The mecca of straightaway land speed is 200 square miles of shimmering, crystalline salt as white as fresh snow and as inviting as Transylvania. The Bonneville Salt Flats are the ultimate improbability in western Utah's bizarre tapestry of the unexpected and the outlandish. The army lobs shells and mortars into this violated earth. The Air Force bombs and strafes it. Salt companies hack at the surface. Miners chip away bits and pieces. Driving 120 miles west from the relative normalcy of Salt Lake City to the Bonneville outpost town of Wendover, you get the feeling that the two-lane shoulderless highway is taking you straight to the moon. At first the entire landscape consists of yellow, alkaline earth tufted only lightly by vegetation on which small pods of white-faced Herefords and cow ponies struggle to make a living. Soon the admonitions begin to appear along the right-of-way: DESERT AHEAD, DON'T RUN OUT OF GAS. FILL YOUR WATER BAGS. WATCH FOR SLEEPY DRIVERS. And then, almost without notice, the beige soil with its cover of sagebrush hanging on for dear life has suddenly given way to a blinding-white surface of salt on which there is not even a tumbleweed to tumble along. The only relief from the flat alkalinity of the landscape is an occasional sign, an enticement for the traveler: HAROLD'S CLUB. MORE FUN THAN EVER...SEE THE GOLD COIN COLLECTION.... ONE OF WORLD'S LARGEST POLAR BEARS...LIVE BOBCAT! and, finally, a dozen miles from the Nevada border a large sign that announces: THIS IS THE WORLD'S FASTEST RACING COURSE, BONNEVILLE SALT FLATS. DO NOT ENTER UNLESS POLICED. You do not enter unless policed because you might get lost, and if you get lost on the salt flats you might suffer serious consequences. The intrepid frontiersmen of the Donner Party entered the fiats in 1846 and lost so much equipment and so many of their animals that the rest of their journey was doomed. Their pathetic artifacts and wheel ruts are still visible at the north end of the salt.
The salt bed itself is a geological freak, the result of special conditions that are duplicated in only a few other places in the world. In a word, the salt flats are the bottom of a drainless bathtub. Spring runoff comes spilling down the surrounding mountains, carrying with it the salts it has leached out of the earth. The water spreads over the flats and lies there till the sun has evaporated it, leaving the salts behind. Tens of thousands of years of this process have produced a solid surface of caked salt crystals ranging from less than an inch to five feet thick, so flat that it may vary in altitude as little as two inches in a mile, so hard that it will blunt ordinary shovels and picks and so vast that people have been known to suffer severe attacks of agoraphobia while trying to drive across it. "Bonneville is sort of an eerie place," says Arthur Arfons, one of the two feuding brothers who come annually to the salt flats to tilt at the world's land-speed record. "You feel all alone when you're on the salt. You look down that emptiness and it's just eerie as hell. It makes me uneasy." The eeriness is not lessened by the peculiar optical effects caused by the dazzling whiteness of the salt in bright sunlight. Surrounding mountains seem to float on bands of white glare, and automobiles speeding across the flats are mirrored in the surface so that they appear to be running on top of themselves. Wheels look elliptical, as in poorly drawn cartoons, and sometimes cars seem to take off and sail 30 feet above the salt.
Each fall, when the speed sect assembles at Bonneville, a sort of Hooverville springs up, consisting of impromptu garages, tents for shade, chemical outhouses proudly installed and emblazoned "Tooele County," timing sheds trailered out by the U.S. Auto Club and dozens of parked airplanes and cars. One of Bonneville's more exciting optical effects sometimes is seen by racers circling on the 10-mile closed course marked out in the salt; an image of the entire shanty-town pops up smack in front of the car and, until one becomes accustomed to it, the tendency is to swerve sharply away from the illusion. The famous Bonneville driver, Ab Jenkins, making one of his patented marathon runs on the closed course, saw the Hooverville suddenly coming up ahead of him at 160 miles an hour, and not until someone blinked a spotlight at him did he realize that he was approaching the real thing. He veered off, missed a parked car by inches and went into a 1,500-foot spin. Cars and motorcycles taking cracks at various speed records on the salt's 10-mile straightaway have been known to skid for miles, sometimes sliding right over the horizon and out of sight. Nothing is underplayed at Bonneville.
December 6, 1965
The pilgrims who come to this never-never land are so dedicated to the craft of speed as to be almost drudgelike. If there were a composite salt-flats habitué, he would be quiet, soft-spoken, calm, friendly; he would smoke and drink in moderation, and he would spend 16 hours a day tinkering with his car. As Jim Tice, president of the American Hot Rod Association and a veteran Bonneville observer, puts it: "We've got a fine type of people. The only trouble is, nobody knows it yet. Everybody thinks of hot rodders and drag racers as juvenile delinquents, which is exactly what they're not. They haven't got time." Even the expletives of the racers are disconcertingly tepid. When Craig Breedlove lost control of his $200,000 car this year and teetered almost to the edge of the Valley of the Shadow, he climbed out of the cockpit muttering, "Goldarn. Goldarn!" When the Summers brothers' long, low Goldenrod jammed in third gear and burned some vital hardware, washing out months of preparation, Driver Bobby Summers stomped around saying, "Nuts!" The Arfons brothers, Walter and Arthur, have been known to use somewhat stronger language, but one of Arthur's favorite words is "darn," and Walter says, "My golly," when the tension becomes unbearable. The brothers are not likely to use harsher language except when talking about each other.
Within the close-knit club of Bonneville racers there was happiness last year when Walter and Arthur Arfons met in tearful embrace after Walter's Wingfoot Express, sponsored by Goodyear, set a new land-speed record of 413.20 mph. For long years the brothers had feuded, speaking rarely and then only when it was absolutely unavoidable, and their personal antagonism had been a sour note in an otherwise friendly and fraternal sport. But now the feud was ended; Walter happily trucked his record-breaking Wingfoot Express toward Akron, and Arthur readied his own Green Monster for an attack on his brother's record. Nobody took Arthur too seriously. He had been hacking around the salt fiats for several years with his homemade Green Monster, and he had never hit 400.
But three days after Walter's record, Arthur drove his jet-powered car 434.02 on two runs across the measured mile at Bonneville, riding out a blown tire in the process and taking the world land-speed record away from Brother Walter. Arthur was carried off by members of his crew, several of whom were crying unashamedly.
Walter Arfons was driving his truck through the mountains of Wyoming when he heard the news that Arthur had broken his record. He rushed to a phone. "I was just as glad for him as he'd been for us," Walter remembers. "I'd have felt hurt if someone else had set the record besides him and I. So I called him and I congratulated him and my whole crew congratulated him. He was so pleased he called our mother in Florida and told her about the call."
But as Plutarch observed in Moralia: On Brotherly Love:
When brothers have once broken the bonds of nature, they can come together again only with difficulty, and even if they do, their reconciliation bears with it a filthy hidden sore of suspicion.
Says Arthur Arfons:
"After we'd made up and all, he just turned right around and did me some real dirty tricks right after we'd left Bonneville, and I thought, 'Well, I've made up with you for the last time.' I'll tell you one little dirty thing he done. I'd been buying fill dirt to build up a low spot by my garage, and when I come home from the salt I discovered he'd been having a basement dug for his new house and he had dumped about 50 loads of dirt across the street from me. And I would have paid him, paid him for the dirt and the hauling! Yet he hates me that much, that he would take and haul it over to a neighbor. And I tell you, it's something small, but it's the principle of the thing, and it just burnt me no end."
Walter's explanation is simple: "I didn't even know he wanted dirt."
Within a few days of his return to Akron, Arthur's attention was diverted back to the salt flats. Craig Breedlove, a 27-year-old California hot rodder sponsored by Goodyear and Shell, had driven his three-wheeled Spirit of America through the official clocks at 468.72 to break Arthur's record. Then the gritty Breedlove, who drives in boxer-type athletic shoes and an oxygen mask and runs his operation like a Cecil B. DeMille production, upped his own record to 526.28 mph, wrecking his racer but becoming the first person ever to be timed over 500 in a wheeled vehicle on land.
Back to the salt came Arthur Arfons and his crazy mixed-up, red-nosed Green Monster, described by some as the ugliest land-speed car in the world, for one last crack before the snows set in. "The night before my runs," Arfons says, "I got really shook. There was this guy standing in front of the Wendover Cafe with his big dog, and I overheard him say something about 'that guy that really got splattered on the salt last year, and my dog helped clean him up!' He almost turned my stomach.'''
On the second of his two speed runs the next day, Arthur Arfons blew a tire again, this time at a speed estimated at 600-plus. Explained Harold (Humpy) Wheeler of the sponsoring Firestone team: "The Green Monster's engine has a tremendous torque [twist] when Art cuts in that afterburner, and it throws more than half the weight of the car on that right rear tire. There isn't a tire made that can stand that kind of a load at 600 miles an hour, and to make things worse he hasn't got any suspension back there to cushion the load. But blowouts don't bother Art. He knew exactly what to do because for the last 10 years this guy's been running up and down drag strips faster than anybody and accelerating to more total G forces than anybody else. So he didn't panic. He hit the 'kill' button on his steering wheel; this shut down the engine and he coasted to about 500 miles an hour. Then he popped his first chute, and it went all to pieces and jerked the car real bad. He just held onto the steering till the car straightened out, and then he popped the other chute at about 400 and it tore in two, but it slowed him down and at 350 he hit the brakes and burned them out, and he just rode it down on three wheels."
While Arfons and his crew members were standing around mourning the damage to the Green Monster, a timer announced that the car had averaged 536.71 for another new land-speed record, the fifth within a month. With the first storm clouds of winter already marching across the western skies, Walter Arfons hurried back to the salt from Akron with his jet-powered Wingfoot Express, now augmented by three JATO (jet-assist takeoff) rockets, to regain the record for Goodyear. But heavy rains shut him down, and he returned to the little shop on Pickle Road in Akron to build a wholly new car for the 1965 attempts. Brother Arthur, richer by a $25,000 reward from Firestone, went to work patching up the Green Monster in his own garage a few feet away from Walter's. Firestone took full-page ads proclaiming: "Art Arfons Sets New Land Speed Record. 536.71 M.P.H. Again Proving the Superiority of FIRESTONE THE GREATEST TIRE NAME IN RACING." The text observed, "Riding on Firestone Tires, Art Arfons broke the world's land speed record for the second time in a month.... Again, the superiority of Firestone Tires was proved in this torturing test of tire safety and endurance just as it was in this year's Indianapolis 500-mile Sweepstakes...."
A documentary movie, Challenge, full of menacing music and a high-powered narration punched out by the late Everett Sloane, reinforced the legends about Arthur Arfons and enlisted a Hollywood bit player to dub for Arthur's Peeperish voice. ("The pitch of his voice didn't lend itself to the dramatic situation," said one of the film-makers.) While Firestone logotypes danced across the movie like snakes in a Fellini fantasy, the narrator intoned such passages as:
Just about everything had gone into [the Green Monster's] making.... But most of all, pure sweat. For she was built with pure determination and ingenuity. But mostly she was a labor of love and faith. And now finally she was ready to go. And go fast. But would she?
The Green Monster went fast, and she did not blow any more tires in the movie than she had in the newspaper ads.
All through last winter and spring, while Firestone's publicity campaign continued, there were rumors about the cars the two brothers were readying for the new year. Goodyear was said to be in a state of corporate apoplexy over the land-speed record and wanted it back whatever the cost. One could understand the annoyance. As a Goodyear spokesman reviewed the 1964 racing season at Bonneville: "Every time we scheduled a press conference to exploit a new land-speed record on Goodyears, Art Arfons'd go out and break our record for Firestone. Every time we'd run a big ad about a record, Art'd break our record while the ad was still on the streets. It made us look silly and it made us mad, especially when you consider that Art blew tires twice and we never had a trace of tire trouble on our own runs. They had the trouble and as a reward they get one year of good publicity. We had no tire trouble at all and we get one year of zip, nothing."
Meanwhile, the cause of Good-year's anxiety puttered about his windowless garage in Akron, appearing to be busy on some secret new project with which to bug the opposition in the new season. In actual fact, Arthur Arfons was changing the Green Monster hardly at all, except for a snazzy needle nose that was more gimmicky than functional. "Why should I change her?" Arthur said privately to friends. "She's already done 600, and that was on half power!" Arthur's relationship with the car had become a close one. He feminized the Green Monster and described it the way some men describe Queens of the May. "I think she's the prettiest, most streamlined car ever built," he said in his soft voice. "When you called her the ugliest car ever built [SI, March 15, 1965], I sit down and cried a week when I read that." A passage in Art Arfons, Fastest Man on Wheels, an authorized biography, reads:
"Ed," said Art, as he admired the car, "I think you should show your gratitude to our little car."
"What are you talking about?"
"I mean I want you to give the car a big kiss."
"Art," Ed [Snyder] joked, "I know you've been working hard. Perhaps the strain...?"
"Don't worry, I'm feeling fine. This is the baby that's going to get us that record, and she's the most beautiful thing in the world."
"Sure, Art, sure."
"Well, then go ahead. Kiss it."
From then on Art insisted that his crew give the car a kiss each day. To an outsider it would have seemed strange behavior indeed for grown men. But to Art it was as natural as kissing one's own child.
The car that excited all this osculatory activity is one that, at first study, would not arouse the ordinary person to a peak of wild-animal lust. In essence, the Green Monster is a speedy tube, a J-79 jet engine (the same engine that powers the Hustler bomber and F-104 Starfighter) mounted on four wheels. The high tail fin has the grace and flow of a Curtiss Condor; the hydraulically operated "wing" in the front has the aerodynamic characteristics of a flat rock, and the cockpit controls look like they were assembled by the freshman class in electric shop at the Jones Jr. High in Toledo. The front axle came from a 1937 Lincoln with 1951 Dodge truck kingpins, the rear axle from a 1947 Ford truck. The shocks, brake pedal and instruments were cannibalized from scrapped airplanes. The total cost to Arthur was under $10,000, counting $5,000 for the engine, and Firestone put up $50,000 worth of tires and wheels. "Cardboard and tape's what really holds her together," Arthur explained glibly. At a New York press conference last year after the Monster had broken the land-speed record for the second time, he was asked what kind of steering was in the car.
" '55 Packard," he said.
There was a silence, and then a reporter from a scientific magazine asked: "What process did you go through, what calculations did you make and what data did you compile that led you to use this unusual type of steering?"
Arthur answered, "Well, it's the only thing I had in the backyard."
Someone else asked why the car had less than two inches' clearance under the front. "If I'd made her any higher," Arfons said, "I wouldn't have been able to get her in my bus."
"He is strictly a backyard operation," says Goodyear's Dick Hoskins with mingled admiration and annoyance. "You should see him. They'll take a great big piece of metal and put it against a tree with Art on one end and somebody else on the other end, and they'll bend it to shape."
Says Firestone's Wheeler: "He even tests that jet engine in the backyard. You can't conceive of it unless you've seen him do it. At first, he'd strap it to two big trees. He burned out a 60-foot channel in his woods that way, and he blew a chicken house right off the face of the earth. He's the coolest guy I've ever seen in my life. When he's got that engine going on afterburner in his backyard, and I'm 50 feet away, I'm scared to death that it's gonna blow to pieces—they do sometimes, you know—and he's right up alongside it making adjustments."
While all the noise was going on at Arthur's shop, Walter Arfons was patiently working away in his own garage on a 1965 speed car designed to knock the Green Monster out of the box. "Arthur's smart, he's very, very smart," Walter said to a friend. "He's much smarter than I am. But I think I can fabricate and build as well as he can." He set about proving his point with a Tom Swiftian rocket car designed to hit supersonic speeds with absolute safety. The new baby-blue Wing foot Express was shaped like an arrow, with two front wheels side-by-side and almost touching and the rear wheels spread 13 feet apart to provide drag at the stern, a design aimed at making the car run a straight course without driver correction. Something like a dozen corporations were involved in the car, ranging from Goodyear, which footed most of the bill and designed wheels, tires, chutes and brakes, to Dzus Fasteners, which made some of the snaps holding the skin on the fuselage. Originally the aluminum was to come from Alcoa, but at the last minute the deal fell through and Walter turned to Reynolds for his car's skin. "That was my brother's doing," Walter told friends. "He called Alcoa and told them he wouldn't use their aluminum if they supplied me." The total cost of the new Wingfoot Express, including a 1913 dime inset into the steering wheel for luck, was $100,000. For their money, the sponsors had a car that was engineered to go 750 mph and take the land-speed record away from the so-called "junk operator" next door. Said the "junk operator" himself: "Wingfoot Express? They oughta call it the Clubfoot Express!"
Nevertheless Arthur Arfons stationed himself on the fringes of the crowd when the new car was unveiled to the public at the Akron-Canton Airport this summer. As in all confrontations of the brothers, there are two versions of what happened. Says Walter:
"I walked over to him to shake hands and he had his arms folded in front of him. I held my hand out there for at least a half a minute. Finally he had to take my hand because there was other people around. He was forced into it, and that's what I hate to see. I shook hands with him and I invited him over to see the car, and he said, 'I can see it good enough from here.' Then I tried to strike a conversation, but I couldn't, so I walked. He came over to the car later."
Says Arthur: "Walter can see me alone and look right through me like I'm not there, but if there's someone around that he can make an impression on, he'll wave and say, 'Hi, Art!' Then he'll come over and pump my hand just like we're long-lost brothers and he hadn't seen me for years. At the airport that day he just wanted to make an ass out of me, and he succeeded in front of a lot of people. He walked up all smiles and pumped my arm. It didn't mean a thing."
The Wingfoot Express, with racks for 15 rockets capable of 28,800 hp, stood poised like a wingless airplane at the end of the 10-mile straightaway at Bonneville. Driver Bob Tatroe, a handsome 28-year-old father of five from Grand Rapids, waited for a signal from Designer-Builder Walter Arfons to send the car off on a major test run, with eight rockets firing on blast-off and two more set to fire just inside the measured mile. Arfons' arm dropped and Tatroe shoved the button instantly; the car jumped into flaming motion with a sound like a giant whipcrack, but veteran Bonneville observers were unimpressed by the speed. "What's your airspeed show, Bob?" Arfons asked at the end of the run.
The official speed through the measured mile was only 268 and, although the car was functioning on two-thirds of its available rocket power, the expectancy had been for a speed closer to 500. That night the brain trust assembled in Walter's motel room in nearby Wendover for the first of what proved to be several long sessions with slide rules and scratch pads. Four hours and two bottles of whiskey later, a spokesman said: "First of all it was a big surprise we only got 268 through the mile. It seemed like 450. Top was 290, a big disappointment. We'd already done the same speed with only seven rockets, and we did 120 with only two rockets. So obviously there's something wrong. We asked the mathematical experts to get together, the guys who figure out how many rockets we should use and how to stage them and where to begin the run and so forth. We went into the bathroom and got soap and had them draw on the mirror so they could explain what they were trying to do. We finally decided to take off the wheel pants. They're not needed below supersonic speeds, and this'll save 300 pounds. Obviously the car needs modifications. But remember, this is the world's first rocket car. We're writing our own history every time we run it."
On the next test run Tatroe fired all 15 rockets at the start and the Wingfoot Express accelerated quickly to a speed variously reckoned at between 485 and 520 mph. The disappointment hung like smog over the Goodyear camp. The mathematicians whipped out their slide rules and began checking their figures. A Goodyear spokesman announced to the press: "I was very pleased with today's run. Any time you get a car going 500 miles an hour as straight and as easy as that car does, you've really got something. The suspension is just beautiful, the steering is great, the brakes are absolutely unheard of, inconceivable, for a land-speed record car." He neglected to mention that the speed was too slow, and speed was the name of this particular game. Walter Arfons was more to the point. "It's pretty clear what's wrong," he said. "I built a heavy car. I built it too heavy. I built it safe. Every time I was putting in a brace or running a streamer through the body, I thought, 'Well, Mach 1, what's it gonna do to this car, everybody tells me it's gonna tear the car up, and I've got a man sitting up there that depends on me!' So I'd put another little brace in there, another little gusset, a little stronger here and there, and that's where I got my weight. But I've got a good safe-handling car."
Walter conferred with Chief Timer Joe Petrali of the U.S. Auto Club and asked if the club would approve the addition of 10 new rockets to the car, to be fired from vents drilled into the side of the body. "I don't see why that wouldn't be O.K.," said the ultracareful Petrali. The Wingfoot Express was taken back to the garage at Wendover; wrenches were hauled out, and the long job of rebuilding was begun. "Don't worry about the expense," a man from Goodyear told Walter, who had taken to his bed while his wife ministered to him. "It's his heart," said Gertrude Arfons. "It always comes on him after excitement. That's about the only reason I came out here. I felt that if something happened to the car, then something'd happen to Walter, and I didn't want him to be here alone."
Said Walter, heavily but calmly, "I'm gonna get the record broke."
While Walter remained registered in Room 159 of the Wend-Over Motel and oversaw the alterations to his rocket car, brother Arthur checked into Room 153, three doors away, for a week of his own on the salt. As usual, each acted as if the other were Red China. Passing in the courtyard of the motel or at the casino down the road or the Wendover Cafe, they looked over, above and beyond each other. "I'd like to say hello to him," said Walter, "but I'm afraid he'd embarrass me the way he usually does."
"I've tried to solve it," said Arthur, "because we're both gettin' old and why carry a fight like this to the grave? But he played me such dirty tricks the last time I just figured that was the end."
Arthur did nothing on the salt flats except set a new standing quarter-mile record of 258.62 mph, a Mickey Mouse accomplishment but one which helped to while away a week in which he figured there was no point in risking his life to break his own land-speed record.
Shortly after that Walter came back with 25 rockets mounted in the Wing-foot Express, enough to generate almost 50,000 hp, making his car the most powerful ever to attempt the land-speed record. Even the usually cool driver, the blond Tatroe, appeared edgy as the car was towed up to the starting line. Just before the scheduled time for ignition, Walter threw his arms around Tatroe, and the two held each other close before Tatroe spun away and climbed into the car, where Walter ran him through an umpteenth cockpit check. "Bobby knows those buttons better than Walter by now," said an onlooker, "but that's just like Walter to go through the whole routine again."
"Now remember to watch for the signal!" Walter shouted at Tatroe's helmet.
"Do I have to go then?" said Tatroe. "Or can I go when I'm ready?"
"Well, take two minutes after we give the signal," Walter said. To Dick Hoskins of Goodyear he said, "Two minutes ought to give him time to settle down." Walter and Hoskins ran for the chase car, and a small, nervous delegation of journalists and USAC officials backed far off to avoid the rocket exhaust. Hoskins waved his arm out the window of the chase Mustang, the signal for Tatroe to take off, and silence fell across the lonely salt flats. Exactly one minute later, orange-and-blue flames shot 30 feet out the tail of the car; a shock wave almost knocked the bystanders over, and Tatroe and the Wingfoot Express were off and gone over the salty horizon. Hoskins and Walter Arfons were the first to reach the car after the run and, by the time reporters and photographers arrived, Hoskins was walking head-down toward the sidelines, muttering, "There'll be no return ride. The car's destroyed." Some of the rockets had fired at both their ends—out the back and into the guts of the car simultaneously. The resulting blaze had burned most of the tail panels out and gutted the wiring inside. But Tatroe was unhurt and fully in accord with Walter Arfons, who quickly recovered his aplomb and said, "My golly, it's only the skin that's burnt, and we've got another wire harness all rigged up in reserve. We'll patch up and come back."
Several days later they did come back, and with 24 of the 25 rockets firing perfectly and the car handling like a new Porsche, the Wingfoot Express made the first of the two timed runs required for a record. At the end of the track Tatroe jumped from the cockpit and shouted at the crew hurrying up in a truck full of fresh rockets, "580! My airspeed was 580! Change the rockets! Let's go!" Walter drove up and Tatroe hollered to him, "I showed 580 on the airspeed!" The pair embraced hurriedly and began supervising the job of installing fresh rockets Then a USAC official arrived from the timing shack and whispered something to Walter. "Leave it go!" Walter called to the crew.
"What d'ya mean, 'Leave it go!' " said Tatroe.
"We were clocked at 476 through the mile," Walter said. "Leave it go. It's no use." The last of the burned-out rocket cannisters was removed from the cat (Goodyear had used up $60,000 worth of JATO bottles altogether), and the Wingfoot Express was prepared for the trip home. Now that Walter had failed, at least for 1965, everyone breathed easier, including Arthur Arfons' best friend and chief mechanic, Ed Snyder, who had said earlier: "If anybody breaks Art's record, especially if Walt breaks it, Art'll come back here and break it right back or he'll take his car home in little pieces." And reporters also remembered the words of Walter Arfons several weeks before: "If I didn't make the record I'd be glad because Arthur wouldn't have to push no more. I want to break the record. This is my life; this is what I chose; it's the only thing I know. But if I don't make the record, down deep I'm glad because I didn't have to push Arthur. I'm afraid for him. He'd throw all precautions to the wind. I wouldn't want nothing to happen to him."
Hardly a week of relaxed tensions had passed before Craig Breedlove, who had had nothing but trouble with his big new jet car all season, returned to Bonneville for a final try. Although Breedlove had held the land-speed record three times, and although his jet car was as powerful as the Green Monster, experts gave him little chance at the record, mostly because his Spirit of America Sonic I had a history of instability and also because it was frightfully big—"It's two foot longer than our bus," said an Arfons crew member laughingly. But Breedlove fooled everyone by shoving the world's land-speed record up to 555.-127, breaking the old mark by almost 20 mph, and then compounded the insult by propping his petite wife behind the wheel and watching her drive 308.56 for a new women's record, both for the greater glory of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company.
Arthur Arfons was exhibiting the Green Monster in Las Vegas when a Firestone man broke the bad news. "O.K." said Arfons. "When can we go?" At dawn the next morning, Wednesday, November 3, he was on his way back to Bonneville.
Arthur and the Green Monster arrived at the salt flats on Thursday, prepared to run. He had assumed that Breedlove and Goodyear, having set a new LSR, would be leaving the salt before their full week was up. He was wrong. Goodyear made it plain that they would stay on the flats till the last minute of their week. "They've heard there's a cold front coming in Sunday," an Arfons crew member complained, "and they think the snow'll shut us down." Firestone complained to the Bonneville Speedway Association, which assigns weeks on the flats. But Goodyear representatives were adamant; they said they wanted to run for other speed records. As a Goodyear spokesman remembered the conversation, "The guy from the Speedway Association said, 'All right, you contracted to break the land-speed record and you broke it. Now you have to get off the salt and let Arthur on.' But we argued that we had other things to do and that's when we quick began running Breed-love's wife, and we brought in a Shelby Cobra to set some closed-course records. We had to do something to tie up the salt."
On Saturday, the last day of Good-year's official week, Breedlove and Tatroe made a 12-hour endurance run in the Shelby Daytona Cobra on the oval course at Bonneville, breaking 23 records and chopping up the international straightaway where Arthur was scheduled to make his LSR runs the next morning. Was this intentional? "It certainly was not!" said a Goodyear man. "I felt awful when I heard that we'd damaged the course."
"I don't know if they went out there with a dual purpose or not," said Chief Timer Petrali. "They could have. There's no way to tell."
Chief Mechanic Snyder was furious. "Last week the salt was all ours and we knew we weren't gonna use it, and we offered it to Breedlove on a Monday," Snyder said. "Now he ties up the salt all week and ruins our course. Well, let's go out there tomorrow and ruin it so he can't come back. We'll take the bus out there and plow it up for plantin'!"
Arthur Arfons said nothing except that he would run on the hot-rod course instead of the furrowed international course. Normally, the hot-rod course was not as safe as the other, but now it would be the lesser evil. Arthur did not seem concerned one way or the other, but he ordered a guard to watch the Green Monster all night. "Watch everything out there, not just the car! snapped Mechanic Bud Groff. "If somebody even takes our starter we're out of business." Arthur turned in before midnight, but as he confessed the next morning, "I woke up every hour and it took me a half hour to get back to sleep." Driving with Ed Snyder from the motel in Wendover to the salt flats as the sun rose the next morning, he did not say a word.
The weather had held clear, and Arthur was pure business as the car was prepared for a "warmup run." Charlie Mayenschein, jet-engine expert from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base who doubles as Arthur's engine mechanic, strolled by wearing his "Art Arfons 536.71 mph" T shirt. He had altered it to read, "636.71 mph." The parachute man, Jim Deist, patted Arthur on the back and said, "The chutes'll work, Art."
"If they don't," said Arfons, "you'll have to help clean out the cockpit."
Don Francisco, a hot-rod historian who covers the runs from the air each year, came up and offered to carry a fire extinguisher in his plane "in case you catch fire off the course where the cars can't get to you."
"Not a bad idea," said Arthur, "but it's a terrible thing to be thinking about."
Then the Green Monster was towed to the south end of the course for the "warmup run." "It ain't gonna be no warmup run," a member of the Arfons team confided. "You know how Arthur goes—'quick and dirty.' He'll run up and down that black line all day till he's got the record back or killed hisself."
Sitting in the cockpit, Arthur appeared relaxed, as always, but even quieter than usual as he checked over the instruments. Plugs in his ears and a heavy plastic helmet inhibited any last-minute exchanges as the canopy was dropped into place. And what do they say at this dramatic moment in the land-speed record business, when the lid is plopped down and everybody knows they may never see the driver alive again? What is the LSR equivalent of "Gentlemen, start your engines!" or "Play ball!" or "Captain Tomasek, meet Captain Frannistat"? Arthur just says, "O.K.," everybody runs like hell and "Whoosh!" The Green Monster is off, "quick and dirty," and out of sight within seconds.
Arthur hit the first timing clock showing 600 mph on his airspeed indicator, and when he realized he was traveling so fast he killed the engine and decelerated to an airspeed of 550 before breaking the electric eye at the second clock marking the end of the measured mile. His official average speed for the first leg turned out to be 575.72 mph, or more than enough to regain the record if he could repeat the performance on the return run. "The car wandered a little bit," Arthur said, "but I let her wander." It had also tended to become airborne, but "that automatic hydraulic wing slapped her back down on the salt with a thump I could feel in the cockpit."
Eight minutes before the end of the hour allotted by the timing officials for a legal return run, Arthur gunned the Green Monster into the measured mile again. He had hardly cleared the second clock at the end of the mile when the right rear tire, the same one that had failed in two previous record attempts, went off like a bomb, its 250 pounds of pressure blowing up tire and aluminum wheel in one fat blob of flame that could be seen four miles away. Now, for the third time in two seasons, Arthur Arfons had to fight a blowout at speeds in the 500-600 mph range. He remembered later: "I felt the blowout more than heard it. It was like a big concussion. The car dropped on the right corner and the cockpit filled up with smoke. I was blinded; I couldn't see the course. I popped open the canopy and the wind sucked the smoke right out, and the canopy slammed back and forth about four times, like a barn door slamming, and then it broke into pieces. I could see I was off course, and I almost lost it in some loose salt. She just about got too far to correct, and I was heading for the dike alongside the salt canal where Breed love crashed last year. By the time I got her under control, I found out that I had no regular chute. When the tire exploded it wrecked the chute. So I popped the emergency chute and it held and after a while I stopped. No, I wasn't scared. I don't get scared."
When spectators reached the car, silent and smoking at the end of the course, Arthur was walking around it as though in a daze. "Son of a bitch!" he muttered over and over. The right rear tire and wheel and wheel housing were gone, the hydraulic wing was broken, the canopy was a total loss and the front of the car was scarred and buckled. "I drove over a surveyor's marker off the course," Arthur explained later. "It was a little piece of pipe, and I thought it had gone right through the engine and ruined it. That's what I was so upset about."
Now the crowd quieted as Chief Timer Petrali approached the gathering. Whatever the time, Arthur and the Green Monster were through for the year, and everybody knew it. "Five seven seven point three eight six," Petrali said simply, and a cheer went up from the crowd as Arthur, smiling shyly, was lifted to the shoulders of his crew members. "Hey, let me down!" he shouted after a few seconds. "I'll get hurt!" He kissed the Green Monster three times and playfully admonished the crewmen not to kiss the car this time—"Nobody else, fellows. I'm the one that loves her. She's good tome. I'm still here." Then he announced that the wounded car would be trucked back to Akron the next morning. "That's where she was born, so we'll take her back there," he said.
Nobody was admitting it, but the feeling in the victorious speed camp was that the Green Monster would never run again. Arthur already had a new car on the drawing boards—"a slingshot jet where I'll sit in the back, but I can't describe it any more than that or Brand X'll make one like it." And there were even hints that Arthur himself might emulate his brother Walter and leave the driving to others. He had lately spent a lot of time thinking about an ominous conversation earlier in the year with Smokey Yunick, the Indianapolis race mechanic and speed philosopher. "He shook me up no end," Arfons said. "I was sitting there watching a guy having a little trouble on the track at Indianapolis, and Smokey come over and sit down and he says, 'Just watch this,' and the guy'd go out and make a practice run and come back, and he'd say the car didn't feel right and it didn't handle right, and Smokey says, 'He's giving his mechanic all kinds of hell. He says he's got cockpit trouble. That man's too old to be driving that car, and he's finding everything at fault but himself.'
"And Smokey says, 'One of these days you're gonna go out to get in your car, and it ain't gonna feel right and the wind is blowin' or the salt is too wet.' And he's got me to thinkin' more than anybody. Next year I'll be 40 years old." The fastest man on earth paused thoughtfully. "Even you go to the woods and a young lion'll jump in and an old lion'll turn and walk away," he said. "That's self-preservation. I've gotta start thinkin' about things like that. Yes, sir, I've gotta start thinkin' about things like that."
A week later, while television commercials were trumpeting that Art Arfons had staked his life on Firestones, Craig Breedlove defied the weather and the probabilities and quietly returned to the salt flats for still another "absolute final" attempt of the year on the land-speed record. On the first day of his week it rained; on the second Breedlove sped 600.6 mph over the moist salt and took the record for the fifth time. The weather closed in almost at once. Chief Timer Petrali ordered USAC timing equipment hauled off the salt for the season, and the captains and the kings departed. "We've got the record for the year," said the cocky young Breedlove. "Now let's see if ex-King Arthur comes back."
Arthur said it would take several months to repair his car, and much longer to build a new one. He reckoned he would spend the winter months in his shop on Pickle Road in Akron, and when the snow and ice disappeared from western Utah, perhaps in the late spring, he would be back to run again. "I don't know," said Firestone's Humpy Wheeler. "They're going so fast now, something's bound to happen to somebody." Arthur said maybe that was so, but one old lion was not yet ready to turn and walk away.