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.


In April 2011, some months after "Speed Duel" was published, I was contacted by Bill Woodall, manager of Advanced Tire Engineering at Firestone back in the 1960s when Art Arfons was going after the land speed record. Bill  kindly wrote up his memories of those times when he and his Firestone team were developing high speed tires for Art. He also included his own eyewitness account of Art's horrific 600-mph crash in November 1966, and his thoughts on the cause. Thanks, Bill, for sharing these valuable memories!

(Check out Bill's website, He has built a real Sopwith triplane!)

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Attempt for the Land Speed Record


I was manager of Advanced Tire Engineering, a small group within the Development Department of The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. This happened to coincide with the time when Art Arfons was challenging the most recent achievements of Craig Breedlove. Craig and Goodyear had beaten Art’s and Firestone’s previous record.

Normally, our racing division was involved in this sort of activity. But this time there was too much on their plate and so the project was given to my department. Few people worked on tires that were expected to operate at speeds exceeding 600 miles per hour. That included me.

A few examples of Art’s previous tires existed, and our outdoor test facility at Columbiana, Ohio had two test machines capable of the speeds and loads that would be required. We soon established that this higher speed regime was going to require a new tire. Calculations had to take into account the centrifugal “growth” that the tires would experience. This included the bundles of steel wires that anchored the fabric body and kept the tires on their rims. Art observed many of our tests and formed an idea about what modifications he needed to make to the Green Monster to provide clearances. He quickly carried them out.

It seemed that the right rear position was the one that had caused trouble in the past, and we had to design for its demands. We therefore told Art that we needed some actual runs with load transducers installed to determine what the tire was going to experience. Art wasn’t at all happy about this delay. He also assured me that he could be just as dead at 400 mph as at 600 mph. We discovered that at engine shutdown—with the car at its maximum speed—the downward force on the right rear tire was suddenly twice what it had been just prior to that.

Back at the test site, when we programmed these conditions into the operation, there was no way we could be assured of any margin of safety. With the time constraints that Art was facing (late Fall rains in Utah fast approaching that would close out the racing season) our only option was to put another tire outboard of the existing one, and also on the left side for symmetry. With this setup, we consistently made it to 650 mph on the test machine. The wheel bearing setup was identical to that used by Art on the Monster: tapered Timkin roller bearings. There was a pre-load ritual that was accurately observed with each set up.

We always tested to tire failure. One item that I observed—but now realize that I completely misunderstood—was the likelihood of red-hot bearings pouring from the hub as the wheel spun down after a failure. I attributed this to the eccentric forces that the failing tire, or the residual parts still hooked to the rim, had introduced.

(Flash forward to a few years ago when a friend of mine was tasked with being a consultant for a British group hoping to set a new land speed record for diesel vehicles. Having worked in the aircraft tire arena as well as in racing, he proposed an existing military size. His test site would be in Dayton, Ohio on a machine owned by the US Air Force. He supplied the necessary tire and aircraft wheel equipped with roller bearings. They declined to test this setup. The wheel had to be converted to ball bearings for speeds in the 400 mph arena. This was done. The tire qualified for the mission, and the run at Bonneville was a success. I further learned from a retiree from a different workplace, that pre-loading roller bearings puts undue force on the lower ends of the rollers, and causes them to stop rolling and to skid.)

Back to Bonneville and Art. We realized that the parasitic drag from the extended rears (i.e. the double tires in the rear) would be a problem. I now believe, however, that the bearings heated as the car got into the mile and produced an increasing retarding force on the vehicle, and a destructive torque load on the tires. On Art’s final run, having drifted off course, the corrective steering loads increased the heat, and the weld-up resulted.

Another Firestone man and I were driving (so as to be observers from the end of the measured mile) when Art passed us by on his run. We kept our 100 mph-plus dash after him. Then we saw the rooster tail of salt, and the chase plane do a 180. We got into the debris trail, and a blurred image of a blood red cylinder on the track made me yell that we had lost a driver. (It was the parachute assembly that Art had attempted to fire, (but it just fell out). The chute that did deploy did so on its own.

When we arrived at the smoking wreckage, Art was slumped in the cockpit and blood was trickling onto his left cheek. I and others used pieces of two-by-four to pry tubing away from him. He hadn’t made a sound. We were still trying to get him out when Ed Snyder came up. He was hysterical. At that moment, Art looked up and said: “Aw, shut up Ed, I ain’t hurt.”

We got Art aboard the ambulance plane for a run to Salt Lake City. Jim Cook looked quite pale. I don’t know what I looked like. Jim asked me what I thought he should do. I suggested that he ride with Art, and he did.

We Firestone people spent a long time retrieving tire wreckage from the area. Finally, word came from a Utah State trooper that Art had made it to an ambulance for his trip to the hospital. He was quoted as telling the driver to “Drive carefully—I have had all of the excitement that I want for one day.” I was frankly amazed and very relieved. I just thought that his remarks to Ed were going to be his last.

That night, three of us visited Art in the hospital. His eyes were bandaged, but he was in good spirits. Walt Arfons may have been there earlier, but he came in while we were there. Not much was said. Art began planning ahead. He said: “Bill, I have this other J-79...”

A nurse came in and asked us to get Art’s driving suit out of the hospital. It was in a plastic bag and was soaked with kerosene. We took it a laundromat. After two runs we thought that it might pass when we flew home the next day.

The theory about the wheel bearing selection came after Art’s death. I did discuss it with his son Tim. I felt that if people came to Tim (as they had to his father) for advice, he might have them consider this line of thought.


Bill Woodall


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A bit more interesting information from Bill’s e-mail to me:

“Art was very interested in a project that I completed. It is a scratch-built Sopwith triplane. It has a rotary engine, and he came to help us install it, also to witness it run. He was miffed that I didn’t let him know of my test flight. I have a website about it,”

speed duel land speed record

copyright 2011 Samuel Hawley