There isn’t a drag racing announcer in the world that hasn’t made some sort of lame quip about a front engine turbine powered dragster. It is an easy joke to make while the jets are preparing to run, which normally takes a few minutes. Funny thing is, such a machine did exist for a few years in the early 1970s and it is being recreated by the original driver to terrorize tracks once again!
The car you see in the lead photo is Green Monster 19 and it was built (as you’d suspect by that name) by Art Arfons and his son Tim of Akron, Ohio. The Arfons family is certainly royalty when it comes to the history of American speed and innovation and Tim is a proud standard bearer of that legacy. Over the years I had seen a few black and white photos and a blurry video that seemed to depict a slingshot dragster with a turbine engine mounted where a blown Hemi or other piston plant would have lived. It would get my interest up and then I’d kind of forget about it. Well, when I was tipped off to the photo that we ran earlier today of the Arfons brothers in front of their family mill and hardware store, I delved back into the mystery full bore. When I discovered that the Arfons family was involved in this thing, I reached out to Tim and got some cool history on the car as well as the discovery that he was having the machine recreated to run at nostalgia drag races and events. It is an even cooler piece than I could have imagined.
According to Tim, the car was built in late 1970/early 1971 and the impetus for its construction was the fact that Art was never that fond of having to run as an exhibition racer with his jet powered cars at the strip. He was given the green light, after discussions with the AHRA and IHRA to run this dragster in Top Fuel. Art really wanted to get back into side by side racing and he wanted to to it in typical Arfons fashion, which was outside the box!
The foundation of the original car was Jim Walther’s last front engine Top Fuel car. Walthers, one of the hardest charging racers of the early 1970s was the 1972 NHRA world champ. Instead of a typical piston engine, the guys installed a General Electric T-58 turbine engine which would have normally been found in any number of large helicopters. Since this was a “turboshaft” engine, the car would not be thrust driven, instead the turbine spun a driveshaft that would power the rear wheels like a piston style car engine would. T-58s were used in the famed Indy “turbine cars” of Andy Granatelli in 1967 and the turbine entries of Carroll Shelby in 1968.
If you are wondering how a turbine engine was supposed to compete with nitro burning, blown piston mills, the math is probably on their side! The most powerful version of the T-58 (which we’re assuming was the one used in this car because the Arfons boys were never known to be dudes who shied away from power) made 1,870hp! Making that even more interesting is the fact that the whole engine only weighed 250lbs. Now you’re starting to see the picture!
We were super curious to know how (a) they took the shaft speed down from what had to be an astronomical number at the turbine and (b) what type of clutch was used to transfer the power. The answers were pretty simple, another hallmark of the Arfons philosophy. Tim told us that a simple 2:1 reduction gearbox was used behind the engine and the T-58 is what’s known as a “free power turbine”, negating the need for any type of clutch because it essentially acts like a torque converter with air rather than fluid. Arfons was able to brake torque the motor against it at the starting line and launch the car like one would in an automatic transmission equipped drag machine. Brilliant and awesome if you ask us!
Back in the day the car would run well over 200mph and the guys did bring it to run at several big drag meets. Tim said that the closest they came to qualifying for an open Top Fuel show was first alternate at the SuperNationals back in 1972 time frame. The dragster ran as an exhibition machine as well during that time and was a crowd favorite because…well how could it not be! One of the more unique aspects of the car, according to Tim was that from the stands it was virtually silent going down the track. You could actually hear the tires biting and chewing at the asphalt. The reason, according to Arfons is that turbines produce a lot of high frequency noise which is deafening when in close proximity to the engines but not all that bad when at a distance.
As Tim served in the capacity of driver he knew first hand how good or bad this creation was to pilot. Apparently it was good until about 1,000ft when the front end would get light and the car would almost want to drive itself. As cool as the swoopy fenders looked on the original car, they were not doing a whole lot to help keep it glued to the track. Also, with a normal slingshot of the era, the (typically) iron Hemi and heavy blower on top of it aided in keeping the cars on the race track. Their turbine, tipping the scales at only 250lbs was not much help in that department.
Contrary to popular mythology, the car was not destroyed in a crash. Instead, the guys just decided to move on from it as Art was about to enter his tractor pulling stage. The engine was removed and plunked directly into a pulling tractor for Tim and the chassis was sold to a local guy who chopped it up. That was that….until now.
Tim hired Keith “Rooman” Burgin to recreate the chassis and body used on the original car. The one major alteration is that Tim decided against the swoopy original fenders and went with some canards on the side of the car to help keep it on the track because he is going to be racing this car again! Arfons will be running it at nostalgia meets and races and expects the car to be in the 6.90 second range at 220mph! As you can see in the photos below, it is coming along nicely! We plan on keeping up with Tim’s progress as the car reaches the final stages of completion and we cannot wait to see this bad ass ride, brought back from the depths of history, smoke the tires in anger again!
So the next time some jerky track announcer makes quips about building a front engine turbine car, go fling some mud in his eye…and tell ‘em BangShift sent you!