a great big Firestone flag 20 feet in the air!"
"Yeh," says Arthur, "and somebody had the nerve to bend it down to the ground during the night. I didn't fly it after that."
A few days later, all was forgotten in the excitement of a new world land-speed record. Tom Green of Wheaton, Ill., in a jet car designed and built by Walter Arfons and sponsored by Goodyear, roared to a two-way average speed of 413.2 mph over the measured mile at Bonneville, breaking Donald Campbell's record of 403.1 and Breedlove's three-wheeler mark of 407.45. When the record time was announced Green sat in the cockpit, tears streaming down his face. Walter Arfons maintained his self-control, except for a little whooping and hollering, until he sighted the figure of his brother hurrying out of the crowd toward him. Arthur held out his hand, and the two feuding brothers embraced. "I damn near had tears in my eyes myself," Arthur recalls. That night he phoned his mother in Florida and told her, "Mom, I made up with Walter. We're buddies again, and everything's fine."
In Part II there are triumph and heartbreak as Arthur and Walter Arfons and the formidable Craig Breedlove fight for supremacy on the eerie, perilous salt.