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Firestone has fought long losing battles with Arfons over the ancient bus in which he hauls his superduper jet cars around the country. "What kind of a traveling advertisement is that, with Firestone written all over it?" says Wheeler, laughing in spite of himself. "He bought this bus as scrap and put in a GMC engine and ripped all the seats out and put bunks in so they can sleep alongside the car when they're on the road. I looked at the tires this year and they were just about worn through, and I says, 'Art, I'll have some new tires over in the morning.' Hell, if he asked me for a gross of tires I'd have them there. And he says, I don't need 'cm. We've got plenty of tread left.' It's just ridiculous. All we need is a nice big blowout on the way to Bonneville with ' Firestone' in all the newspaper pictures.
"I don't know what we're gonna do about that bus. And he insists on driving it himself, 60, 70, 80 miles an hour, downhill. I said to him last year, 'Art, at the auto show in New York, if you show up in that old bus the teamsters'll run you right off!' So finally we bought him a brand-new truck, and we told him, 'Don't argue about it. We've already bought it and here are the keys.' So now he begrudgingly uses the new truck and the old bus together. This year when he showed up at Bonneville I said, 'Art, did you have any trouble getting here?' He said, 'Not with the bus, but the new truck broke down!' I swear he was happy about it!"
If Arthur Arfons is the eccentric genius, the brilliant Mr. Fixit, his brother Walter is the nice guy next door, the entrepreneur and coordinator, the man who is not necessarily the best at anything but who can put three or four modest talents together and make them add up to more than the sum of their parts. Walter Arfons is a short, chunky man of 48 with curly, graying hair, plastic-rimmed glasses and a voice only a few decibels louder than his brother's. He is a gracious, companionable host who pours drinks, offers cigarettes and goes out of his way to make people around him feel at home. If there are 10 men in a room and the ginger ale runs out, Walter Arfons will be the one who goes to get it. His most obvious characteristic is his carefulness, not only about himself but about his money, his family, his stable of drivers, his cars. He carries an oversized wallet in his pocket attached to his belt by a heavy chain. He almost never gambles, but when he does he is careful to make sure he is getting a fair shake. One night at a borderline joint in Nevada, during this year's Bonneville season, he slipped a quarter into a slot machine while on his way to dinner and, to his surprise, hit three plums for 14 quarters. Playing on the house's money, he kept going for nearly an hour. When he got a payoff, he would stop and count the coins before going on, and once he complained to the change girl after a machine paid him only 10 quarters when it should have coughed up 14. An engineer with a Mediterranean cast to his features appeared out of nowhere, took the front off the machine, probed around and said, "You got 14."
"It only paid off 10," Walter said, smiling pleasantly, "but I don't want to start an argument about it."
"You got 14," said the engineer.
"Perfectly all right," Walter said, still smiling. The machine had jazzed Walter out of $1, but when one had to choose between friendliness and obstinate accuracy, friendliness was clearly more important. Walter extends the same hand of fellowship to all the world's drag racers, especially to the ones who travel about the country showing and racing his own cars, and seems to feel that he stands in a paternal relationship to them and bears some proportion of guilt for any evils that befall them. Perhaps this is not an unnatural attitude for a man who once dragged his own jet cars and now is benefiting financially from the risks taken by others, but Walter Arfons carries his concern to extremes. When one of his jet cars went out of control and disappeared from sight at the Detroit Dragway last year, Walter and a friend jumped into a pickup truck to give chase. "All the way down the strip Walter was beating on the dashboard with his fists," the friend recalls, "and he was crying and shouting, 'Oh, my boy! My boy!' We drove as far as we could, and then we came across the collapsed parachute from the car, and we started running across a field where the car had gone. I finally found the car and driver across a road and into a woods, and the driver was O.K., and then I realized that Walter wasn't with me. We found him lying a couple hundred yards back with a heart attack, the second one he'd had. Later, after they had taken him to the hospital, I took a look at the dashboard of the pickup truck. It was caved in three inches, where Walter'd been pounding on it."
"Walter dies every night when one of his boys is driving," says another friend, Pete Biro. "He makes 'em phone him right after a run, no matter where they are, and if he doesn't get the phone call he's scared half to death."
"The thing is," says Walter, "I want to be driving myself, I think I should be driving myself. But the doctors say nothing doing. There for a while I'd take my drivers out and make the first few runs myself, teaching them and also checking to make sure the car was O.K. But I never sit in my cars now. I haven't sit in the last couple of cars I've made. Because I'm afraid if I sat in one they wouldn't be able to get me out. I sometimes swear I'm gonna drive my new rocket car. But I'd get tense, and when I get tense and all drawn up, that's when I go to pieces. So all I can do is sit around and worry about my boys, worry about everybody that's drivin'. I think the one thing that'd hurt me more than anything else in the world would be to build a car that would hurt another man."
Does this amorphous fear for other drivers include his brother? "Certainly I worry about Arthur. He's been pushed a lot financially. He's got everything he owns invested in that car of his, and he was being pushed so hard he had to do it. I'm the same way this year, but I'm trying not to push so hard, because there's another man's life involved, not mine. With Arthur, he's risking his own life every time he drives that car of his. I worry about him plenty."
Says Ed Snyder, Arthur's partner and chief mechanic and best friend: "Don't let him kid you. Walter doesn't give a damn about Art. He doesn't care if Art lives or dies." Arthur feels that Snyder's evaluation is not entirely inaccurate.