Walt Arfons


Date Location Driver Driver Country Vehicle Power Speed over
1 Km
Speed over
1 Mile
October 5, 1964 Bonneville Salt Flats, USA Tom Green USA Wingfoot Express
J-46 Jet Engine
415.093 mph (668.027 km/h) 413.199 mph (664.979 km/h)  
October 7, 1964 Bonneville Salt Flats, USA Art Arfons USA The Green Monster
J-79 Jet Engine
434.356 mph (665.231 km/h) 434.022 mph (664.694 km/h) October 1964 FIA (Federation Internationale de L'Automobile) took over for the AIACR finally made two classes one for cars with at least two driven wheels and the other for cars powered by jet engines
Oct 22, 1964 Bonneville Salt Flats, USA Bobby Tatroe   Wingfoot Express II
25 Jato Rockets
    Walt Arfons vehicle Wingfoot Express II reached speeds in excess of 580 mph but the rockets ran out of thrust before the driver could finish thru the measured mile or kilo
October 27, 1964 Bonneville Salt Flats, USA Art Arfons USA The Green Monster JT
544.134 mph (875.699 km/h) 536.710 mph (863.791 km/h)  
November 7, 1965 Bonneville Salt Flats, USA Art Arfons USA The Green Monster Turbojet 572.546 mph (921.423 km/h) 576.553 mph (927.872 km/h)  

Walt Arfons (born 10 December 1916) is the half brother of Art Arfons, his former partner in drag racing, and his competitor in jet-powered land speed record racing. Along with Art, he was a pioneer in the use of aircraft jet engines for these types of competition.

Walt's mother, Bessie, was half Cherokee, and died in 1984 at age 84. Walt had one brother, Dale, two years younger, as well as his ten years younger half-brother Art and an eight and a half years younger half-sister Lou, both from his mother's marriage to Tom Arfons. Arfons' family operated a feed mill in rural Ohio, where the Arfons brothers exercised their mechanical skills and ingenuity.

Walt began building dragsters with Art in 1952; their first car was a three-wheeler with an Oldsmobile six-cylinder engine, and a particularly ugly green tractor paint finish. The announcer at the drag strip laughingly announced the car as the Green Monster, and the name was to stick to his joint projects with Art. Along with many other racers, the duo switched to using surplus aircraft piston engines, particularly the Allison V-1710 engines, due to their abundance, cheapness, and great reliability. They were the first drag racers to reach 150 miles per hour in the quarter mile. In the late 1950s, however, the brothers amicably split up.

On August 6, 1960, Walt introduced the first jet-engined dragster. He also introduced the use of a parachute to stop the car, since unlike the piston engines, the jet engine did not provide braking when shut off. Arfons is also credited with being the first to torch a junked car with the exhaust from his jet dragster, in order to provide entertainment for the crowd at Indianapolis Raceway Park one year when the race had been rained out.

In the midst of the Detroit automakers' performance competition in 1967, Chrysler Corporation gave Arfons a Dodge Dart, Plymouth Barracuda, and Dodge Charger to convert into dragsters. He simply fastened jet engines into the stock cars, with most of the accessories still installed and working. These were such crowd pleasers that he later built fiberglass-bodied jet funny cars, a Chevrolet Camaro and a Mercury Comet.

Arfons also partnered with Tom Green to build the jet-powered Wingfoot Express, which held the World Land Speed Record for three days during the battle between Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove.

In 1965, Walt Arfons built Wingfoot Express2, which reached 605 mph, but it did not qualify for an official record. It used 25 units of JATO rocket.

Walt Arfons
Walt Arfons building Caduceus
Walt Arfons
Walt Arfons Green Monster against Fred Sibleys US-1
Walt Arfons
Walt Arfons Jet Car driven by Paula Murphy at Bonneville Salt Flats

Art and Walt Arfons

Competition drove the two brothers apart as they strove for the land-speed record

Feature Article from Hemmings Muscle Machines

July, 2011 - Daniel Strohl

The pride and the hard- headedness of competition can drive men to dizzying heights and astounding achievements. But it can also turn them against their closest friends and family.

Walt and Art Arfons were, at one point, closer than just family. Though technically half-brothers and far apart in age--Walt was born in 1920, while Art came along six years later--both served in the Navy during World War II and both became handy with a wrench while working in Art's father's feed mill in Akron, Ohio. In their off hours, the brothers aimed their mechanical talents toward pursuits including a homebuilt airplane and fixing motorcycles. It wasn't until 1952, when they went to take the airplane for a spin and found the airport's access road blocked off by an organized drag race, that the two decided to build a race car.

Their first attempt was crude and, like many of their subsequent cars, built from junkyard-sourced parts. But thanks to the John Deere green paint they slathered over it, the car gave the brothers a name to work with throughout their racing careers: the Green Monster. After a couple years, Walt and Art found out that they could easily obtain used aircraft engines--usually 1,710-cu.in. Allison V-12s--for cheap, mount them in a mid-engine configuration behind the driver, and set top speeds as high as 170 MPH. However, the weight of the Allison-powered dragsters prevented them from getting off the line fast enough, so they usually proved uncompetitive in eliminations, leading them to take their Green Monsters on the road as one of the earliest exhibition acts.

Then came the split. In his book Speed Duel: The Inside Story of the Land Speed Record in the Sixties, Samuel Hawley wrote that nobody, not even the brothers themselves, could point to any one argument or incident that led to the falling out between the two. Hawley couldn't even point to a specific time, just that it happened sometime in the late 1950s after the two built Green Monster 11. However, he wrote that the split likely resulted from Art's intense competitiveness and inability to concede a win, even to his brother.

From that point on, both Walt and Art continued building Green Monsters in Akron in parallel. They lived two doors down from each other and worked in two adjoining halves of a shop, but avoided speaking. As if that weren't enough, in 1959 the NHRA ruled aircraft engines ineligible for competition. Ostensibly, the decision was made for safety, but as Robert C. Post wrote in High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing, many people believed the decision was made so Wally Parks and the NHRA could cozy on up to the Detroit automakers, who had nothing to benefit from aircraft-engined cars entering the record books.

The time was ripe, then, for a change. Walt Arfons began experimenting with jet-powered Green Monsters in 1960 when he used a Westinghouse J-46 engine and afterburner to record elapsed times in the seven-second range. Pretty soon, half a dozen jet-powered dragsters were making exhibition runs across the country, but Art Arfons went a different direction, building the Allison-powered Green Monster 15 for a run at the world land-speed record, something the brothers had talked about a few years prior. He topped 300 MPH with it in 1961 before realizing that he, too, needed to switch to jet power.

Backed by Goodyear, Walt built a jet car for land-speed racing as well, and both he and his brother (backed by Goodyear rival Firestone) took their jet-powered land-speed racers to Bonneville in 1962 after a season of testing them out as exhibition drag cars. Over the next few years, the brothers would one-up each other--Art with a J-79-engined car, Walt with a rocket-powered car--all while jostling with Craig Breedlove for the record. Walt, using driver Tom Green, set the record in October 1964 at 413 MPH, then Art topped it three days later at 434 MPH before resetting it again later that month at 536 MPH.

Despite a number of tire blowouts, and despite Walt bowing out from land-speed racing, Art continued chasing the land-speed record in 1965 and 1966, until a 610 MPH crash sent Art to the hospital and led the press to prematurely declare his death. Though that crash effectively ended his land-speed racing career, it did ultimately lead to a sort of reconciliation between him and Walt.

"When it mattered, they really did care about each other," Hawley wrote. "They would never again be buddies, not like in the old days with their motorcycles and home-built airplanes. But much of the animosity between them would remain behind in that hospital room, left in the past."

Walt eventually retired altogether, while Art went into professional tractor pulling and made a brief attempt in the late 1980s and early 1990s to return to land-speed racing. Art died in December 2007, while Walt today lives in Akron.

This article originally appeared in the July, 2011 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines.

Breaking: Walt Arfons Dies At Age 96 – Innovator, Inventor of Jet Funny Car, LSR Record Holder

Posted by Brian Lohnes, BangShift

Walt Arfons, the creator 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.

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 went faster than anyone in history had, a blazing 406mph. 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 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. 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. 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.

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.