Land Speed Record Holder Breaks The Final Barrier: Walt Arfons
Walt Arfons, former land-speed record holder, died this week at at 96. Walt, and is half brother Art Arfons, were self-taught engineering geniuses. They were pioneers in building jet-powered dragsters and land speed record cars.
Land-speed record breaker Walt Arfons dead at 96 - News - Ohio
The Arfons brothers worked out of the back of a family-owned feed store in Akron, Ohio. In their prime, the Arfons brothers were lighting up state-of-the-art J79 jet engines (thinks F-104 Starfighter, etc.) in their back yard. (If you think that you have noisy neighbors, think again...). This was in the early 1960's, and the J79 was still top secret. The Air Force paid them a visit to find out how they got the engine (answer: the Air Force sold it to them...). General Electric (who built the engine) refused to give them manuals, so they figured out empirically how it worked, including the afterburners. (The Air Force, to their eternal credit, eventually gave them some unofficial help, as did GE).
Walt and Art fell out over Art's competitive streak. Art went on to build the Green Monster series of Firestone-sponsored jet cars that he used to battle Craig Breedlove (and Gene Leasher, John Cobb, and Mickey Thompson) for the LSR. Walt, sponsored by Goodyear, built two cars known as the Wingfoot Express. The last, shaped like a rocket tipped over on its end, used JATO rockets. While the car did not capture the LSR (the rockets didn't burn long enough) it was one of the loudest and fastest accellerating cars ever.
If the whole 1960's Land Speed Record battle interests you, and if you have an interest in cars it should, there is a GREAT BOOK out there: "Speed Duel" by Samuel Hawley. Page turner....
Samuel Hawley - books
But perhaps the most telling statistic about the kind of guy that Walt Arfons was is that he is survived by his wife of 76 years....
Thanks for that. I was more aware of Art (who died several years ago, I think), but I remember following the LSR battles of the 60's, and the Green Monster. Breedlove always was kind of the glamorous guy, and Arfons the wild and wooly self-taught engineer, at least that was my perception. It was Breedlove that the Beach Boys sang about, of course.
I don't remember the JATO car, but that must have been some serious kind of loud.
You would seriously like "Speed Duel" - the story of how the LSR field winnowed its way down from six or so serious contenders to two guys duking it out is really cool. Reading the book will make you an Art Arfons fan. The guy had brains and guts, and it really was quite a home-grown effort. He also comes across as a good and decent guy.
Breedlove comes off positively as well - ditto on the brains and guts, albeit more of a corporate animal. Reading about the final run that took the record above 600 mph is riveting stuff. Due to some rather dangerous design faults, the car (Sonic I) was on the absolute ragged edge of what it was capable of when he turned that speed...and they knew it. Breedlove thought that it would go supersonic when they were first designing the car. It wouldn't. It barely did the 600 mph (which is still impressive).
The book's treatment of some of the lesser known efforts is fascinating. Glen Leasher's "Infinity" was poised to take the record when the driver got impatient and had a massive accident. Mickey Thompson held the unofficial record for a bit with his 4 engined "Challenger." Nathan Ostich's revolutionary jet-powered Flying Caduceus was the first jet powered car on the salt. Athol Graham, an auto mechanic from Salt Lake, mortgaged everything to build an Allison-engined streamliner. Donald Campbell brought a whole entourage with him from England to run Bluebird....And then there was Walt Arfons with the two Wingfoots....
Can you tell that I liked the book?
Boys and their toys--I remember reading newspaper accounts, but that was a while ago. Sounds like a great book.
"When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking."
(Sir) Arthur Conan Doyle. Scientific American, January 18, 1896
Thank you. I will get that book. And I have always been an Art Arfons fan ;-)
Originally Posted by Gregory Taylor
It was amazing to be a teenage car-nut in the '60s.
I followed the LSR attempts but road racing was (still is) my favorite.
Carroll Shelby's Cobras and winning with the Ford GTs at LeMans.
Jim Hall's winged and vacuumed Chaparrals in Trans-Am.
Jim Clark; his Lotus Ford V-8 win at Indy and his tragic death.
It was an exciting time to be a racing fan.
"When you know absolutely nothing, anyone who knows 1% more than nothing sounds like an expert."
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