art arfons green monster
                   

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: TIM ARFONS INTERVIEW


Tim Arfons is the second of Art Arfons' two sons. He was about ten years old when Art was locked in the LSR jet car battle with Craig Breedlove back in the mid-1960s and he went on to work with jets himself. I had my first interview with him over the phone at his Pickle Road shop in Akron, Ohio (his dad's old shop with some of Art's stuff still in it) on June 12, 2009. Tim was on speaker phone and was working while we talked--kind of like how I imagine Art would have been.

*          *          *

I know your grandfather Tom Arfons had a feed mill, but I’ve also seen reference to him working at the Firestone plant. Did he do both those things?

 

He bought the mill...I think he might have worked at the plant earlier, but the mill was his number one job.

 

Did he also have a hardware store at the mill?

 

Yes.

 

[I ask about the layout of the houses on Pickle Road. There was the mill and Tom’s house, then Art built a house and Walt built a house...]

 

Yeah, but they weren’t near the shop. Walter’s was up the street from the shop, my dad’s was about a mile away. Walter’s wasn’t that far away.

 

Less than a mile?

 

Yes.

 

And they had their respective shops there at the mill site?

 

They worked together out of the mill. Then they split the property up and my dad built a building adjacent to the mill.

 

So he and Walt were in two separate buildings working on their cars. How far apart were they?

 

Thirty feet.

 

[I mention that someone told me Art had been adopted.]

 

No! Actually, he’s one of the few Arfons. Walter’s father was not named Arfons. They were step-brothers.

 

So they had the same mother, but different fathers?

 

Yes. Tom Arfons was dad’s dad.

[I next ask about the Green Monster having two seats. Was it ever the plan for Ed Snyder to ride along with Art?]

 

No, it was never designed for that. He was never supposed to ride. Charlie Mayenschein sneaked in though.

 

I’ve read that story. So you’ll verify that?

 

Oh God yes.

 

The second cockpit, was it just a seat, or was it fixed up with steering?

 

No, there was nothing over there.

 

And there was never any intention to drive from over there?

 

Oh God no.

 

Was additional weight added to the second seat to counter the weight of your dad on the other side?

 

No. When you start figuring the torque of the engine and all that, there’s no way to figure out all that. So two hundred pounds would be minuscule on a car that weighed sixty-five hundred.

 

[I ask if Tim remembers anything about hanging around in the shop, watching his dad work. He doesn’t recall anything that sticks out. “Just the same thing every day.” I ask about when Art test fired the J-79.]

 

I remember my aunt passing out.

 

Lou Wolfe?

 

Yes. She thought it was a monster coming after her. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a 79 when the doors start...the exhaust pipe goes in and out before it goes into burner. And it gets to a certain point, at about 95 percent, where it makes a distinctive sound that sounds like Godzilla or something from out of this world. It’s the neatest sound in the world. If you ever get on You Tube and get a 104, if you keep listening, I’ve heard it on there a couple times, but it gets to a certain rpm, it makes a howling sound. And if you watch any of dad’s old movies you’ll hear it. The first couple of records he set, he never used the afterburner, so the exhaust was doing what it was supposed to do.

 

[I ask about Tim's memories of being a kid at school, with a drag racer for a father, and then the world’s fastest man as a dad. I suggest that he must have been the coolest kid in school.]

 

It wasn’t like that, honestly. Everyone just kind of...He [Art] was accepted around here. Everybody thought it was cool and everything, but no, there was nowhere where you were treated...my brother [Ron], maybe, when he was in high school. But I was in grade school; a lot of kids didn’t understand it.

 

[I mention the story told by Tim's older brother Ron  in Harvey Shapiro’s book, about the shock of hearing about Art’s accident in 1966.] Do you remember that? What was it like for you?

 

Yeah, they called me to the office.

 

Did they say your dad was dead?

 

Oh no.

 

They knew it was an accident and he was alive?

 

Yep. And if my brother said anything different...WAKR came on and I think one of my cousins heard that he got killed. All the rest of us, Firestone let us know.

 

[I ask about the “four stages” on the afterburner of the J-79, saying Breedlove’s GE expert told me there were no stages on the thing, it just kicked in.]

 

Well, who am I to argue with a GE guy who doesn’t know what he's talking about. The nozzles had four separate rings, and when it went into burner they came in in stages. One ring would fire, then another. It was a smooth transition. It was almost...I’m trying to think...If you can image the fuel pressure pushing on a piston, now there are four ports in that slide, and the more fuel pressure you get, it keeps opening up more ports...There were like steps in the rings. Each nozzle had four lines going to it. Not really rings. They were bars that stick in [out?].

 

The throttle on the Green Monster was a foot pedal, right, not a hand lever?

 

That’s correct. And there was no button for the afterburner. Once you pushed you foot down so far, it would automatically go into afterburner mode.

 

[I mention Breedlove describing in his book about slamming the pedal to the floor to start a run, just like a dragster. Was that how Art did it?]

 

No, he always had a theory. He wanted to come in the mile slow and come out high so that he was at the highest speed for the shortest amount of time. He ran it like [on] a drag strip.

 

Because it was dangerous?

 

Well, yeah! [Laughs]

 

[I ask after Walt Arfons. Is he still alive?]

 

Yes. He’s 93.

Does he still live in Florida?

 

Actually, he’s moved back to Akron. His son [Terry] is taking care of him. He’s not doing too good. They got tired of having to fly to Florida every time he was really sick.

 

[I ask about the tattoo on Walt’s forearm.]

 

I don’t know what it is. Dad’s was just the standard navy anchor. [It was on Art’s forearm, same as Walt's.]

 

[I mention that everyone I’ve talked to so far were in what seems to have been in Art’s outer circle; that his inner circle, especially Ed Snyder, Charlie Mayenschein and Bud Groff have all passed away.] Do you know anyone else in the inner circle who might still be alive?

 

No, because he kept the circle pretty tight. Not as tight as most people think. Not a day goes by when you don’t run into somebody in Akron whose dad helped build the Green Monster. I think there’s twenty thousand people here.

 

[I ask about Art’s different approach to land speed racing, taking fewer runs that Breedlove, and taking only a two-mile speed build-up rather than five miles.]

 

Well, Breedlove didn’t have near the horsepower on the first car.

 

So the short speed build-up distance was a matter of horsepower.

 

And also he [Art] didn’t like to spend too much time at speed. He ran it just like a drag race.

 

So it had to do with minimizing risk.

 

Yes. That’s why...because he was always reaching his peak speed coming out of the mile.

 

[I ask about Tim's other uncle, Dale Arfons.]

 

I know he worked for the division of water craft. I don’t know if he was with Walt, but I know he went with my dad every time.

 

He’s passed away now, I guess.

 

Yeah, he committed suicide when I was twenty-something.

 

[I mention a reference from 1956 about Dale having been injured when a stick of dynamite that he was holding exploded.]

 

I wasn’t going to go into that, but yeah, he was showing off. That’s when he was with the fish and the watercraft.

 

Was that a serious injury?

 

Oh yeah. It burned him bad and he didn’t have many fingers on that hand, so I’d call it pretty serious.

 

About your dad’s crash in the Baloney Slicer, I’ve read that the only permanent damage he suffered was his finger.

His index finger was crooked.

 

He couldn’t straighten it out?

 

No. Actually, when I was a little kid he’d offer me ten bucks if I could straighten it out and I’d sit in his lap and do all I could to straighten it, but it wasn’t going to move. [Laughs]

 

[I say that Art and Breedlove had a professional rivalry, but on a personal level they were quite friendly.] Is that your take too?

 

“Amicable” would be the word I would use.

 

Did your dad ever talk about Craig in later years? Did he ever express any feelings about him?

 

My dad harbored ill feelings toward no one.

 

I didn’t mean ill feelings really...

 

He treated everyone the same. He had no more or less [feelings] for Breedlove. I know he liked Andy Green and the other Brit a lot better, though. [Laughs]

 

Did your dad have a certain scorn for degreed engineers?

 

No. I mean, if it hadn’t been for degreed engineers he wouldn’t have had tires.

 

What did your dad think of Firestone tires? I know after the LSR business he went to Goodyear tires.

 

He only went to Goodyear tires one time.

 

Did he have confidence in Firestone tires?

 

Oh God yes. The only thing...Firestone was giving him any money, Goodyear offered him money, because that was when he was getting ready to break three hundred. What people don’t know is, that was when the accident occurred. They sent him tires that hadn’t been tested. And that’s when that car crashed in Dallas, was on Goodyear tires.

 

Are you referring to the time that the guy got killed riding along with your dad?

 

Yes. That was the first time on Goodyear tires. The only time.

 

[I mention the comment I got from someone in the Breedlove camp that Craig’s Goodyear tires were much better than Art’s Firestone tires; that Art’s Firestones were in fact “crap.”]

 

Well, Breedlove never lost a tire and Dad did, so I can’t argue that point. But I know Firestone treated our family real well for ever. He never had anything bad to say about them. See, their tires were a lot bigger. That makes it a lot easier.

 

My understanding is that Firestone did not front your dad any money to build the car; that they only paid him if he broke the record, a sum of $50,000. Is that right?

 

Yep.

Was it if he broke the record and kept it over the winter, or just if he broke the record?

 

If he broke the record. So they paid him twice the one year. [Laughs] And as he held the record, they took care of him on stuff also, as he was traveling the country with Firestone and everything. I mean, even in the tractor pulling they maintained a relationship.

 

[I ask Tim about the comment from others that “nobody makes money from the land speed record.”]

 

I don’t believe that. I mean, it gives you endorsements, it opens up a lot of opportunities in addition to what you get from your sponsors.

 

[I ask about the Art Arfons museum he is planning on opening up.]


Eventually. I’ve got a couple of the cars...actually I’ve got a letter here from NASCAR, they have one of the cars. I do a lot of work with them so I have an in on that. I may have [Green Monster] Number 6, Number 11, the last land speed car...

 

Eleven was Baloney Slicer, right?

 

No no no. Eleven was his last Allison car. That was the one that set all the top speeds at the events in the late Fifties, before they outlawed Allison engines. No, there was nothing left of the Baloney Slicer.

 

Was Baloney Slicer Number 10 then?

 

I would guess it was either nine or ten.

 

I ask after the Green Monster that crashed in 1966. What is left of it today?

 

The wheel bearing that failed, and the tail fin.

 

Is the tail just sitting in the back of your shop?

 

Yep. It’s sitting in the back of the shop.

 

Is it still scratched up and stuff?

 

Oh yeah, still got salt on it.

 

And about the wheel bearing, if it pretty sure that that’s what happened, the wheel bearing seized up and the wheel sheered off?

 

Yes.


speed duel land speed record




copyright 2011 Samuel Hawley