DUEL WITH DEATH ON THE SALT

After days of probing the Bonneville Salt Flats, Art Arfons fired up his jet car, the 'Green Monster,' for a maximum assault on the land-speed record. Crashing at more than 600 mph, he somehow got out alive
November 28, 1966

It is late afternoon on Wednesday, and Art Arfons walks out on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The wind is blowing 12 mph—too hard for an assault on the land-speed record. Art puts his hands in his pockets, walks awhile, and counts another day wasted. It has been that kind of week, beginning on Sunday, when Arfons arrives with a convoy of helpers, tire experts and timers.

On Monday night Art is sitting at one of the booths in the Western Café ("Open 24 Hours") with a dusty plaid shirt over his fireproof racing coveralls, spooning up thick homemade soup. "First thing I do when I get back off from the salt flats every night," he says, "is to call my wife, June, in Akron. And, every night, first thing she says to me is, 'Don't go fast and come on home.' Boy. I sure didn't go fast enough to scare anybody today."

This is his idea of not fast enough: he has made three runs on the desert outside Wendover, Utah, and on the last one, at 3:55 p.m., hit 561.620 mph through the measured mile. The world land-speed record is 600.601.

"I gotta set the record tomorrow," he says, "because you know why? Well, every night we have two guys from the crew to sleep out there on the flats with the car—to sort of keep her company—and tomorrow night's my turn. It gets pretty damn cold out there."

Craig Breedlove and Spirit of America hold the record now. But Craig and Art have swapped it. Arfons has had it three times before: at 434.02, at 536.71 and at 576.553 mph. Since getting it back last year, Breedlove has indicated he thinks this whole series too dangerous a game. He does not care to come back unless Arfons breaks the record again.

But, 40 years old, a handsome man with curling black hair and Indian cheekbones, Arfons is working at doing just that with a frightening sense of purpose. He has installed dual rear wheels on the Monster and cut away the rear wheel coverings to make room for the thick, fat tires.

In the 7 a.m. light Tuesday morning the flats lie silent in blue-gray air. As daylight comes up, the salt turns dull silver. There is no sun and it is 41°. Arfons paces back and forth, looking right through people, hands jammed into his pockets and shoulders hunched up against the cold. He is wearing stained tan pants pulled on over the coveralls, his plaid shirt over that, and his lucky leather jacket. He will not race without the lucky jacket. It has saved his life in several crack-ups.

Under a canvas canopy held up by poles hammered into the salt, the Green Monster looms up lumpily and looks like a giant jet engine—which, in effect, it is. It is not entirely green. The nose is red, and there are white bands along the sides. The high tailpiece, there more for show than any real stabilizing effect, is green. The rest of the car is a J-79 jet, the kind used in F-104 Starfighter planes; it has 17,500 horsepower and four-stage afterburner. Around the engine is an envelope mostly made of fiber glass, and there is a small birdcage cockpit on each side. Arfons rides in the left one, on a red-and-white-striped reclining seat. The entire cockpit is lined with fleecy white nylon carpeting—the kind you put on bathroom floors. The car is open at both ends; the air goes in there and it comes out here.

The crew ties the Monster to a station wagon with a canvas strap and tugs it out onto the salt flats. Art walks all around it while the Firestone engineers kneel down by the tires, testing air pressures. "Let's go, you guys," he says. Ed Snyder and Bud Groff, his crewmen and best friends, stand near him. Groff is the only man allowed to help zip up the lucky jacket; Groff puts down the green carpet that Arfons stands on while he changes from boots to his driving slippers; Groff always wipes the bottom of Art's shoes so he won't get any salt into the cockpit.

Arfons settles down and hooks up his shoulder straps. He is so tightly wedged in that the top of the cockpit canopy, when it is closed, presses down hard on his crash helmet. He nods at the crew, and they fire up the car.

Now the Monster crewmen and tire engineers run and jump into several cars and burst ahead of Arfons down the salt. They take up stations a mile or so apart, well off the course. Each car contains a first-aid kit, fire extinguishers, crowbars and an ax. Each man watches tensely, intently. Except for Ed Snyder. He cannot bring himself to look. He ducks his head and listens. An ambulance plane takes off from the salt and flies down course.

Ahead of Arfons lies a 10-mile-long black line painted across the salt. The entire straightaway is 12 miles long—although he could roll farther if necessary, into a salt-slushy area at either end. At mid-course is the measured mile, where electric eyes catch the car as it streaks past. United States Auto Club timing equipment is in a small house trailer off to one side.

Arfons is starting his run at the two-and-a-half-mile marker because he plans to reach speed sooner than Breedlove—who started half a mile beyond the zero mark and took longer to accelerate. Arfons does not want to spend that much time at top speed. "The longer you're going fast," he says, "the more things can go wrong."

Alone now, sitting to the right of the line with his left wheels almost on it, he revs up the Monster. The engine spews boiling air that makes the mountains in the background dance in a shimmery haze. Art lifts his foot off the brake. The Monster leaps away, leaving a dull roar behind it, and then, behind that, a strong thump of air and then a sound that runs along the ground after the car is gone. Flashing over the horizon, trailing a plume of salt, the Monster vanishes.

At the far end, Arfons gets out of the car and walks around it. The crewmen come up, slamming on brakes and skidding their cars into a ragged semicircle around the Monster. They all gather in tightly, but nobody asks Art how fast he went. This is very bad form. Everybody knows it was not fast enough. Then, across the salt, wavering against the horizon, a white station wagon starts to take shape, rolling toward them. It is Joe Petrali, USAC chief timer, with the official times written on a scrap of paper torn from a yellow ruled legal pad. He gets out and walks directly to Arfons, and the crowd gathers around in a tight knot. This is Petrali's big moment on each run, and he always stages it for special effect. He will not report to anyone but Arfons.

"You were 436.047 through the mile," Petrali says, "and 394.382 through the kilo." He does not add any editorial comment. It is enough. Arfons nods and turns away, kicking at the salt with his toe.

The kilometer (five-eighths of a mile) is the vital portion of the run for Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile records. When the course is run from north to south, the kilo clocks are at the far end. The two speeds that Petrali has brought mean that the car has not been accelerating through the mile but losing speed. Running north, Arfons would have to go considerably faster. Under FIA rules he must begin a run in the other direction within one hour for there to be an official speed, which is the average of the two runs.

Then Art walks back and explains to the crew. "I shut her off in the middle of the mile 'cause I seen I didn't have it." Everybody nods solemnly and goes back to work.

They turn the Monster around, and Arfons tries again: 524.934 through the mile and 507.932 through the kilo. Then again: 541.924 through the mile, 555.346 through the kilo. He is through for the day.

Wednesday is a wasted, worrisome day. Arfons needs extra cartridges with which to fire the drag parachutes that help slow the Monster from high speeds. A charter plane bringing them is delayed. It does not arrive until an hour before sundown, when the wind is blowing up strong. Anything over 5 mph is too risky for land-speed assaults. Art wants to go anyway, but Petrali talks him out of it. Art goes out onto the flats to walk and consider his predicament.

At dinner in the Stateline Hotel and Casino, Arfons thinks things out and makes some decisions. He will go out at daybreak next day in the still morning air. He will start farther back, at the two-mile mark, giving the Monster a three-mile run into the first measured-mile clock. He will throw on second-stage afterburners.

The part about the afterburners worries the crew. These are jet nozzles that pour raw fuel into the engine and give it absolute, stark acceleration. Art has never before had two burners lighted, only one.

That night, Helicopter Pilot Bob Hosking, a giant, close-cropped redhead, has a nightmare. Hosking has been flying a photographic mission over the course and has seen the Monster run. The nightmare is of Arfons crashing, the Monster rolling end over end, one of its wheels bouncing high into the air and through the helicopter rotors.

Everybody assembles on the fiats in the blackness of 5 a.m. on Thursday. By 8 a.m. the Monster is on the line, pointing north. The crew is stationed down the line, every man tensed. Down below the measured mile Hosking and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Photographer Eric Schweikardt are hovering in the helicopter, waiting.

At 8:03 a.m. the Monster rolls away. Arfons lifts his foot off the brake and switches on both afterburners. The car suddenly coughs a stream of yellow fire, gives a huge, rolling thump and roars away.

Arfons blasts through the mile at 585.366 mph and through the kilo at 589.597, still accelerating. Down course, a few hundred yards outside the flags, he hits 610 mph.

In the copter Eric sees the Monster drift to the left of the black line. Then, sickeningly, it veers to the right and starts to roll.

"It first flipped over on its right side and then—suddenly—it was upside down," Eric says later. "There was an enormous puff of flame in the middle of it, and then Hosking began to crank the helicopter down on top of it.

"The Monster came out of the first roll, and it still had all its wheels. But it landed hard, right side up, and suddenly one of the wheels bounced high into the air toward us and almost went through one of the rotors. The wheel was almost as high as we were.

"The car was exploding in pieces on all sides. Then a parachute blossomed out of the smoke. The car went end over end, twice. It landed on its side and began to slide, twistingly. It slid forever, kicking up salt."

Hosking slams the copter down. In the wreckage Arfons lies in the cockpit, his face streaming blood. The canopy has been torn away, and, groaning, he is trying to unfasten his shoulder straps.

A strong chromoly steel bar is twisted across Art's chest, pinning him into the wreckage. Hosking grabs it with both hands and, with one giant heave, pulls it away and bends it straight into the air. The rest of the crew comes spinning up. "Someone handed me an ax," Hosking says, "and I chopped the bar away at the weld. Then I reached in and got my hands under Art's shoulders, and they felt mushy, like both his collarbones was busted. Smoke was coming up from the wreckage, and he kept putting both hands up to his face."

Firestone Public Relations Man Jim Cook, who has gone white with shock, helps carry the stretcher to the ambulance plane and climbs in. He is sure Arfons is dead. "What do you think?" Cook asks the doctor.

From under the mummylike wrapping of blankets Arfons speaks: "I think I'm all right," Then: "Will you call June and tell her I'm O.K.? She didn't want me to go fast."

Cook, stunned, says, "Uhh, yes."

"How's the car?" Arfons asks. "Can she be repaired? Bend her up pretty bad, did it?"

"Tell you the truth," says Cook, "I didn't even look at it. But I guess it's pretty well shot."

The Monster is a ruin. Everything is broken. Sections of the body have peeled away grotesquely. Iron intestines and wires are spilled out. Along the salt flats behind it the Monster has painted fresh streaks of red and green paint and a path of umber. Bits of wreckage are strewn in a two-mile line. The steering wheel, an airplane type, is wrenched upside down.

With the ambulance plane gone, everybody looking at the wreckage knows Art Arfons has to be dead. But in Salt Lake City, in the police ambulance, he lies in the stretcher and says, "Now, listen, you guys. Don't drive this thing too fast to the hospital. We don't want to get into an accident."

"He coulda had the record," says Joe Petrali, back at the flats, with nobody now to show his little slip of paper to. "He would have stepped her up just a little on the return run and he coulda had it."

At the hospital Thursday evening, everybody has gone but Cook and one newsman. Art lies on the bed with fat cotton swatches taped over his eyes. In the accident, upside down and with his goggles ripped away, he had skidded along the salt on his face. Both cheekbones were rubbed raw, and the crash had pounded salt up under his eyelids and scraped the corneas. His face is swollen in huge, red lumps.

"You saw me get upside down, huh? All I know is that I looked up and saw I had drifted to the left of the line, and I figured it was the wind, so I corrected her. Maybe I overcorrected...."

He twists uncomfortably on the bed. "Thing that really saved me is 15 pounds I gained from eating too much. I was crammed into that cockpit so tight I couldn't even move a muscle. You there, Jim?"

Cook nods and touches one of Art's forearms.

"Leather jacket saved me, you see? Not a scratch on my arms or body, right?"

"Right," says Cook, blinking his eyes.

"Jim?"

"I'm still here."

"Hey, Jim, I think maybe I'm gonna fly back home and not drive, huh?"

"Hell of an idea," says Cook.

The next morning Art gets up and goes home, the bandages still on his eyes. On the plane to Akron, against doctor's orders, he pulls the bandages off. "Don't want to scare June," he says. On Saturday, with June at his side, Arfons—despite his wounded eyes—somehow manages to watch the Notre Dame-Michigan State game on television.

This is not the end of the story. The world land-speed record is still Breed-love's, but it is not safe. Arfons will be back again, as soon as he can assemble a new Monster.

"I know June's against it," he says. "And it will take a little while to get her all calmed down. But...."

He shrugs, like a man who aches all over.

"Well, damn. I got this other jet engine in my garage, and...."

PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTOn the eve of his record attempt, Arfons walks the salt flats in somber concentration. He is on a hot-rod strip; the land-speed course is beyond. PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTDawn on D-day: Arfons' crewmen make the "Monster" ready for ultimate try at the record. PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTHis car grotesquely damaged and his hopes struck down, Arfons is carried off on stretcher. PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTHurtling out of control, "Monster" trails chute. PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTShe stands on her tail in end-over-end flips. TWO PHOTOSERIC SCHWEIKARDTWheels fly; then she stops, a smoking ruin.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)