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LAND SPEED RECORD

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LAND SPEED RECORD

IMJIN WAR

PERCY WILLIAMS

ELEPHANT TOPSY

GEORGE FOULK


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.

ART ARFONS / GREEN MONSTER: LEE PENDLETON INTERVIEW


Lee Pendleton was a drag racing friend of Art Arfons's going back to the mid-1950s and was on the "Green Monster" crew when Art set the land speed record in 1964 and 1965. In film footage of those heading days, it's Lee's Ford truck that you see hauling the Monster's start cart. I interviewed him over the phone at his home in Celveland, Ohio on June 11, 2009.

*          *          *

When were you up on the salt flats with Art Arfons?

 

1964, when Walter was there and ran first, and Art ran second. [Oct. 1964, when Art went 434 mph.] I was with Art in ’64 when he broke the record first.

 

Did you return with him to the salt in ’65?

 

No I didn’t. Wait a minute...Yes, I was there, come to think of it. But I wasn’t there when he broke the record. I remember coming home, and my wife and her friend were with us, and the brakes went out on my car. That’s why I would remember that.

 

And what about 1966, when Art had the crash?

 

No, I wasn’t there. But I was in ’65.

 

Did you know Art in Akron, stop by his shop?

 

Oh yeah, Pickle Road, sure.

 

Did Art and Walt have their shops in one big building cut in two, or in two separate buildings?

 

Well, it was two separate buildings. It started out as a feed mill. Back in the late ‘50s farming was still that close to Akron. They ground grain and sold things. And then it kind of died and they started doing the "Green Monster" work and they loved that. The old man died who did the business, he was Art’s step-dad, I guess, and Walter’s real dad. [It was the other way around.] So the feed mill closed down and Walter had the southern end of it [the property] and Art got the building at the north end.

 

[I ask about the story of Art having the crew kiss the car.] Do you think this actually happened?

 

Absolutely not. He was a very serious racer. At Bonneville, I remember him getting, ah, reclusive might be the word. In other words, he didn’t want to talk to people the day before the big run. He would get a little serious.

 

Just day to day, was he sort of a gregarious, talkative guy?

 

Oh yeah. Well, not really gregarious, but smooth. Just smooth.

 

But when he was on the salt he would get kind of serious.

 

Well, we were there the first time about a week ahead of time in ’64 because Walt had the salt. So he was just everybody’s friend and everybody liked him and he was truly a good friend. Was he...I don’t know if you’d call it gregarious...He was just a matter-of-fact guy who had a nice, smooth, easy-going attitude.

 

[I ask about the Monster having two seats.] Was it the original plan for Ed to ride along?

 

No.

 

Was it then solely a matter of symmetry?

 

Yes, absolutely, symmetry. For design purposes.

 

[I ask if any weight was added to the dummy cockpit to even things out.]

 

Later on, Art was running at Green Valley with that same car, and he switched over to Goodyears and had a blow-out. He never would take anybody with him. Never. But this reporter stayed after him and stayed after him—I wasn’t there; Art told me about it—but this reporter kept telling him he was going to give him a nice write-up and he had all these connections, and he really wanted to go for a ride in that car on the drag strip. So lo and behold, that was the trip when the front tire blew, I think it was the front tire, and killed this reporter.

 

When you were on the salt, how many guys would have been on Art’s team?

 

I have pictures that Firestone sent out as a thank-you brochure to all the crew.

 

Would there have been as many as a dozen?

 

Oh yeah. And General Electric sent an engineer for the engine.

 

Just the one time, or regularly?

 

I think regularly. I know in ’64 and ’65 he was there, a big, tall, thin guy. [Lee mentions having a box of stuff labeled “Racing Days,” and wonders how he can get me pictures.] Jim Deist was there, for the parachute. I just had a reason to go through old pictures because a guy named John Roly is restoring the Green Monster Number 5 to run and show in these nostalgia races. We bought it [No. 5] from Art in 1957. [Later in the interview Lee mentions that Number 5 is at Art Chrisman’s shop in Santa Anna, CA, being restored.]

 

You own it?

 

I used to. I sold it to Charlie Hall and then Charlie sold it to John Roly. [Lee is going through his photos as he talks to me.] But here is a picture from Firestone, with a thank-you letter, okay, I see the Firestone guys, and Ed Snyder and Art, and oh, that’s Les Medvane. He used to own the drag strip in Atco, New Jersey. I don’t know if it’s Pennsylvania or New Jersey. And then there’s the official [Joe Petrali], and Charlie Mayenschein [having trouble remembering names.] I see three Firestone guys.

 

[I ask about Bud Groff.]

 

Yeah, I knew Bud Groff. I can’t think if he was there or not. And then the old man, oh yeah, that’s Bud.

 

[I ask how old Bud looks in the picture. Lee estimates him to be in his sixties, has a mustache.]

 

There’s another picture here where Art blew the right rear tire. It was Les’s and my job to dig the bead off that rim. The bead was at least an inch and a half diameter. Do you know what the bead of the tire is? It’s the steel cable, covered with rubber, that’s right next to the rim, and it’s what holds the tire together. It was so big, you wouldn’t believe how big it was. And it’s all hard steel so we had to cut it and hack it.

 

Do you have any memories of that blow-out? Was it pretty dramatic, or did Art take it in stride?

 

He took it in stride, yeah.

 

Did you ever see Art shaken by any of these blow-outs, or did he stay pretty cool?

 

I know he could get angry with people.

 

What would set him off?

 

People trying to promote him, trying to get in on his act. I think that’s the only times I ever seen him angry. He and I started out, I was in a flathead, this was in 1954, the first year I raced.

 

Once Art and Walt started building racers with aircraft engines, were those really heavy dragsters, heavier than the dragsters of most other drivers?

 

Some of them. Art had the Baloney Slicer, and that was about the same weight as Garlits. And Garlits got beat by Art. [Lee refers to Green Monster # 6, with the double rear wheels being particularly heavy. I comment that Art would get a slow start with it but always catch the other driver by the end. Lee says:] Well, not always. Being heavy, you had to give up too much at the starting line. It just took longer to get that weight moving. My little flathead, which was a Ford early model engine, V8, and I was running alcohol and a little bit of nitro, he would beat me usually, but not always. In Akron I beat him a couple times. There was a guy in Cleveland named Joe Martenzik, and he had one of the first overheads, it was a Chevy motor, of course that worked out to be the hot rodders favorite motor, but he was real tough too, and he could beat Art.

 

Back when Art and Walt were working the drag meets, were they just getting winnings, or were appearance fees also important?

 

Oh, that’s what it was all about, the appearance fees.

 

How much could that amount to for a meet? A few hundred dollars? Five hundred dollars?

 

Oh yeah. In those days $500 was quite a lot of money. Garlits could get five hundred most everywhere. I went on three years of exhibitions with my car when I broke the record, this would be ’62, I could get up to five hundred dollars. [Lee adds that if you hustled you could work in two meets in one weekend and make twice as much.]

 

Was Art using his own bus back then, working the drag meets in the ‘50s, or did he fix that up later?

 

No, I think he had flatbed trucks. I know when he first started out he had the mill truck. [Lee talks a bit of Art’s tractor pulling days.] He and I always ran the Nationals, we had the Number 5 car with an Allison [Lee had bought Green Monster #5] and Art had Number 11 with an Allison, and he was a very...He raced all the time and he got to be a real ace driver. First class. So he would usually beat us by two or three miles an hours and he’d be fastest time of the meet, we’d be second fastest. You never got paid to go to the Nationals. You went there just to have the bragging rights...See, what you’re doing when you run an exhibition, you are being advertised in advance of the meet and they draw a crowd that way. And Art would get good crowds, so he’d earn big money. In the late ‘50s he was probably earning 500 dollars [per meet] or more.

 

[I ask about Art’s lucky jacket, a black leather jacket.]

 

Yeah, that’s what he always wore. I guess he probably called it his lucky jacket.

 

Did he ever wear an oxygen mask?

 

No... I have this picture before me, and there are nine people gathered in front of it. One of them is the big tall guy from GE [Henry Butkiewicz], so there were eight of us on Art’s crew. And Art has on his white Firestone outfit, without the jacket. But I do remember a black jacket that he would wear.

 

[I ask about Art’s pit on the salt: Art’s bus, the Monster, a tent, a bunch of cars.] Anything else?

 

No. My truck was there with his start cart, to start the J-79. I towed that out behind by pickup truck. It had a camper, not a full camper, just a little cover, on the back.

 

Was there a fuel truck as well?

 

[Long pause] You know, you got me there. I don’t know. But you see, you didn’t have to set up a whole lot in the pits because we would run early in the morning...I’m looking at another picture here that shows two airplanes on the salt, my truck behind it with the start cart, and sixteen people, three or four of them with cameras in hand and taking pictures...Here’s another picture of Art in the car, Charlie handing him his helmet. [Lee says that these pictures are his personal property. They were sent out by Firestone to members of the crew.]

 

I remember asking Art while we were having dinner on the way out, “How did you come up with the design underneath the car?” He said, “Well, I left the belly pan off.” I said, “Why did you do that? Everybody else has a belly pan.” He said, “Because I didn’t know what the reaction with lift was going to be. I’ve got a lot of horsepower. I’ll just make it dirty.” And he never had to worry about it. He did have to worry about torque.

 

[I ask if Lee can recall any humorous or otherwise memorable episodes.]

 

Yeah, lots of them. One day, here comes Arfons...Pickle Road was maybe a mile and a half from where we would run. We ran right on the road below the Soap Box Derby facility, Derby Downs is what they called it. It’s like a big coliseum, except there’s a hill in there and place for a lot of spectators. They always had the Soapbox Derby there every year. Anyway, there’s an access road that goes around the airport, and you can see the big dirigible hangar, Goodyear was located right over there. But this road that we would run on was a narrow country road, and it wasn’t straight. It went straight for about a thousand feet, and then it took a left turn. [Laughs] Anyhow, Art would come with his machine, drive it all the way from Pickle Road. He said, “I don’t care if they get me or not.” And they never bothered him. And one day he came down with a trailer behind. And I looked at this thing and said, “My God.” The trailer had a 6 cylinder [car] motor on it. it was a single axle [trailer] and it was driven by this motor. And he put this trailer on the back of old [Green Monster] Number 6 and used it as a pusher. [Laughs] That is a hard story to tell and have people believe you, but it’s the honest-to-God truth.

 

But everything changed so fast with them. They were very prolific as far as making new machinery.

 

[I ask about the story of Charlie Mayenschein sneaking into second seat to ride in Green Monster.] Were you there when that happened?

 

I never even heard of it. No, Art was pretty safety conscious. He had a horizontal wing over the top of the front axle. [Lee is looking at a photo of the car] It was mounted on some braces that extended up above the body, and also there was this hydraulic cylinder at the back of the wing. And the wing pivots on these braces that stick up...He figured all kinds of things out. I’ll tell you, he was never proud about things. He wasn’t a bragger at all. If you got into a conversation he would be in the conversation until it went to women or dirty jokes or something else, and as soon as that happened he look for somebody else to talk about something that was technical. He was a good original thinker. And Walt was too. I tend to short Walt because I didn’t get to know him as well. But they were both very original.

 

Any thoughts on the estranged relationship between Art and Walt?

 

That’s a good word, estranged. I’ll tell you, I always wished they could have got back together. But it wasn’t about to happen. You know, the first jet dragster was Walter’s. Walter had a year or two jump on Art. Either in ’55 or ’56, Walt had a jet on a dragster. It wasn’t pretty, I’ll tell you that. [Laughs] I couldn’t believe it. Somebody came into my shop and told me, “We saw this jet automobile.” And I said, “No you did not.” It wasn’t real fast, because it was a small, lighter jet engine, a J-34, not real powerful.

 

[I ask if there was ever any dissention on Art’s team, like on the Breedlove team in 1962.]

 

Well, he didn’t have much to be in charge of. He and Ed did most of it themselves. Art did have people like me, I did some Bonneville wheels for him, and other specialties he would contract, like the paint he would have done outside. [But he did most everything himself] I’m a tool and die maker by trade—and like I was telling you before about his attitude, he would talk to me about things he wanted to know about, how to machine things, who the geometries and things worked. He was right into it. And before you know it, he had a lathe and a little mill and some other things and he’s doing a lot of that work himself...He would explore anybody’s mind and get answers that way. He would call and say, “What do I do about this?”

 

[I ask about the arrival of jet cars onto the drag scene at the end of the 1950s, early 1960s]  Did this cause some resentment amongst the other drivers, that these jet cars were taking away attention from them?

 

Well, I’m sure there was. I know my feelings were that...yeah, you pretty well described it, yeah. They were not only taking the headlines and the hoopla away from us, but they were taking our appearance money. The crowds were bigger with the jets, so the rest of us were not in as much demand.

 

That’s it for my questions. Is anything else occurring to you?

 

In 1964 I went up to the East Coast to a meet they were having that was a big finale for the jet dragsters. There were or eight of them. Anyone I knew that had a jet was there because they paid them all to come. And Art just made them all look silly. I mean he was right on the lights every time, and he was so much faster than the rest of them. Of course he had the 79 and some of the rest of them were still running the 34s. He had worked out the afterburner, he knew how to fire that at an instant’s notice. He told me that one thing he didn’t like about the way he was running to motor was...he told me the burners on an airplane were made to come in in four stages, but he said, “I just took that stuff out of there and I use it all at once.”

 

And when he would leave at Bonneville I remember—I only got to see it because I had to race with the start cart down to the other end of the strip and get there in time to get it turned around, but I never got used—but anyhow, I did get to see two or three launches, and you know the size of the hole coming out the back of the J-79 is about 30 inches across. And when you would see that hole start getting smaller, the engine would sound about the same, but the car would just disappear. That’s one of the wheel-driven Bonneville car’s problems, getting up to speed. But Art just accelerated so fast, that hole got smaller and smaller and the thrust was more and more.

 

You mentioned running down the course with the start cart. Was that generally your job with Art, handling the start cart?

 

Well, I towed it out there so I had to have it wherever. But we did whatever had to be done.

 

So there weren’t specific duties assigned to each individual. You all pitched in and did what needed doing.

 

Yeah. Another little story. I was coming back from California and I met Art at a race track in the west. And he said, “Hey, next week I’m going up to Las Vegas. You want to come along? Thunderbird Hotel is going to sponsor us both. We just have to put our cars on display in front of the casino.” Thunderbird Casino, which is not even there any more. So I said, “Oh yeah, I’d love it.” So they [the casino people] said, “Okay, we’re comping you guys to everything.” For the five days we’re going to be there, meals and everything. So we went everywhere and did everything we could do and were covered. And then we went over to the Lido to the big waterfall. He wanted to see that. So we went over to the Lido. And they had a dinner theater. So we said, “Hey, we’re being comped.” My wife’s with me and Art’s alone. And that’s another thing with drag race cars, Art would go with no team. He’s do most everything himself. So anyhow, we’re sitting there eating and having all this fancy food and everything, and then the show’s over and they brought us a check. And we said, “Oh no, we’re comped for this. We’re at the Thunderbird.” “No, sorry about that.” I think I had made $250 at Henderson, Nevada the night before so I had $175 with us—a lot of money in those days—and had to pay the tab.

 

Was this during the Bonneville days? Or after?

 

That was before. About ’62.

 

When Art was working the drag meets, did he travel all over the States?

 

Oh yeah, he went everywhere.

 

Would he have gone as far as California?

 

Oh yeah. He was all over.

 

Would Ed go along with him on those trips?

 

Usually, yeah. I think Ed retired and went on the road with Art.

 

So Ed wasn’t working at the tire factory during those Bonneville years?

 

I think he was retired then.

 

To close I would say that Art was a great gentleman of racing. And he would help people whenever he could.


speed duel land speed record



copyright 2011 Samuel Hawley