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DUEL WITH DEATH ON THE SALT
Bob Ottum
November 28, 1966
After days of probing the Bonneville Salt Flats, Art Arfons fired up his jet car, the 'Green Monster,' for a maximum assault on the land-speed record. Crashing at more than 600 mph, he somehow got out alive
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November 28, 1966

Duel With Death On The Salt

After days of probing the Bonneville Salt Flats, Art Arfons fired up his jet car, the 'Green Monster,' for a maximum assault on the land-speed record. Crashing at more than 600 mph, he somehow got out alive

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It is late afternoon on Wednesday, and Art Arfons walks out on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The wind is blowing 12 mph—too hard for an assault on the land-speed record. Art puts his hands in his pockets, walks awhile, and counts another day wasted. It has been that kind of week, beginning on Sunday, when Arfons arrives with a convoy of helpers, tire experts and timers.

On Monday night Art is sitting at one of the booths in the Western Caf� ("Open 24 Hours") with a dusty plaid shirt over his fireproof racing coveralls, spooning up thick homemade soup. "First thing I do when I get back off from the salt flats every night," he says, "is to call my wife, June, in Akron. And, every night, first thing she says to me is, 'Don't go fast and come on home.' Boy. I sure didn't go fast enough to scare anybody today."

This is his idea of not fast enough: he has made three runs on the desert outside Wendover, Utah, and on the last one, at 3:55 p.m., hit 561.620 mph through the measured mile. The world land-speed record is 600.601.

"I gotta set the record tomorrow," he says, "because you know why? Well, every night we have two guys from the crew to sleep out there on the flats with the car—to sort of keep her company—and tomorrow night's my turn. It gets pretty damn cold out there."

Craig Breedlove and Spirit of America hold the record now. But Craig and Art have swapped it. Arfons has had it three times before: at 434.02, at 536.71 and at 576.553 mph. Since getting it back last year, Breedlove has indicated he thinks this whole series too dangerous a game. He does not care to come back unless Arfons breaks the record again.

But, 40 years old, a handsome man with curling black hair and Indian cheekbones, Arfons is working at doing just that with a frightening sense of purpose. He has installed dual rear wheels on the Monster and cut away the rear wheel coverings to make room for the thick, fat tires.

In the 7 a.m. light Tuesday morning the flats lie silent in blue-gray air. As daylight comes up, the salt turns dull silver. There is no sun and it is 41�. Arfons paces back and forth, looking right through people, hands jammed into his pockets and shoulders hunched up against the cold. He is wearing stained tan pants pulled on over the coveralls, his plaid shirt over that, and his lucky leather jacket. He will not race without the lucky jacket. It has saved his life in several crack-ups.

Under a canvas canopy held up by poles hammered into the salt, the Green Monster looms up lumpily and looks like a giant jet engine—which, in effect, it is. It is not entirely green. The nose is red, and there are white bands along the sides. The high tailpiece, there more for show than any real stabilizing effect, is green. The rest of the car is a J-79 jet, the kind used in F-104 Starfighter planes; it has 17,500 horsepower and four-stage afterburner. Around the engine is an envelope mostly made of fiber glass, and there is a small birdcage cockpit on each side. Arfons rides in the left one, on a red-and-white-striped reclining seat. The entire cockpit is lined with fleecy white nylon carpeting—the kind you put on bathroom floors. The car is open at both ends; the air goes in there and it comes out here.

The crew ties the Monster to a station wagon with a canvas strap and tugs it out onto the salt flats. Art walks all around it while the Firestone engineers kneel down by the tires, testing air pressures. "Let's go, you guys," he says. Ed Snyder and Bud Groff, his crewmen and best friends, stand near him. Groff is the only man allowed to help zip up the lucky jacket; Groff puts down the green carpet that Arfons stands on while he changes from boots to his driving slippers; Groff always wipes the bottom of Art's shoes so he won't get any salt into the cockpit.

Arfons settles down and hooks up his shoulder straps. He is so tightly wedged in that the top of the cockpit canopy, when it is closed, presses down hard on his crash helmet. He nods at the crew, and they fire up the car.

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