art arfons green monster land speed record


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Samuel Hawley is a writer of narrative nonfiction and fiction. His books are highly eclectic. He has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting and land speed racing and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.


Ted Groff is the son of Bud Groff, a long-time friend of Art Arfons' who was on the "Green Monster" crew for all Art's LSR runs at Bonneville in 1964, 1965 and 1966. Ted was himself a grown man at the time and has his own memories of Art as well. I interviewed him over the phone at his winter home in Florida on July 9, 2009.

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[Ted says that he has “all kinds of literature and stuff, but it’s in Ohio.” Newspaper articles, photos, movies from out on the salt flats. “Some guy in an airplane took one.” ] Art dumped that car at 600 mile an hour in [1966], and they went up to get it. And the funny thing of it was that this one guy, it sounds almost like he’s crying, and it’s Ed Snyder. And my dad, you’d have to know him, but his voice changed about three octaves. And he says, “Well, we’re here. We better get out.” But he never talked that way. It was very deep, and very serious. 


So this was all caught on film, with sound.


Oh yeah.


So your dad and Ed Snyder are in a car, they’ve driven down the salt...


Well, I think they’re in the bus, or the big truck or something, there were 3 or 4 of them there. And so when they brought it [the smashed racer] home my dad called me, because my dad and I used to go to Indianapolis all the time and we would take movies and we would bring them home, especially after an accident, and we would try to dissect it to figure out why and how this guy got hurt. And so my dad called me when he got home and he said, “If you want to see the car you’d better come over here. We’re going to get rid of it.” So I went over and I crawled up on the bed of the trailer and I’m crawling around underneath there looking, and I whistled, and my dad came out of the garage and he says, “What!” And I said, “Did Art hit a hole?” He said, “No.” I said, “Did he hit a pole?” He said, “No! Why?” I said, “Slide up under the front of this thing and look.” Art had a Packard, about 4-inch solid steel axle in the front. From left to center it was perfect, but from center over it looked like somebody had cut it with a razor and it was twisted up like a corkscrew. And so Pappy got out from under it real quick and he run in there and he says, “Art! Come look what Ted found!” And Art comes out and says, “What’d you find now?” And I say, “Look here. What the hell did this?” And he crawls up under there and looks and he says, “I’ll be damned. I wondered what that sound was.” Do you know what a wheel bearing sounds like when it goes out? Well, when you’re going down the road in your car it’’ go, chit-chit...chit. And then finally it’ll bite, it’ll go eeeeee. Art says, “I was doing right around 600 mile an hour, a little over, and I heard a cheeeuuu, and I’m upside down.” And I said, “You shittin’.” And he said “No.” And I said, “The damn bearing froze and welded to the spindle.” That’s what rolled him over.

[I ask about Bug Groff’s background.] Had be retired as a painter when he started helping out Art?


No, he kept the business. When they weren’t out running he’d still run the business. My dad was a little short guy, five-four, and he had a temper like dynamite. A very short fuse. [Goes on to relate how Bud got into trouble touring in Europe with Art’s car. He was driving the truck in Italy, hauling the Green Monster, and was stopped and the flares he was carrying for emergencies the authorities mistook for dynamite. Bud was arrested and taken to the station and had to explain that these things were really flares, and that you needed to carry them in America when you were driving a truck. They let him go.]


When was this?


I...jeez, I don’t know....They wanted him to run it on the Autobahn, but he wouldn’t do it.


Was Art with your dad?


Oh yeah. Him and Art took the car over there.


[I verify that Bud’s real name was Nyles Groff. I ask about his nicknames.]


The guys in the motorcycle bunch called him “Red,” the painters called him “Bud,” and all the guys that knew me and run in our crowd, including Art, called him “Pappy.” And the painters called him “Jerry.” But his name was Nyles. [Ted later mentions that he’d heard lots of stories of the stuff his dad did on motorcycles when he was young.]


So Art called him Pappy?


Yeah, Art and them called him that.


And he was kind of short and had a big mustache, right?


He was five foot four and had a handlebar, yeah. As long as I knew him he had a handlebar mustache.


And just to make sure, your dad was a house painter, right?


Yes sir. He helped start the union.


[I ask whether Bud was in WW2. Ted says that he was; that he was drafted despite his age, having just one good eye, two bad knees and a bad back.] So they took him into the army and he totally refused to shot a gun. For the reason that, when he was a kid, a couple of his uncles had him out and one uncle loaded up a gun and said to him, “Shoot that thing right down there,” and he shot at it and it went over and almost hit his other uncle. And it turned out the barrel was bent.” Ted says he had a shotgun, but he had to break it down totally to take it into the house. “That’s how much Pappy was against guns. He would always say that no one would ever attack the United States because everyone had a gun, and the guy that did had enough to give everybody on the block one. Well I love guns, but he didn’t.


Well anyway, after getting drafted they put him in the medics. His whole company was getting ready to go overseas, and when they took their last physical to go this doctor looked at him and said, “My God man, how did you get into the army?” And Pappy said, “Oh don’t know. They just drafted me. I told them I was screwed up.” And the doctor said, “Well, with your knees and your back and you got only one eye to see with, that ain’t right.” So they kept him in California, and they put him into I guess you’d call it the motor pool, but in the paint shop.


I told you he was a little short guy and a character. Well, one day the inspecting general was inspecting the base and he walked into the paint shop, and he says, “How do you know what’s in these cans? There are no labels on them.” And Pappy says, “I know. I can smell ‘em and I can tell you what’s in every one of ‘em.” And that’s the way he done stuff.


So your dad had only one good eye. Did he have a glass eye?


No. The other eye was there and it was a normal eye. [It was Bud’s left eye that didn’t work.] He finally went to a specialist in Cleveland because he was going blind in his good eye and the doctor asked him what happened to his bad eye. Bud said he could see light with it and maybe the odd shadow with it, and that it had been like that since he was a kid. [Bud couldn’t remember what had happened to damage his eye when he was a kid. Ted asked his uncle what had happened to Bud’s eye and got the story. He said that when they were kids and playing baseball a line drive or something hit Bud in the left eye and that this could have been what damaged it.]


[I ask whether Bud had a background in racing. Ted says that his experience had been mainly on motorcycles. He’d also had a cut-down Model T, all souped up, when he was young. I ask where Bud was living in the early 1960s and how he got associated with Art Arfons. Ted says he was living in Akron, and had known the Arfons going way back. “My dad used to go to the Arfons Mill and get grain and stuff. And so he knew Art’s dad real well, and he knew Art from seeing him there.”]


What kind of guy was Ed Snyder?


He was a good guy, a character. He done everything and anything. He was a good guy. Well, his wife lives right there by Art’s shop.


Did your dad accompany Art on all his Bonneville trips?


Those three [Art, Ed and Bud] were together all the time. And then there was Charlie [Mayenschein], who got killed, car hit him head on. Charlie was a hell of a nice guy. And there was a tall skinny guy who wore glasses and I can’t remember his name to save my life [Henry Butkiewicz]. But I remember Charlie because he really impressed me.


When one of the wheels [i.e. a big wheel] from Firestone came out to see Art, he asked if he should send an engineer out to make some blueprints for the car. And Art looked at him and said, “For what?” And the guy said, “Well, so you can build the car.” And Art says, “I only got one guy on my crew that can read blueprints. None of the rest of us can.” And that was my dad.


So your dad could read blueprints.


Oh yeah. See, he was a paint contractor.


And Art couldn’t work off blueprints.


Well, I wasn’t there, but that’s what was said.


Did your dad actually help build the car too?


Oh yeah. He’d go there every night. He spent a tremendous amount of time there.


Your dad didn’t get paid for helping Art, did he? He did it just as a volunteer, just because he loved it?


That’s it. As far as I know he never made a nickel on it.


[Ted goes on to relate the story when a newsman rides along with Art in the Green Monster in the late '60s and the car crashes and the guy is killed. In Ted’s version the newsman sneaks into the second cockpit, unbeknownst to Art. Bud was there.] Well, Art dumped the car. And my dad says to Garth Hardacre, “Get the truck.” And there were some officials and stuff there and he got mad and said, “Get these people out of here.” And they’re going to winch the car up onto the truck and get it outta there, because Art’s dead. That’s it. The car’s laying on that side. And Pappy said that when Garth went to get the truck he’s standing there looking and the dirt started moving and he said it was just like a God-damned rat trying to climb out of a hole.


Art was about six foot and Pappy was five four. And so he called me and said, “Meet us at the Akron-Canton Airport. Art wrecked the car, and he don’t know it, but there was a guy killed. He snuck in the other cockpit.” And so everything was cool. Art was sore and hurt and that, but everything was cool—till he got on the telephone and he called someone. He got in the booth after Pappy did. Pappy didn’t know who he called. So I went out to the airport, and June and maybe Timmy was there to pick Art up. And Pappy got in with me and we come home and he said, “Everything was fine until he called someone. I had to lug him through the airport after that, because someone told him this guy was killed in the car.”


Art was very soft-hearted. He was a very, very nice guy. I mean really. He would do favors for everybody. You really had to know him. He was really a prince. But Pappy said, “You should have saw it, me as little as I am, carrying his big ass through the airport.” He said that as soon as Art found that out, he just wilted.


When Art crashed in 1966, it hit Ed Snyder hard. He didn’t want to be involved with Art in land speed racing after that. How did it affect your dad? Did it turn him off the whole thing?


No. No. After that Ed changed a hell of a lot, but it didn’t change Pappy. He was cool. The only thing that turned him off was when Art quit running the car and started running the tractor. He said, “I ain’t in no God-damned tractors. I ain’t goin’ with you.” No, but Ed did change after that.


[I ask about Bud’s character.]


He minded his own business. But if push come to shove he wouldn’t back down. He’d fight a damned gorilla and get whipped and fight him tomorrow. I’m telling you, he was five four and a stick of dynamite.


I’ve got some documents from Humpy Wheeler, written to my dad over him and Art showing up down there. And like I said, a few tapes and stuff. But Timmy [Tim Arfons] would have more tapes [movies] than anybody....Timmy’s a hell of a nice guy. A little quiet, but he’s really a nice kid.


[At the end of the interview, speaking of the obsession with racing, Ted says: “Once that crap gets in your blood, it’s in there. We’re all nuts over shit like that. Only some of us quit and some of us don’t. I still screw around, but I shouldn’t.”]

speed duel land speed record

copyright 2011 Samuel Hawley