walt arfons wingfoot express
                   

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.

WALT ARFONS / WINGFOOT EXPRESS: TERRY ARFONS INTERVIEW


Terry Arfons is Walt Arfons' eldest and only surviving son. He was a racing tire engineer with Goodyear back in the 1960s and was involved with the "Wingfoot Express" LSR bid. I interviewed him over the phone at his home in  Uniontown, Ohio on Ju;y 7, 2009.

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You were born in 1942, so you’d have been a grown-up back when Art and Walt were going for the record.

 

Yeah, I was working for Goodyear as a racing tire engineer. I worked for them for 15 years. I was also in on the design of Breedlove’s tires and my dad’s tires too.

 

Were you living at home with your parents in the 1960s?

 

No. I was married. I had already been in the service.

 

Were you living on Pickle Road?

 

I was close. I was on another street in Akron, the same part of town. I was born on Pickle Road.

 

Did you help your dad build the two Wingfoot Express racers?

 

Not really, because I was at the time working for Goodyear. Of course, I went over there on the weekends and stuff, when I wasn’t traveling. But no, he had a couple guys working for him who helped him.

 

Who were these guys?

 

Jim Taylor and Rich Edelbrock. It’s not spelled like the manifold. It’s spelled a little different. It’s “Edelbrock” or something like that.

 

Did these two guys go with your dad to Bonneville?

 

Yes.


Did you go yourself?

 

Yes, I went out with Goodyear. I went out when the rocket car was run.

 

What about in 1964, when Tom Green set the record?

 

I didn’t go out then. See, I got out of the service in ’63 and I worked at Goodyear as a test driver for a while, until I went into the racing division, but it was only for like six months. But it had to be in that interim that I was doing that. So no, I didn’t go out then.

 

What branch of the service were you in?

 

I was in the air force.

 

What became of those two Wingfoot cars?

 

Well, they used them as parts and stuff for other vehicles, like the first Wingfoot they used most of the stuff to make a dragsters out of that they used to run exhibition races with. As far as the rocket car, he just cut it up and used it for different things. I mean it was a shame because the museum in Washington DC, the Smithsonian, wanted the thing, but he never saved it. You just don’t think of that stuff, you know.

 

[I ask about Walt’s tattoos.]

 

He’s got one on his chest of an eagle and he’s got a couple on his arms, a sailor girl or something. I’d have to go over and look at them to tell you what they were. But the one on his chest is a big eagle. It goes all the way across his chest. He got it in the 1930s when he was in the navy.

 

Did he leave the navy before the start of WW2?

 

Yes. He got out in ’39. Arthur was in the war.

 

Any memories of that 1964 record set by your dad and Tom Green?

 

Oh yeah. It was an exciting time. And then...Now why did I say I wasn’t out there? I wasn’t out there for my dad’s attempts, but I was out for Breedlove. See, Breedlove ran Goodyear tires too. And when Breedlove was trying to set the record I know we took a car out there, a Daytona Cobra from Carroll Shelby, and they set a bunch of records on a ten-mile oval with my dad’s driver, Bobby Tatroe, who has passed away. He was driving the rocket car. He and Breedlove were making records on this ten-mile circle.

 

Were you there when Craig had the big crash and went in the pond?

 

No, that was before my time. I was there when Breedlove had the other car, Sonic 1. See, ’65 was when I went to work for Goodyear in the racing division.

 

I know your mom Gertrude went out to Bonneville with Walt. Did she enjoy all that?

 

No, my mom did not enjoy any part of racing at all. She was always very nervous and scared. She was a basket case when he was gone. She’s still living too, eh. They just celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary on the first of July.

 

It’s ironic, really, what with your dad having had that heart trouble so far back.

 

No, he did not. He insists that he had heart trouble, but he’s never had any trouble with his heart.

 

He didn’t have a heart attack?

 

No. No. He didn’t have a heart attack. The reason he didn’t drive the car on the record attempts, why Tom Green got a chance to do it—Tom Green was simply a man who worked for P. H. [garbled] tool company, which made torque wrenches. He simply helped dad when dad needed some help; of course later on he acted like he built the car and everything; he had very little to do with [building] the car. But the reason dad didn’t drive it was because...dad drove all of his dragsters, he at one time had six cars on the road, and whenever we would finish a car he would drive it to make sure it was safe. I say “we” because at one time I helped him build a car. We had several appearances. In seven days him and I built a whole jet dragster. Day and night. Mom brought food down.

 

But anyhow, to make a long story short, the reason my dad didn’t drive that was because he was building a trailer to haul that Wingfoot in. It had a cable-operated rear hatch, and he jumped down off of that and caught his finger on the cable and it pulled the tendon out of one finger on his one hand. If you see any pictures of when they broke that record you can see that his hand was in a cast. That’s the reason he didn’t drive the car. He had full intentions of doing it himself but couldn’t because of that. He drove the car several other times when they were trying it out different places. On the way out to the salt...no, I think it happened out on the salt flats, when he jumped down off the trailer and his hand caught that cable and the cable was frayed and put a gash in one finger. As a matter of fact that finger now is still stiff. But Tom happened to be there and he said he’d do it [drive the car]. Actually, it was pretty simple to do. It could go much faster than it went.

 

Was your dad happy with Tom as the driver?

 

Yeah. And for a long time, in the later part of Tom’s life, he seemed to think he did more than he really did. And you know, he did drive it and he broke the record. But dad built the car.

 

He and Tom broke it and held it for only three days. That must have been a huge disappointment.

 

Yeah, it was a big disappointment to him. But then again, it was his brother that broke it. Him and my dad were feuding because of competition and because of wives and so forth. But when Arthur did crash out there dad got on an airplane right away and flew out there. He took a night flight out because he wanted to see him before...because nobody had ever lived through anything over 300. And so dad and him became good friends after that. And they were very, very close when they were working together.

 

So they made up after Art had that big crash?

 

Yes. It was because my dad flew out there that gave them an excuse to make up. And they did. But then, you know, in 1960, dad put a jet engine in a car, and Arthur was still working with the Allisons and stuff like that. But Arthur didn’t really want to go to jets. In ’59 dad built that jet, and started running it in late ’59 and early ’60, and was doing quite well with it. A lot of people wanted to see it run on a track so he was making good money with it. And then dad built several more of them. Then Art started, I don’t know when he finally built a jet car, but it was ’62 or so. But dad started it. Down in Columbus there was an old navy fighter, of course it was obsolete, an F-7U, with two J-46s in it. And they went down and got that. They gave it to him for taking it away. Dad ended up using the engines out of that for drag cars. In ’59 he built one with a jet engine but didn’t have an afterburner.

 

This was a drag strip car, right? Not a land speed car.

 

Right, an exhibition car.

 

[I mention Romeo Palamides et. al. having a jet car on the West Coast.]

 

Dad had one before Palamides did. He had the first one. I guarantee you that.

 

It wasn’t a real streamlined thing.

 

Oh no, it was an open cockpit, rear-engine dragster. They put the engine in at a two-degree angle so the nose would want to stay on the ground.

 

[I mention seeing an article from around 1956 in which Art and Walt speak of wanting to go after the LSR.]

 

Oh yeah. When they were kids they had an infatuation with Malcolm Campbell and John Cobb.

 

What kind of guy was Bobby Tatroe?

 

He would drive anything dad built. One time they built a car powered by steam. I mean you talk about something that was fast, this thing was fast. The whole car, loaded with water and everything in it, it had a tank, converted water to steam, it was just a needle valve and a big tank and when you stepped on the throttle it would pull the needle valve out of the hole a little bit, and it was unbelievable. You heated the water to a certain temperature and you ran the car. But as the car ran down the strip it got lighter and lighter because of the [declining] water weight. Well, Bobby drove that the first time, and one of our Goodyear photographers, Bob Stamm, he has been taking pictures of racing for years, he didn’t even get the thing on the camera except for a little bit of the rear end of it because it accelerated so fast. But anyhow, that thing crashed. Bobby was driving it. He didn’t get hurt. As a matter of fact I drove him to the hospital that day, and he said he was more scared of the ride I gave him that he was of that car. Bobby was a good guy. He got along with dad well. He was personable, very friendly.

 

When was this steam dragster run?

 

Later 1960s. I have some documentation of that and some pictures of it.

 

Would it have come after the rocket car?

 

No. No. It was before the Bonneville car. It was to be an exhibition drag car. [On the rocket car] dad put four wheels on it. The ones in the front only had about two inches between them. But they were worried about tires blowing out. Of course they always did because nobody had ever run that fast. Well, dad put a two-inch steel plate between the driver and the tires, so if anything went it wouldn’t have gotten to the driver. That car was tremendously fast—except Bobby hit the wrong button. And those JATO bottles didn’t have any way of shutting them off. So dad put retro-fires on all of them. What it did was it blew a hole through the front of them. Well, there were so many buttons and levers in that thing that—there were two different sets of rockets, a row of ten and then another row of five. But anyhow, that’s what happened out there. Bobby hit the wrong switch just as he was about to go into the second stage of the rockets. That thing was going five hundred and some miles an hour. I’ve never seen anything in my life like that. The car was flat on the back. Well, the exhaust came out at Mach five, so you could see the rings in the exhaust when that thing—in pictures of it. You can see the top five, exhaust rings there, on an afterburner car that’s the exhaust coming out at the speed of sound or more. Each ring was.

 

Well anyway, dad and I were running a little Mustang, we were out probably three miles from where Bobby was starting, and he ignited all the rockets. It was a big green puff, because those things were solid fuel assist bottles. And all of a sudden there was a hole—you couldn’t hear any noise—all of a sudden there was a hole in this green stuff, which was the car which blew that away after the green stuff came out and it was accelerating. But it was accelerating so fast—there’s just no doubt in my mind that it would have went over six hundred, because the exhaust was coming out like five times the speed of sound, but when that exhaust quit the wind wrapped right around the back of that thing and you could hear it, whoooo, you could hear it slowing down. It was very flat in the back so the wind tried to stop it. It was a really good design, way ahead of its time. But unfortunately, when they had the retro-fires, it did quite a bit of damage on the inside, where the engines were mounted. We knew it was going to but we never thought we would have to use it.

 

I guess with fifteen JATO bottles, making a run must have been expensive.

 

There were 25 of them. They used to cost about a thousand dollars. They were surplus. They had a 15 second duration, or 30 second, I don’t remember exactly now. But they had no way of shutting them off. They had to be able to shut them off.

 

As I understand it the bottles didn’t all blow at once, but came on in stages.

This is all from memory, but what there were 15 bottles in the back, which was 15,000 pounds thrust, and there were 5 on each side of the car. So there was a total of 25,000 pounds of thrust.

 

So if Bobby hadn’t made a mistake hitting those buttons, it might have worked out differently.

 

Oh, it definitely would have worked out differently. We had made other practice runs using five bottles or this or that, just so we knew what we were doing. But we had to change all those 25 bottles in less than an hour. So we had that all down pat, there was one bolt that held them in, it went into a slot, you had to take the bolt out and light the bottle out of the slot. We had all that down pat. Everything was “go.” It was just that the retro-fires went off. It seems to me that only the ones in the two side compartments went off. There’s a newspaper clipping from Salt Lake City that shows, I believe, an aerial view of it, of the retro-fire going off. [see Deseret News, Oct. 20, 1965, p. D1.] They said it was the fastest acceleration in the quarter mile they had ever recorded. It was just unbelievable. See, this was just sheer power. There were no fuel tanks or nothing else.

 

As a Goodyear guy, could you tell me a little about security? Were you given warnings about keeping things secret?

 

Oh absolutely. We were in competition with Firestone at that time. As a matter of fact the reason they hired me was for the drag racing end of it. That’s where I got started. But I worked at Indianapolis later on, like when Bobby Unser broke the record in ’68, I was there. It was several years that I was in charge of the Indianapolis racing, I was in charge of that section at particular times, we would divide it up. Competition was fun down there. We’d go down and spy on them and they’d come down and spy on us. We had a tent set up where they couldn’t see us taking tire temperatures and so forth, and whether there were any different design looking tires.

 

Did you have binoculars?

 

Yeah. They had a grandstand at one end and they let people in. Well, me or any Firestone engineer could go in there and sit and use binoculars and watch ‘em and clock ‘em with stopwatches and so forth. On gasoline alley we would set up three tents on pit road, with half the tent over the wall and half over the pit lane. What we’d do, the cars would come off the track and come in hot and go right into the tent and we’d take the tire temperatures, and we had the tires in there too so they couldn’t see anything other than when the car went out onto the track.

 

Did that kind of thing go on at Bonneville as well?

 

Yeah, but not nearly as—Bonneville was more of an open plain. Usually the press would be the ones who would be telling each thing that was happening. I know when I was down there with Breedlove it took him forever to do anything. He would make some runs and then he’d—one time the thing exploded, the engine stalled and then relit and exploded most of the inside of it and we had to rebuild that. I gave a hand doing that stuff too, because that was part of the deal.

 

Your uncle Art and Craig Breedlove were very different. Art would just get in his car and go for the record, whereas Breedlove would take a week or two.

 

He was different. He was different. Arthur just went up there and did it. Of course, that’s what they did their whole life. [Mentions Art’s acquiring the J-79.] What happened was, a B-58 Hustler crashes in Dayton, and Arthur went down and bought the scrap and was able to make an engine run. GE heard about it and came up and said, “You can’t have this engine. It’s classified.” He said, “Bullshit. It’s my engine. I made it run.” And he did. And they declassified it after that.

 

And also, he made the thing so it would run inverted. Because the crank case was on the bottom, which didn’t get the engine close enough to the ground. GE never did that. They said it couldn’t be done. Well, Arthur did it.

 

What about your dad? Was he like Art, just get in the car and get it over, or was he closer to Breedlove?

 

I’d have to classify him as not as extreme as Breedlove and not as extreme as Arthur. I’d put him in the middle. He was more cautious with the people that were driving. There was never any intention of my dad driving the number two, the rocket car. Bobby from the start was there and he usually drove several exhibition cars for dad. Bobby was a good friend of dad’s. Dad like him.

 

When you were at Bonneville with the rocket car, was there a Firestone guy or two hanging around there, watching?

 

Not that I was aware of.

 

I think my brother would have probably picked up most of this stuff and still be running it if he hadn’t been killed. The two people in this racing, and I don’t mean this to offend my father at all, because he’s a genius, but my brother [Craig] and Art were just alike. They were so smart when it came to that stuff. Arthur could make anything run, put anything together. He was just very, very sharp. Dad was too, but I think Arthur and Craig [Arfons] stood out from the rest of them. Craig could rebuild the fuel control on a J-85, which GE never did. They said it was too hard to do, so they charged $45,000 for a fuel control. And Craig would rebuild them. He was just good.

 

Was he involved in the Wingfoots at all, or was he too young?

 

No, he was involved. But you know, as a kid would have been. He was seven years younger than I was.

 

He was born in 1949?

 

Right. He was 39 when he got killed.

 

Did he go out to Bonneville with your dad?

 

Yeah, he was out there. He pretty much went wherever my dad was. Him and my dad were real close. You know how they are with the youngest kid.

 

Was Craig able to help out on the crew?

 

You know, I don’t—yeah, he was there when they were practicing changing the bottles and packing the chutes, so I know he had a responsibility, but right now I can’t remember what it was. [Craig would have been about 16 when Walt and Bobby Tatroe were running the rocket car.] But he did have something to do. Dad always kept him busy.

 

Were you by any chance there when Art test fired that J-79 for the first time?

 

I was there. I don’t know if I was there the first time, but he used to do it so much. They both did. They both would take them out behind the mill there and strap them—Arthur buried some big scrap iron under the ground and put a big cable up and he would pull against that. One time it actually pulled the thing right out of the ground. They never had any trouble with hurting anything. They were lucky enough to catch it in time. But those things—and when they had compressor stalls, that’s when the fire goes out in the middle of the engine and then relights, it’s quite noisy and it’ll lift the car off the ground. That happened a lot when they were bleeding the fuel lines and stuff. There was a lot of interest around. All the neighbors would complain about the windows being broken in their houses. But pretty much Art and dad knew what they were doing.

 

They had a very successful feed mill business, but they let it go to pot once they started racing.

 

So with the mill, it wasn’t just that the business dried up. They neglected it.

 

Oh absolutely. They had somebody running it. Of course, the farms were being changed over to housing projects, but there are still a lot of farms around here. No, but the feed mill business, it was feed and hardware and they sold poultry [garbled] and stuff like that. It was quite profitable when they quit. But then it went downhill from there, which is understandable, they didn’t pay attention, they were not there very much.

 

[Terry talks about Art and Walt first starting out in drag racing.] Arthur had purchased an Allison engine from Winers. They bought salvage stuff from Winers. As a matter of fact they could have bought P-51 Mustangs for $1200 in a box, if you can believe that or not. And they used to buy BT-13s, which were trainers. They taxi them in the corn fields, between the telephone poles because the wings were too wide. They’d bring them to the shop and chop the tail and the wings off. Oh they got in a lot of trouble. They used to play follow-the-leader with airplanes and motorcycles, they used to do some really different stuff.

 

[I ask about Terry's uncle Dale.]

 

He was a black sheep. He was different. He wanted to be involved in it [drag racing] because they were getting some notoriety. At one time he drove one of the cars at a roundy-round speedway here in Barberton and flipped it and brought his collar bone. But he never was—he was just a different kind of person. He was Art’s half brother and my dad’s full brother. He finally ended up killing himself. He lost both of his legs, from sugar I guess. And also he was exploding—he was a demolitions expert I guess.

 

I’ve heard that some dynamite went off in his hand.

 

Yeah, he blew his hand off, and one eye and one ear. He wasn’t able to use those. Yeah, he was different, he was a black sheep. He was definitely not like Arthur or my dad. As a matter of fact, when Tom Arfons died he left the business, a third to my dad, a third to Arthur and a third to Bessie.

 

Why didn’t he leave any to Dale?

 

Well, Dale was the black sheep. Tom adopted him and tried to do everything for him, but Dale would steal stuff form him—it was just, he was the black sheep.

 

Did Dale work for the Bureau of Land Management or something like that?

 

No, he was a constable.

 

What does that mean?

 

It’s like a sheriff for animals and stuff like that. He would be responsible for clocking people in cars. They did animals and people.

 

Kind of like a park ranger?

 

Yeah. Well, kind of like that, but at that time I don’t think they had park rangers. He didn’t work at it all that long. To be truthful, I think most of his experience was with one of the rubber companies. So did my dad, before they did the mill. But Dale, he was different.


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