(Editor’s Note: After this remembrance of Walt Arfons ran yesterday we were contacted by our pal Bret Kepner and enlightened on several aspects of Walt’s life and accomplishments that we were previously unaware. As these were important parts and pieces of his illustrious career, we updated the story to include them. Please give it a look-see and you’ll be happy that you did.)
Walt Arfons, one of the forefathers of the jet funny car, a world land speed record holder, pioneer in drag racing both piston and thrust powered vehicles, mechanical genius, and half brother of Art Arfons has passed away at the age of 96 years in Ohio. Arfons was born in 1916 and through the joining of two families gained a younger (by 10 years) brother who shared his interest, passion, and talent with mechanical things. As the two grew up working at the family grain and feed mill, they became ever more curious about machines, tractors, and anything else that made noise and operated under its own power. In the early 1950s the guys were working together on all kinds of interesting stuff like home built airplanes. It was the chance encounter with a local group of hot rodders that were using the air strip for drag races on a day they went to fly their plane that changed both of their lives forever. Both of them saw and fell in love with the idea of drag racing instantly.
As the popular story goes, the first machine that Art and Walt built in 1952/53 was a bizarre looking three wheeled “dragster” powered by a Oldsmobile engine and slathered in left over green (John Deere we’re guessing) tractor paint. It was called the Green Monster and so one of the most iconic strings of race cars this country has ever known was launched. It would be happy and fairy tale like to say that the brothers then raced together for the rest of their lives in harmony. This isn’t a fairy tale, this is real life and there are some things in real life that just don’t go like the script says that they should.
After a string of successful Allison powered Green Monster dragsters, tension began to arise between Walt and Art in the later 1950s. There was no public spat, no screaming match, no threats made, and no real public reason as to why the two brilliant men from Akron decide to move in separate directions, but they did. From that point on the men were not only working apart and not on speaking terms, they were actually engaged in a sort of speed obsessed cold war. Both Art and Walt moved on from drag racing and became fixated on setting land speed records. Their intense personal struggles against one another led to some of the most incredible racing moments of the early 1960s.
It was Art who was into the books first in 1960 with a piston powered record of over 300mph, but Walt had been planning and biding his time for the right situation to arise. Such a situation did in 1962 when he met Tom Green. Green was an engineer at a torque wrench company (reportedly Green still runs said company which manufacturers torque wrenches for the likes of Snap-On) who had a healthy obsession with aerodynamics and some amateur stock car racing experience. The two men met each other at a trade fair and hit it off. Walt found the piece of the puzzle he was missing and both guys set forth with vigor on the design and construction of what would come to be known as the Goodyear Wingfoot Express. Back to that whole “cold war” analogy, you have to remember that Art was backed by Firestone.
Interestingly, Bret Kepner told us, ” Walt was the creator of the first jet-powered anything on wheels, (Walt’s rig was constructed and running several weeks before the Flying Caduceus of Nathan Ostich.) Walt built (single-handed) the first jet dragster which, in fact, was the only jet-powered drag racing machine for over six months. If you discount any of the passes during the 1960 season by Karamesines or Kent Chatignier, Walt and driver Nook Bakewell clocked the first 200 mph passes in drag racing history. If not, the duo is certified as the third team to do so.” Being the first means pushing boundaries and actually discovering issues and problems that no one has yet encountered. That process nearly led Arfons to an early grave.
As a testament to the level of intensity that Walt lived with, during the testing of the Express he witnessed it crash on a drag strip and suffered a heart attack from the stress of what he was watching. He released himself from the hospital to fix the car, which he did…messing up one hand badly in the process, so he could not drive. Enter Green again who became the team’s default driver having last raced a dirt track stock car in Arizona a decade before. In 1963, the Goodyear Wingfoot Express hit 335mph, short of an LSR record and when they left the salt Craig Breedlove was coming in behind them. Breedlove set the record at 406 that year, but 1963 was the prelude to the most insane year in LSR history and Walt was front and center, ready for action.
Walt’s return in 1964 was frustrating in the sense that the car would not perform to the level that he wanted. The math suggested that the machine should be capable of 480mph, but for most of a week the car just wouldn’t do what they wanted. Help came (according to an account by Tom Green) from an unlikely source, estranged brother Art. Green claims that Art told Walt to open the exhaust “clamshells” from 17-inches to 19-inches and adjust the idle fuel 1/16th of a turn. On the second run the men nearly went faster than anyone in history had, a blazing 406mph. We say nearly because Kepner informed us that they were a few tenths of a miler per hour slower than Mickey Thompson’s famed 406mph blast in his piston powered car. With no time and little daylight left, they decided for a hail Mary move. Instead of running the whole length of the course, they would cheat up the starting distance and run the thing full tilt through the traps because they had no time to refuel. The long shot worked and the Express went through the timers at an astounding 420mph. Making Tom Green the fastest man in the world and Walt Arfons the fastest wrench. It was a fleeting success however because Art came to the salt next and three days after Walt’s triumph, Art took the record for himself and then went into pitched back and forth battles with Craig Breedlove to keep it. Walt’s second and final LSR machine was the Wingfoot Express 2 which used 25 JATO rockets and achieved a claimed peak speed of 605mph but never set an LSR record as that car could not maintain the speed over a long enough measured distance during its attempts in 1965.
Kepner shed some more light on this situation for us as well. As it turns out the 605 number is not historically accurate, “the claimed 605 mph top speed of the JATO-equipped Wingfoot Express in 1965 is an exaggeration of a number reported by driver Bobby Tatroe, who, after the car’s fastest run of 476 mph, told Walt the onboard airspeed indicator registered “somewhere around 580 mph”. In direct opposition to the claim in your article, the 476 pass was under power all the way through the mile so Walt had no reason to believe the airpseed indicator…or Tatroe. Walt declined to make a return run for one simple reason. The car would need to clock 597 mph to break the 536.71 mph average set by brother Art. Walt knew the car was too heavy and too slow to ever achieve that speed and he didn’t want to kill driver Tatroe in an attempt which was guaranteed to fail.”
In 1966, Art suffered a horrendous crash which ended his LSR career, may have convinced Walt that enough was enough, and led to a semi-cooling of tensions between the two. That being said, the family was never fully “reunited” and while public animosity is non-existent between the halves of the clan, full family get togethers are not part of the program.
Just because he was away from the Bonneville scene doesn’t mean that Walt was twiddling his thumbs. Quite the opposite! In 1967 Chrysler gave Arfons a Dart, a Barracuda, and a Charger to convert to thrust power, which he did…and managed to have virtually all the accessory systems intact! These steel bodied cars looked completely stock from the front with flat hoods and all but were packing massive turbines providing thrust power. Run at strips all over the country and used as promotional vehicles, they were a big hit and were legitimately the first jet funny cars. (Kepner educated us on the fact that there is some debate on the subject of “first” as there usually is in drag racing. Romeo Palamides was working on what could be called a jet funny car as well and may have finished his inches before Arfons). As usual, things escalated from there. He went on to build tube chassis race machines like the Mercury below and a Camaro, among other cars. Walt was involved in turbines and using them to haul tail for many years, but like everyone, time catches up and eventually he retired, fading from the scene and living a quiet life in Ohio. One has to remember that Walt was almost 50 during those heady days in ’64 when he built and owned the world’s fastest car.
Bret Kepner’s take on the Walt Arfons legacy is one we can certainly get behind as well, “Rather than as a Land Speed Record Holder for three short days, Walt should be remembered as a man who brought an entirely new concept of acceleration to drag racing which, in turn, created a niche industry of the most spectacular vehicles in the sport. If nothing else, Walt’s obituary should contain a mention of the fact he died less than a month shy of his seventy-sixth wedding anniversary, a monumental achievement for any man.”
There has been a script and casting decisions made on a Hollywood movie about the brothers and their time battling the salt and each other. We’re pretty interested in seeing that film, especially if it has some authenticity like World’s Fastest Indian. These were complicated men who did extraordinary things. They didn’t see the world in the same way, or at least not closely enough to work as partners. We don’t weep for that. Their brilliance was better spread independently and our history, technology, and motorsports world is richer for it. Here’s a telling quote from a 1964 Sports Illustrated story about Walt and Art Arfons it closes the story about Walt’s triumph:
Walt Arfons was not there to see Art’s triumph. “Have to be getting along,” he had said as he packed up the day before. What he had not said was that brothers Walter and Arthur Arfons of Akron, who stopped speaking to each other during the years of racing failure and frustration, have no plans to speak to each other during the years of prizes and profits.
(Special thanks to Bret Kepner for filling in some historical gaps we left open in the piece and providing his always great historical perspective to better round out this story)