The fastest man on wheels
Art Afrons and his Green Monster in 1964
One of Akron’s favorite sons in the 1960s, Art Arfons became known around the world as “the fastest man on wheels.” He set the unlimited land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah three times in 1964 and 1965 with speeds of 434.02 mph, 536.71 mph and ultimately 576.553 miles per hour.
A child of the Great Depression, Arfons was a scrapper. When he was 13, he raced in the All-American Soap Box Derby. At 17, he joined the Navy where he served as a diesel mechanic during World War II.
Frequently described as a “junkyard genius,” Arfons built his first dragster using parts he and brother Walt salvaged from automobile scrap yards.
Because his earliest cars were painted in surplus GI green, a drag strip announcer nicknamed one of them “the green monster.” It wasn’t much to look at, but it was crazy fast. After that, Arfons called every contraption he built the Green Monster, regardless of its color.
Just a year after building his first car, Arfons won the Word Series of Drag Racing in Lawrenceville, Ill. But he wanted to go even faster, so he graduated to jet engines and set his sights on the Bonneville. To Arfons, Bonneville became “like a woman you keep quarrelling with but can’t stay away from.”
Each time Arfons made and tweaked his creations, he discovered something new. He pioneered the use of WWII aircraft power plants in race cars in the ‘50s, and contributed to the development of overhead roll cages and parachutes—two safety devices that since became mandatory for dragsters.
When Firestone sent a team of its top engineers to build special tires for one of his Green Monsters, they asked Arfons for a blueprint. “I didn’t have any. I just handed them a hub,” he said. They built his tires anyway. Treadless and inflated with nitrogen, the tires were made to withstand speeds up to 600 mph. Arfons managed to push them past their limit, and survived the crash to tell about it.
In 1967, Arfons picked up a surplus J97 static thrust engine that had been used on the Lockheed F104 Starfighter. When he wrote to General Electric for a copy of the repair manual, he heard back from a high-ranking military official who wanted to confiscate the engine because components used in the Starfighter were still classified as “top secret.” Arfons managed to keep it.
Art Arfons died in December 2007. A pair of wrenches, a jar of Bonneville salt and the repair manual from the J97 engine (now declassified) were buried with him.