Hungry for Horsepower

While most people his age are golfing or dying, Akron racing legend Art Arfons is still searching for the ultimate burst of speed.

Cruising down Massillon Road on Akron's south side is like a trip into the Twilight Zone, where everything is normal and then — bam — everything changes. The strip of one-lane divided highway meanders for miles, but one stretch of just a few hundred yards leaves a lingering psychic impact.

The piece of road near tiny Springfield Township features a handful of gas stations, some of which still fix cars and have not yet been bastardized into the commercial gas station/supermarket/McWendy's that is all the retail rage. A gutted gray car with a "For Sale" sign sits on blocks, its engine torn from the chassis. There's a tattoo parlor, a VFW hall offering $3 spaghetti dinners, and an ice cream store, complete with a white-picket fence and a host of small American flags.

It isn't exactly 1950s Americana. But this slice of back road is about as close as one can get to the Eisenhower era two generations after the fact. If it weren't for the monstrous television antennas reaching for the sky, one would half expect James Dean to walk out from one of the squat ranch houses that dot the area. Or at least the guy with the muscle car that Harrison Ford played in American Graffiti.

A few miles on, the road winds past a two-building compound that rises unmistakably out of the leafy expanse. Lest anyone need reminding, there's a white, green, and black sign announcing that what looks like the headquarters of a light manufacturing company is actually the "Home of the Green Monster" and its builder, driver, and financier, Art Arfons.

If you grew up in the 1950s and '60s, and had even a passing interest in hot rods or drag racing, the name Art Arfons needs no explanation. The lifelong Akron resident built and raced all sorts of speed machines that set world records and made Arfons an international celebrity. He briefly held the world record for drag racing, traveling 144 miles per hour in 1952, less than a year after he took up the sport. In a fabled thirteen-month span during 1964 and 1965, Arfons and Craig Breedlove traded the land speed world record six times.

Arfons blistered the desolate salt flats of Utah in his Green Monster (the name Arfons eventually gave to all 27 cars and five tractors he built), a shiny green speedster that looked more like a rocket than a car. The Green Monster's jet engine pushed the machine to speeds as high as 576 mph, making it the fastest vehicle ever to move on earth. Sports Illustrated called Arfons the Roger Maris of land speed racing.

Now Arfons is being rediscovered again. Thanks in part to a new PBS documentary (appropriately titled "The Green Monster"), he's attracting admirers beyond the insulated world of drag races and tractor pulls. The one-hour film focuses on Arfons's ill-fated 1990 attempt to regain the land speed record. But recent visits with this modern American maverick paint a broader, more intriguing picture.

Arfons is the last of a dying breed. It's become nearly impossible for even the most dedicated weekend warrior to do what Arfons has done with mind-numbing regularity for much of the past half-century: go into his garage and come out with a hand-built speed machine that changes the racing world.

Through it all, Arfons has remained a picture of unflappable calm — tempered with doses of '50s cool. Instead of the reckless daredevil one would expect of a guy who still dreams of driving through the sound barrier, Arfons comes across as a charming anachronism, garnering hardly a second glance as he eats lunch with June, his wife of 53 years, every day at a local buffet. Now 73 and hobbled only slightly by a bum knee that will be replaced this month, he remains the same old Art, tinkering away in his garage.

"Somebody once introduced him as a guy who, if you left him on a deserted island and came back ten days later, the island would be moved," says Al Clark, a Firestone engineer who helped design the tires Arfons used when he broke the land speed record. "He's just very creative. I'd say he's a genius."

And an underappreciated one, believes son Tim Arfons.

"I don't think he ever got the credit he was due," Tim says, from the shop where he and his father still build all sorts of fast contraptions and work on engines that they sell. "He would have been Evel Knievel, only he was better than Evel Knievel. He did everything Evel did — only Evel didn't build his own cars."

At first glance, the one-acre plot where father and son work daily could pass for a well-maintained junkyard. Weeds poke through the gravel courtyard, and a prominent "Beware of Dog" sign alerts visitors to the two canines that guard the twin low-slung, warehouse-sized garages. To the uninitiated, it looks like the place where engines go to die.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It's more like the motorhead equivalent of Lazarus's Tomb, where engines come back to life. Or a kinder, gentler version of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, where an offbeat genius labors to create mad art.

The are more than 250 engines in rows and stacks, ranging from tiny lawn mower engines to huge turbines that power F-14 Tomcat fighter jets. There are helicopter engines, which Tim sells to speedboat racers, and a vintage 1927 engine that Art plans to restore after his surgery. There's the Green Monster that Arfons used in his unsuccessful 1990 attempt to recapture the land speed record. There's a monster truck, with helicopter engines and tires taller than most men, which Arfons still drives in national tractor-pulling championships. There's a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that Tim is customizing with a turbine engine, and there's even a barstool — "Will Race for Beer" is embossed on the back — fitted with wheels and an engine that can travel more than 40 mph.

Arfons — dressed in gray pants, a yellow T-shirt, red suspenders, and a belt with a big buckle spelling out "Art" — shows off the 1965 V-8 red Sunbeam Tiger he was given in exchange for an endorsement. "James Bond had one just like it," he boasts. With reading glasses hanging from his neck and veins wending up his arms like snakes, Arfons points out the hybrid bus/mobile home he built when he began competing in tractor pulls, by welding together the front end of a school bus and the rear of a semi-truck. The vehicle hauls the tractor and provides living quarters when Arfons is on the road, and it has seen a lot of service — 360,000 miles worth.

"There ain't nothing I can't do," Arfons says proudly as he uses his cane to position a wheeled backboard that he uses to get underneath his vehicles. He slowly lowers himself onto the board and goes to work on the wheel wells of the bus-truck, which have rusted out.

"I can do anything anyone else can do," Arfons says matter-of-factly from under the bus. "If it's not my profession, it'll just take me a little longer."

The Last Cowboy

Arfons insists he never meant to get into racing as a career. Sure, he's always been enthralled by speed and even followed the top race car drivers of his day, guys like Parry Thomas and Malcolm Campbell, when the sport was in its infancy. But for Arfons, life was supposed to follow a predictable, preordained path — finishing at Springfield High School, then going to work in his family's mill, which produced horse and chicken feed.

Arfons threw a monkey wrench into the plan, though, when he quit school during his junior year to join the Navy. "I thought I'd miss being in all the fun," he says, a discolored "anchors aweigh" tattoo still visible on his right forearm.

The "fun" was World War II, where Arfons repaired landing crafts used in amphibious invasions and later, airplanes. The stint took him to exotic locales such as Okinawa and China, but soon he was back in Akron, working in the family mill. He used the GI Bill to learn to fly airplanes and eventually bought a BT-13 training plane for $500.

Arfons flew his plane every Sunday until a fateful afternoon in 1951. He was on his way to take his weekly spin when he found the airport entrance blocked. Agitated, Arfons went on foot to see what the problem was.

The airport was shut down because the runways were being used by drag racers. The muscle cars' shiny, powerful engines, the bursts of speed, and the smell of burning tires immediately appealed to Arfons. "I'd seen the light," he says with a smile.

The next week Arfons was back at the airport, racing a green six-cylinder Oldsmobile he had souped up for drag racing. The car, he says now, was a mess. Its top speed was 84 mph — fast driving for most people, but nothing special in the macho world of drag racing. After Arfons finished his race, the announcer said, "Get that green monster off the track." The name stuck.

Embarrassed, Arfons went home and spent the winter building a better car. He took pieces of 21-foot tubing and, using sheets of aluminum and fiberglass, constructed a body around a powerful Dusty Allison engine. He also "got a quick education about gear ratios," he says, learning how to get maximum power from his engine.

When the 1952 race season rolled around, he was ready. Before the year was out, Arfons set the national drag racing speed record, hitting 144 mph. That run got him some publicity in a few magazines, and racing promoters began offering Arfons money to compete. Later that year he won a race for pay in Lawrenceville, Illinois, and his fate was sealed.

"I quit working in the mill and played with race cars instead," he says. "It's all I've ever done."

He went through much of the 1950s and early '60s drag racing. In many ways, it was the sport's golden era, when fans filled the race tracks and the average Joe could still tinker with his car in the backyard — a rarity in this age of sophisticated electronics. Mechanics today, notes Willoughby car enthusiast Bill Kennelly, "are more like electricians or computer guys."

Arfons traveled the country on the drag racing circuit and, with the help of his brother Walt, built his various Green Monsters from cannibalized parts of other cars. He became the first man to travel more than 200 mph on a quarter-mile track. But after a while, as he had his entire life, Arfons yearned for something a little faster, something with more speed.

One day someone suggested strapping a jet engine on a car. It sounded like a good idea to Arfons, and he was soon back in his garage in Akron, preparing for the world of land speed racing.

Summer of Speed

Arfons got his hands on an F-86 jet fighter engine from a military surplus store and in 1963 went to work designing a car around it. Like his previous race cars, this one had no blueprint or master plan. Arfons cobbled it together with parts from a Lincoln Continental, a Packard, and a Dodge truck. The only help he got was from the tire designers at Firestone, who were engaged in a fierce competition with Goodyear, which sponsored Arfons's rival, Craig Breedlove.

"I really didn't design it," admits Arfons. "I just started building it. It's all hands-on learning."

It's that kind of spirit that endeared Arfons to race fans throughout the world.

"I was a fan of his to begin with, because I thought Art was his own man, using a lot of old-fashioned ingenuity," says Mary West, secretary and treasurer of the Utah Salt Flat Racing Association, one of the groups that govern land speed racing. "I think Art is a unique person in this day and age, putting things together by himself, without a lot of technology. Art Arfons is the pioneer."

West first saw Arfons race in the mid-1960s, when he brought his 6,000-pound jet-powered car to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Speed racing is not a race per se, but a run against the clock in which drivers are timed as they zip down a one-mile straightaway.

The salt flats are as unique a place as exists in the United States: a flat, white, otherworldly fifteen-mile stretch. Mountains rise up in the background, towering over the parched lake bed. Because the area is so flat, it is one of the few places in the world where land speed racers can compete. Hitting anything more than a tiny bump when traveling more than 600 mph would cause the cars to go airborne.

Arfons talks with awe and respect when asked what it's like to drive that fast, powered by a roaring jet engine and an afterburner.

"Well, you're laying back," Arfons says while standing next to his most recent Green Monster jet car. The car's cockpit is so small that even the 5´7" Arfons barely fits, and the speedometer tracks only in 100-mile increments. "When you start, the vibrations are so bad it's tough to see out the window. But after you pass 400, you just smooth out, and it's pleasant then. It's like you went to heaven."

As he did in drag racing — which he continued to compete in until 1972 — Arfons quickly rose to the top of the international heap. On October 5, 1964, just one year after he began racing his jet car, Arfons set the world land speed record, traveling 434 mph. His record-setting performance began the "summer of speed," a slightly misnamed duel with rival Craig Breedlove that is still legendary in racing circles. Breedlove, driving his "Spirit of America," broke Arfons's record just eight days after it was set. Two days later Breedlove broke his own record, driving 526 mph.

Arfons regained the title of "fastest man on Earth" on October 27, tearing through the Bonneville Salt Flats at 536 mph. Clark, who worked in Firestone's tire development division, remembers it as "tremendously exciting."

"We see this little blur go by, and of course it was Art," Clark says. "And the timer comes running up and yells, "Art, you just broke the land speed record.' He had about $10,000 wrapped up in that car, while Breedlove's cost millions. He could always do just about anything and do it on a shoestring budget."

The record stood for a year, until November 2, 1965, when Breedlove pushed the record to 555 mph. Arfons responded five days later by driving 576 mph. But a week later Breedlove drove 600 mph, breaking a mythical barrier and setting a record that would stand for nearly five years.

The rush of driving that fast is intense but brief. "You go from zero to whatever in about twenty seconds. Then you start worrying, are my chutes going to open?" Arfons says with a laugh. "But of course, [the memory] lasts forever."

Those were the days Arfons's star burned brightest. Endorsements poured in, his name was splashed across the newspapers, and he even appeared as a celebrity guest on television game shows. He remains nonchalant about it, though, as if he still doesn't know what all the to-do was about.

"Anyone can drive them. It's strictly a matter of horsepower," Arfons says. "It's just a frame with an engine in it. It's nothing spectacular."

Of course, most people would be intimidated by the idea of hurtling through the desert in what amounts to a human missile. Not Arfons. "I'm not afraid," he says, tinkering in his garage with a gold wedding band shining from his grease-covered hand. "Every time I had a bad accident, I got right back in and drove. I get consumed by the horsepower. It just takes precedence over everything else."

Bill Burke has watched nearly everyone who has raced at Bonneville over the past 50 years, and as former president of the Southern California Timing Association — a race-sponsoring body — considers Arfons a legend in the pantheon of land speed racers.

"He was pretty advanced with the type of car he had built for his assault on the record," Burke says. "Everybody was intrigued by his runs."

Burke says it takes a special breed of person to compete in land speed racing, and no one exemplifies that more than Arfons. "It's your own creativity, your own ideas, your own enthusiasm that builds those cars. And of course, there's a tremendous amount of risk — both physically and mentally — to attempt speeds of that sort. Arfons had all of that. It was all his own ingenuity and his own ideas."

Arfons has a wry charm and a direct, plainspoken manner, like a character out of a Johnny Cash — or even Woody Guthrie — song. And like those songwriters' protagonists, his life has been tempered with pain. He's crashed eight times over more than thirty years, and was lucky to escape each time with just scrapes and bruises. But it was the psychic, rather than physical, pain that finally drove Arfons from land speed racing after a crash in 1971.

He agreed to let a reporter ride along with him in his jet dragster. But Arfons lost control of the car — which became airborne, then crash-landed and exploded into flames. The reporter burned to death as Arfons clawed his way through the dirt to escape. The car also struck and killed two spectators. Arfons slipped into a deep depression.

He has come to terms with the crash now, but it still obviously affects Arfons to talk about the accident. He doesn't say much, but his expression — deep pain in his wide brown eyes — speaks volumes.

"That sort of took all the fun out of it," Arfons says, staring off silently for a few moments. Then, just as quick, he snaps himself to attention. "I got old too quick."

Chases and Crashes

The fiery crash knocked Arfons out of land speed racing, but his mechanical skills and need for speed were too great to keep him sidelined completely. By 1973 Arfons was involved in professional tractor pulling, in which drivers compete to see who can pull a 7,000-pound weight transfer machine the farthest.

Of course, Arfons couldn't just pull the weight. He equipped his 7,200-pound tractor — which, with green, pink, and yellow paint and a shiny silver exhaust system, only vaguely resembles a farm tractor — with two helicopter turbine engines that generated 6,000 horsepower and lit up arenas with fifteen-foot-high blasts of blue flame. Once again, Arfons quickly dominated the competition, winning the United State Hot Rod Association's world finals.

Arfons still competes in tractor pulls and is one of the sport's top draws. "He's a crowd pleaser and a performer," says Bill Albrecht, who served as president of the Ohio State Tractor Pullers Association for twelve years. "His name is well-known in motor sports from here to there."

Tractor pullers are awarded points over the course of the season, and Arfons was leading the field last year at age 72. But he finished the season ranked eighth, dropping from the top spot after skipping a meet he didn't feel like attending.

"He just wants to beat somebody," says Dusty Arfons, his 33-year-old daughter, who is an established tractor puller in her own right. "Dad's never been one to chase points. He was more interested in making money to provide for his family."

That's something Arfons has always been able to do. Between the races and tractor pulls and engine refurbishing, the family leads a comfortable life, eating out and traveling regularly. Arfons says he prefers taking one-tank trips and visiting Air Force museums, but allows that traveling from England to France via the Chunnel was "neat."

There has been talk of a Hollywood movie about his life, but Arfons laughs off the idea. "They don't move fast enough," he says with a smile, of movie executives who brought up the project.

But documentary filmmaker David Finn did capture Arfons's 1990 attempt to surpass Richard Noble's mark of 633 mph; the result airs nationally on PBS this month. That run came on the heels of a near-disaster. During testing in July 1989, Arfons lost control of his twenty-seventh Green Monster while racing at Bonneville Salt Flats. The vehicle was traveling at more than 400 mph when it became airborne, going forty feet into the air before rolling over and crashing.

Arfons walked away with some bruises. But the crash came just two weeks after his nephew Craig was killed in a horrific accident while trying to set a world water speed record in Florida. Craig Arfons's hydroplane also went airborne before crashing.

So it's not surprising that Arfons's wife was worried sick when her 65-year-old husband decided to press on, making another run at Noble's record nearly a decade after surviving triple-bypass surgery. Despite riding a staggering 17,000 horsepower, Arfons was unsuccessful — a malfunctioning afterburner held his top speed to 338 mph. But the race had an impact on the family.

"This last time, she shouldn't have been put through that again," Tim Arfons says of his mother. His sister Dusty adds: "My job was to stay with Mom. She cried and cried every day."

June Arfons has been to the Utah salt flats just once, to watch Breedlove race during the "summer of speed," and remembers it as a cold, lonely place. Art always insisted she remain in Akron while he raced. "He always said, "If I splatter myself out there, I don't want my family to see it,'" she says.

Though constantly worried about his safety, June Arfons says the 1990 run was the worst. "It's always scary, not knowing," she says. "But it bothers you more as he gets older, because you wonder if he can handle it. He still thinks he can. But I don't think so now."

Despite the heartache it causes for June, it's clear that racing is in the family's blood. Dusty says she desperately wanted to be in Utah as Arfons tried for the record, and Tim also enjoyed the run. "We had bad luck, that's all. A couple more [attempts] and we would've done it. But we would have held [the land speed record] for about six months," he says, noting the current record is more than 130 mph faster than Noble's mark. "Dad has nothing to prove to anyone."

Maybe not anyone but himself. Arfons still goes to the family garage every day, punching in at 8:30 and leaving at 5, stopping only for lunch with his wife. He jokes that he goes to the garage to keep from driving her nuts, but its clear there's no place where Arfons is more at home. He smiles constantly as he moves through the greasy but organized building, winking to visitors and playing with his engines.

He uses his cane to point out a shiny silver and black helicopter engine on a stand. "That's a pretty one," Arfons says, cocking one eyebrow mischievously. "That's better looking than a woman."

It's a delightful but fading picture, as Arfons and his ilk slowly go the way of eight-tracks and Apple computers. Sure, there will always be handy people who can fix things in their backyards. But only an occasional mechanical marvel can slip into his garage and build his own hot rod, let alone a car wrapped around a fighter jet engine.

"He is the last of a dying breed," says his daughter, who was named after the Dusty Allison engine. "I don't know anybody who does their own stuff anymore. The new cars are built by a ton of engineers."

A case in point is the new land speed record set in 1997 by Andy Green. His car was built by Breedlove and traveled 763 mph, breaking the sound barrier. But the car cost millions to build, was tested in the British Royal Air Force's wind tunnels, and required a crew of more than 100 people.

When Arfons tried for the land speed record in 1990, he used a crew of four people. Including himself.

"You've got to have millions to be out there now. You need a crew for the engine, a crew for the body mechanics. The last guy, who went 763, that car was all computer-built," Arfons says. But there isn't a hint of bitterness in his voice. "It must have paid off, because he's the fastest in the world."

That's how it is with Arfons. As long as it's faster, it's better. He won't stand talk romanticizing the 1950s and 1960s, when blood-and-guts guys worked on their cars and drove them in the races. When someone suggests the golden years of drag racing have passed, Arfons stubbornly disagrees. That can't be true, he says, because the cars are going faster now.

And as long as things are moving quicker, they're better.

Addicted to Speed

Arfons is mildly amused when someone asks where his quest for speed comes from. It's a question he's been hearing for more than forty years, and to Arfons, it's like asking why he has two eyes or why he breathes oxygen instead of hydrogen.

"Everyone who drives a car is interested in power," he says. "Everybody's got it, just some people don't act on it. I just must have more interest in it."

He tries to explain by telling a story about a time he was in a drag race in Xenia, Ohio. At the end of the short track was a large sand box, designed to slow down the cars, and behind the sand box was a steep ravine. Arfons planned on doing a short run, but the track announcer kept firing up the crowd by wondering aloud if Art Arfons could break the track record. "Well, that announcer psyched me up, because the track record was 190 mph, and I went 207," he says. Arfons also came dangerously close to hurtling into the ravine.

"I was walking back from my car, and some guy hollered to me, "You're not brave. You're stupid!'" he says. "That's the way some people look at it."

It doesn't bother Arfons that some people equate risk and speed with stupidity, or can't understand his insatiable need to go faster. What does bother him is that, at age 73, his mind is still saying go, but his body is finally starting to say no. Arfons is more resigned than melancholy when talking about the subject, but it's clearly on his mind.

"I got a card the other day from [an old friend], and she wrote, "Getting old really isn't that much fun, is it, Art?' And I thought that kind of hit it on the spot," he says, walking through his wood-paneled office, the walls of which are decorated with scores of framed photos of Arfons and his children competing in various races. Arfons has thrown out hundreds of trophies, instead filling his office with a playpen and children's toys for his four grandchildren.

"I didn't think I'd live this long," he says. "Dad died when he was 52 because of his heart. I've had heart problems. It's just that I've lucked out."

And carved a niche in history. Arfons points out a picture of himself with Green, Noble and Breedlove. "The four fastest men on Earth," he says with a touch of stoic pride.

Off in a corner is a dusty, brown three-speed ladies' bicycle that hasn't been ridden in years. It would look anachronistic anywhere, but particularly in a shop filled with millions of dollars worth of supercharged machinery. Arfons says the doctor suggested he ride it after his knee surgery.

Art Arfons, one of the fastest men on earth, pedaling a bicycle? The irony isn't lost on him.

"If you live long enough, all this shit happens to you," Arfons says, noting that his doctor also wants him to use a walker after the surgery. "That'll be embarrassing, walking into a pull with a damned walker."

Again, he tells a story to illustrate his point.

"When I was 50, I knew a guy who was 65 who was selling his tractor. Said he was getting too old. Then I saw him later, and he said, "I'm sorry I sold my tractor. If I kept it, I'd still be having fun.' So I'm going to keep going as long as I can."

How long will that be?

"As long as I'm above ground."

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