SI Vault
Jack Olsen
December 06, 1965
On Bonneville's lunar landscape Arthur Arfons saw his brother Walter attack the world land-speed record with rockets—and fail. He saw Craig Breedlove jet out ahead. Then Art roared back in his ugly-beautiful 'Green Monster' (below), and thrice he kissed her
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December 06, 1965

Duel On The Salt

On Bonneville's lunar landscape Arthur Arfons saw his brother Walter attack the world land-speed record with rockets—and fail. He saw Craig Breedlove jet out ahead. Then Art roared back in his ugly-beautiful 'Green Monster' (below), and thrice he kissed her

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The mecca of straightaway land speed is 200 square miles of shimmering, crystalline salt as white as fresh snow and as inviting as Transylvania. The Bonneville Salt Flats are the ultimate improbability in western Utah's bizarre tapestry of the unexpected and the outlandish. The army lobs shells and mortars into this violated earth. The Air Force bombs and strafes it. Salt companies hack at the surface. Miners chip away bits and pieces. Driving 120 miles west from the relative normalcy of Salt Lake City to the Bonneville outpost town of Wendover, you get the feeling that the two-lane shoulderless highway is taking you straight to the moon. At first the entire landscape consists of yellow, alkaline earth tufted only lightly by vegetation on which small pods of white-faced Herefords and cow ponies struggle to make a living. Soon the admonitions begin to appear along the right-of-way: DESERT AHEAD, DON'T RUN OUT OF GAS. FILL YOUR WATER BAGS. WATCH FOR SLEEPY DRIVERS. And then, almost without notice, the beige soil with its cover of sagebrush hanging on for dear life has suddenly given way to a blinding-white surface of salt on which there is not even a tumbleweed to tumble along. The only relief from the flat alkalinity of the landscape is an occasional sign, an enticement for the traveler: HAROLD'S CLUB. MORE FUN THAN EVER...SEE THE GOLD COIN COLLECTION.... ONE OF WORLD'S LARGEST POLAR BEARS...LIVE BOBCAT! and, finally, a dozen miles from the Nevada border a large sign that announces: THIS IS THE WORLD'S FASTEST RACING COURSE, BONNEVILLE SALT FLATS. DO NOT ENTER UNLESS POLICED. You do not enter unless policed because you might get lost, and if you get lost on the salt flats you might suffer serious consequences. The intrepid frontiersmen of the Donner Party entered the fiats in 1846 and lost so much equipment and so many of their animals that the rest of their journey was doomed. Their pathetic artifacts and wheel ruts are still visible at the north end of the salt.

The salt bed itself is a geological freak, the result of special conditions that are duplicated in only a few other places in the world. In a word, the salt flats are the bottom of a drainless bathtub. Spring runoff comes spilling down the surrounding mountains, carrying with it the salts it has leached out of the earth. The water spreads over the flats and lies there till the sun has evaporated it, leaving the salts behind. Tens of thousands of years of this process have produced a solid surface of caked salt crystals ranging from less than an inch to five feet thick, so flat that it may vary in altitude as little as two inches in a mile, so hard that it will blunt ordinary shovels and picks and so vast that people have been known to suffer severe attacks of agoraphobia while trying to drive across it. " Bonneville is sort of an eerie place," says Arthur Arfons, one of the two feuding brothers who come annually to the salt flats to tilt at the world's land-speed record. "You feel all alone when you're on the salt. You look down that emptiness and it's just eerie as hell. It makes me uneasy." The eeriness is not lessened by the peculiar optical effects caused by the dazzling whiteness of the salt in bright sunlight. Surrounding mountains seem to float on bands of white glare, and automobiles speeding across the flats are mirrored in the surface so that they appear to be running on top of themselves. Wheels look elliptical, as in poorly drawn cartoons, and sometimes cars seem to take off and sail 30 feet above the salt.

Each fall, when the speed sect assembles at Bonneville, a sort of Hooverville springs up, consisting of impromptu garages, tents for shade, chemical outhouses proudly installed and emblazoned "Tooele County," timing sheds trailered out by the U.S. Auto Club and dozens of parked airplanes and cars. One of Bonneville's more exciting optical effects sometimes is seen by racers circling on the 10-mile closed course marked out in the salt; an image of the entire shanty-town pops up smack in front of the car and, until one becomes accustomed to it, the tendency is to swerve sharply away from the illusion. The famous Bonneville driver, Ab Jenkins, making one of his patented marathon runs on the closed course, saw the Hooverville suddenly coming up ahead of him at 160 miles an hour, and not until someone blinked a spotlight at him did he realize that he was approaching the real thing. He veered off, missed a parked car by inches and went into a 1,500-foot spin. Cars and motorcycles taking cracks at various speed records on the salt's 10-mile straightaway have been known to skid for miles, sometimes sliding right over the horizon and out of sight. Nothing is underplayed at Bonneville.

The pilgrims who come to this never-never land are so dedicated to the craft of speed as to be almost drudgelike. If there were a composite salt-flats habitu�, he would be quiet, soft-spoken, calm, friendly; he would smoke and drink in moderation, and he would spend 16 hours a day tinkering with his car. As Jim Tice, president of the American Hot Rod Association and a veteran Bonneville observer, puts it: "We've got a fine type of people. The only trouble is, nobody knows it yet. Everybody thinks of hot rodders and drag racers as juvenile delinquents, which is exactly what they're not. They haven't got time." Even the expletives of the racers are disconcertingly tepid. When Craig Breedlove lost control of his $200,000 car this year and teetered almost to the edge of the Valley of the Shadow, he climbed out of the cockpit muttering, "Goldarn. Goldarn!" When the Summers brothers' long, low Goldenrod jammed in third gear and burned some vital hardware, washing out months of preparation, Driver Bobby Summers stomped around saying, "Nuts!" The Arfons brothers, Walter and Arthur, have been known to use somewhat stronger language, but one of Arthur's favorite words is "darn," and Walter says, "My golly," when the tension becomes unbearable. The brothers are not likely to use harsher language except when talking about each other.

Within the close-knit club of Bonneville racers there was happiness last year when Walter and Arthur Arfons met in tearful embrace after Walter's Wingfoot Express, sponsored by Goodyear, set a new land-speed record of 413.20 mph. For long years the brothers had feuded, speaking rarely and then only when it was absolutely unavoidable, and their personal antagonism had been a sour note in an otherwise friendly and fraternal sport. But now the feud was ended; Walter happily trucked his record-breaking Wingfoot Express toward Akron, and Arthur readied his own Green Monster for an attack on his brother's record. Nobody took Arthur too seriously. He had been hacking around the salt fiats for several years with his homemade Green Monster, and he had never hit 400.

But three days after Walter's record, Arthur drove his jet-powered car 434.02 on two runs across the measured mile at Bonneville, riding out a blown tire in the process and taking the world land-speed record away from Brother Walter. Arthur was carried off by members of his crew, several of whom were crying unashamedly.

Walter Arfons was driving his truck through the mountains of Wyoming when he heard the news that Arthur had broken his record. He rushed to a phone. "I was just as glad for him as he'd been for us," Walter remembers. "I'd have felt hurt if someone else had set the record besides him and I. So I called him and I congratulated him and my whole crew congratulated him. He was so pleased he called our mother in Florida and told her about the call."

But as Plutarch observed in Moralia: On Brotherly Love:

When brothers have once broken the bonds of nature, they can come together again only with difficulty, and even if they do, their reconciliation bears with it a filthy hidden sore of suspicion.

Says Arthur Arfons:

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