As the shadows grew menacingly long over the Bonneville Salt Flats last Friday afternoon, everyone did his sympathetic best not to notice. In the timers' shack half a dozen white-clad United States Automobile Club officials sat silent and bored, their wooden chairs tipped back.
It had been this way for six days. Wingfoot Express, a home-designed hot rod, had swept back and forth over the flats 14 times, reaching a top speed of 313 mph. That would be fine for the family Chevy, but on the Utah salt, when the world land-speed record is the goal, no one takes a man—or a car—seriously at much less than 400.
Wingfoot Express balked stubbornly until nearly everyone had written it off. Then, two hours before sunset of the last day reserved for it on the salt this year, the jet woke up the timers. Like an underslung missile mounted on wheels, it roared south to north, entered the measured mile and left it seconds later. The speed was an encouraging 406.5 mph. Minutes later it came the other way at 420.07, the fastest mile ever recorded on land. The average speed of 413.2 broke the record of 407.6, established last year by Craig Breedlove.
"I never thought Walt'd do it," whispered a local mechanic. "Maybe his brother. Art, but not Walt."
Well, who did?
Walt is Walter Arfons of Akron, who built the car with the help of Tom Green of Wheaton, Ill., the driver. A 47-year-old onetime feed-mill operator, Walt Arfons and his brother began tinkering with jet cars and drag racers 10 years ago, each of them eventually using a separate part of the old mill as his garage, and each of them going his own hot-rodding way. The know-somethings said Art had a hot car this year, but that poor Walt—no longer able to drive because of a heart attack—did not. Walt's Wingfoot, they said, was a slue-foot.
But Wingfoot, a pure jet powered by a 10,000-horsepower J-46 Westinghouse triple jet engine, went faster on land than any car or motorcycle before it. Having said that, it is best to stop talking, for beyond that statement lies controversy. Breedlove, for example, was denied recognition abroad because his Spirit of America had only three wheels and hence was not an automobile. Donald Campbell and his British backers scorned Breedlove and can be depended upon to scorn Green and Arfons because Wingfoot's engine does not deliver power to the wheels.
Yet these technicalities bother only a few. It takes big money to mount a land-speed record attempt, but big publicity emerges. Thus the tire, gasoline and parts manufacturers who pick up most of the tab are willing to back a pure jet, a turbojet, a motorcycle or a ricksha if it will go more than 400 mph. Goodyear has a heavy investment in Wingfoot Express—as does Firestone in Art's Green Monster—and it was a Goodyear executive who said: "You didn't see the razor-blade folks give Roger Maris the cold shoulder because of the asterisk."
Automobile or not, Wingfoot is a four-wheeled vehicle. It is 24 feet long, 42 inches high, weighs 4,800 pounds and its history is hardly the stuff on which grandiose speed records are built.
Driver Tom Green is an engineer for P.A. Sturdivant Co. in Elmhurst, Ill. He met Arfons in 1962 when both were attending an auto show in Chicago. "We talked about cars for a few minutes," remembers Green, "and we seemed to realize that each of us had what the other lacked. I didn't know one end of a jet engine from the other. Walt said he knew little about my specialty, aerodynamics."