SI Vault
 
MY BROTHER, MY ENEMY, IN SPEEDLAND
Jack Olsen
November 29, 1965
In the merciless jet-age jockeying for the world land-speed record on the Bonneville Salt, two of the leaders, the estranged Arfons brothers, have lit the afterburners in a bitter human conflict. This is the first of two articles exploring their precarious domain
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 29, 1965

My Brother, My Enemy, In Speedland

In the merciless jet-age jockeying for the world land-speed record on the Bonneville Salt, two of the leaders, the estranged Arfons brothers, have lit the afterburners in a bitter human conflict. This is the first of two articles exploring their precarious domain

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

Starting with those quaint fin-de-si�cle speeds, which are now topped by little old ladies from Pasadena, the world land-speed record edged upward, often over the dead bodies of the French timing authorities. At first almost any new record that was not established on the soil of France was disqualified on the ground that it was not timed properly, i.e., not timed by Frenchmen in France. (As recently as two years ago, when Craig Breedlove went 407.45 mph at Bonneville in his three-wheeled Spirit of America , the F�d�ration Internationale de l'Automobile refused to recognize the record on the theory that a vehicle with three wheels was not a car; Breedlove's three-ton vehicle was officially classified as a motorcycle.) One of the earliest holders of the land-speed record was the American millionaire W. K. Vanderbilt Jr., who went 76.08 in a gasoline-powered car, the first such vehicle to hold the record. Then Charles Rolls (the Rolls of Rolls-Royce) managed 84.73 mph on a private track in Clipstone, England, but the French authorities refused sanction for the usual reasons.

Even Henry Ford took dead aim on the record, and for much the same reason as Jenatzy. Ford had only recently quit his job with the Detroit Edison Co. to go into the automobile business when he decided that the quickest route to solvency was to bring the LSR to the Ford Motor Company. In a harrowing ride in 1904 across a stretch of clear ice on Lake St. Clair, bumping over cracks and whipsawing all over the course, Ford personally pushed his four-cylinder Arrow to a record of 91.37 mph. Naturally, the mark was not recognized by the FIA, but that did not keep Ford from writing out orders for the Model B until his hands ached. As Paul Clifton noted in The Fastest Men on Earth:

Henry Ford's breaking of the flying mile record made the reputation of the Ford Motor Company. The strong liquid cash position that resulted (a gross income of $1,162,836 by the end of the first year) enabled Ford to keep the bankers (and their nephews) out of his company, and so permitted him to translate his own dream of a cheap mass-produced car, to provide transportation for the ordinary man, into reality. The record set up by The Arrow on ice thus directly paved the way for the Tin Lizzie, and so helped to put the world on wheels.

Until comparatively recently at Bonneville, assaults on the land-speed record were hardly more exciting than spins on the Boston Post Road. Although the speeds were high, the runs were made on straight, flat stretches where there was nothing to hit if the driver "lost it," where frightful errors in steering and control were forgiven by the sheer expanse of salt flat. But with the LSR nudging toward sonic speed, the 10-mile-long course at Bonneville has seemed to shrink, and accidents are happening. Nowadays there is an eerie tension before a speed run on the flats. Says Harold (Humpy) Wheeler of Firestone's racing division: " Bonneville has become worse than Darlington or Daytona or any of the major places where the death factor is present. Nothing approaches this place for tension during a week when somebody's going for the land-speed record. It's much more tense than the Indianapolis 500. You can lose control at Indianapolis at 180 miles an hour and hit the wall and walk away 90% of the time, or you can crack a stock car at Daytona at 200 miles an hour and walk out. But if a guy gets into a problem at Bonneville at anything over 350 the sheer speed figures to kill him no matter how he's protected."

In 1960 Athol Graham, a garage mechanic from Salt Lake City, concocted an LSR car in his spare time and powered it with a 3,000-hp V-12 Allison aircraft engine. Running on the salt flats, he flipped and skidded out of control for a mile, and died an hour after being admitted to Latter-Day Saints Hospital in Salt Lake City. Two years later a Californian, Glenn Leasher, arrived with his jet-powered Infinity, the car exploded at the end of a run and Leasher was killed. The Utah State Police collected the bits of Infinity and put them in a neat pile alongside the main highway at Bonneville as a warning to others chasing the LSR. The scraps stayed there for two years, or long enough to annoy Arthur Arfons. "Glenn Leasher was a hot-rod buddy of mine," Arthur explained, "the kind of guy you run into maybe once a year but you get to like. Seeing that junk lying out there bothered me, it sure as hell did."

Donald Campbell, with $4 million and five dozen British corporations behind him, managed to get into a nearly fatal crash at Bonneville. His car spun out at 300 mph, rolled on one side, then sailed 235 yards in the air. Campbell got away with cuts and bruises. Even luckier was Craig Breedlove, who lost all control when his Spirit of America became airborne at 500 mph on a record run last year. Breedlove's main parachute ripped off, his safety chute shredded and his brakes melted completely away the first time he touched them. He coasted down the course totally helpless, snapping off a telephone pole and finally going up and over a dike and into an 18-foot-deep canal. When Bill Neely of the sponsoring Goodyear team pulled up in the chase car, a drenched Breedlove was already walking over the dike, announcing: "And now for my next act I'm gonna set myself on fire!"

The near-sonic speeds and the frightful expense of mounting an LSR assault have cut the number of aspirants to almost nothing. As Humpy Wheeler says: "You take the most difficult, the most dangerous things in the world: mountain climbing, bullfighting, deep-sea skin diving, and you only find a few masters at them, maybe just three or four in each field. But in the land-speed record business there are only three or four that are even trying it." For those three or four the rewards, and the tensions, are correspondingly high, and it is little wonder that the competitors are not friendly. A few years ago the British LSR challenger Donald Campbell had a chat with Arthur Arfons on the salt flats. "I was wearing Steve Petrasek's jacket, with his name sewed on it," Arthur recalls, "and Campbell said, 'Nice meeting you, Steve,' and I thought, 'Why, you son of a bitch, if there's only three or four men in the world running for the record, and you don't even know my name....' If I meet him again I'll say, ' Campbell? Campbell? I've heard of you someplace. Wasn't your dad in this business?' " Arthur says he likes the youthful Breedlove, but "the little so-and-so lied to me. He told me he wasn't gonna have a car this year. He was gonna take it easy for a year, and here he had his new car half ready!" Arthur considers this a doublecross, when in fact it is simply standard operating procedure to the highly competitive land-speed record line. "I guess I'm just a sorehead," says Arthur, laughing at himself. But when he discusses brother Walter he does not laugh at all.

Arthur Arfons talks like Mr. Peepers, and at first meeting it taxes one's credulity to equate his pipsqueak voice with the fire-breathing Art Arfons of the drag strips and the salt flats. At 39, Arthur has two modes of speech. He speaks garage-mechanic English around his friends. The more negative he wants to sound, the more negatives he packs into his sentences. "Now don't no one walk behind here no more!" he shouted as he started to fire up the Green Monster for a practice spin a few weeks ago. But in public appearances, such as press conferences after his various record-smashing performances, he speaks simple, clear and grammatical English. "That's my false front," he says modestly. He is a handsomely swarthy man of medium build, just under 6 feet tall, with deep-brown eyes, wavy black hair and a coppery skin that bespeaks his American Indian and Greek ancestry. He walks with toes angled outward, like a hayseed character in an old movie, and he has that special capacity to evoke sympathy and compassion so often seen in the youngest child of a family. He does not seem to be interested in anything that is not an engine or a car, and his attention tends to wander when any other subject is brought up. His social life is limited, and his interest in what is happening in the nonspeed world is negligible. Last year he was introduced to Rex Harrison at the International Automobile Show in New York, and the pair chatted amiably for 20 minutes about British speeders like Sir Malcolm Campbell and John Cobb. "Gee, he really knows a lot about cars," Arthur commented to a friend later. "Does he work here?" Arthur's interest in books is likewise minimal, and may be gauged by the fact that not long ago he started reading one called Art Arfons, Fastest Man on Wheels, but he did not finish it. All his intelligence and aptitudes seem to have been dedicated to the design, creation and manipulation of vehicles that go from nowhere to nowhere faster than anyone has gone from nowhere to nowhere before.

"He is the most ingenious person I've ever run into," says Firestone's Wheeler. "Our physicists and engineers talk to him and go away shaking their heads. He knows things intuitively that they had to go to school for 10 years to learn. Years ago the scientists came up with a slide-rule theory that a car with four wheels couldn't possibly go over 168 mph in the quarter mile from a standing start. It was mechanically impossible. Arthur disagreed, and two years later he was turning 175, 180. Now he's gone over 250 in the quarter."

Improvisation has become such a way of life with Arthur that he tends to shun anything that he has not worked up with his own hands. "He began as a junk operator," says a close friend, "and he'll never get out of that stage. He'll never do anything in the way of a real scientific approach. Firestone has given him tons of money to build things with scientifically, and he always winds up making them the same old way, out of improvised junk. His idea of heaven on earth is to go to Seattle, where they build airplanes and where they have a lot of junkyards full of airplane scraps. Going through those places, he's like a little kid at Woolworth's."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6