By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
12:19 PM EDT, June 14, 2013
When Walt Arfons first strapped a jet engine onto a hot rod, experts thought the car would melt, explode or spin wildly out of control.
They were wrong.
Working in his family's old feed mill and hardware store on Pickle Road in Akron, Ohio, Arfons in the late 1950s created the world's first jet dragster. In 1963, he built the Wingfoot Express, a sleek jet-powered race car that hit an average speed of 413.2 mph and became the fastest vehicle on Earth – for three days.
That's when Art Arfons, Walt's half-brother and longtime bitter rival, hauled his own jet-powered race car onto Utah's desolate Bonneville Salt Flats and, whipping along at 434.03 mph, snagged the record. The two "quietly reconciled" toward the end of their lives, a family member said, but for many years the land-speed pioneers who started out as partners didn't speak, though they were neighbors on their family's rural spread and built their deafening, ultra-fast vehicles in adjacent workshops.
Walt Arfons died June 4 in an Akron hospital, family members said. At 96, he had heart problems and was in declining health for several years.
Art Arfons died in 2007 at 81. He was buried in his protective racing gear with a wrench in each hand and a jar of Bonneville salt in his casket.
Both men were brilliant do-it-yourselfers, figuring out the intricacies of surplus jet engines without so much as an owner's manual, some of which were still classified.
Mark Stiff, one of Walt's grandsons who hung out at the workshop as a boy, recalled "Poppy" accidentally gashing his hand with a drill bit.
"He wrapped a dirty shop cloth around it, finished what he was doing, and, after lunch, pulled out a needle and thread, and sewed it up," Stiff told The Times.
The schism between Walt and Art was famous in racing circles.
"But at no time did you hear one speaking poorly of the other," said Louise Ann Noeth, a racing driver and writer who knew both men. "The families all lived together on Pickle Road and their kids played with each other. It's just that for many years they didn't want to talk."
Born in Muncie, Ind., on Dec. 10, 1916, Walter Charles Arfons pioneered not only jet-propelled race cars but the parachute systems often used to help stop them, Noeth said.
He also was the first person in motorsports to rig up ultra-high-speed cars with rockets, she said.
After high school, Arfons was a Navy mechanic for four years before returning to Akron and the family business. In the late 1940s, he and Art bought World War II training planes for $175 each and taught themselves to fly, daring each other to buzz fishermen in rowboats and kite-fliers in parks.
"We just loved the challenge," Walt told the St. Petersburg Times in 1989. "If someone said we couldn't do it, we knew we were going to do it. After awhile, it was as though we believed in nothing but the challenge."
The brothers' first racing breakthrough was to replace souped-up car engines with airplane engines. They slapped a coat of tractor paint on their first ungainly entry at a local track and the announcer dubbed it the Green Monster – a name they used for years on a series of increasingly fast cars.
"With such monstrously powerful engines, they took drag racing to another plateau,'' said Samuel Hawley, author of "Speed Duel," a history of the fierce competition for the land-speed record at Bonneville in the 1960s. "They were huge draws and could make a full-time living at it."
But their partnership was riddled with problems and fell apart. Both men were publicly vague about it but by some accounts, Art was "hypercompetitive" with his brother, Hawley said.
When Walt's "Wingfoot Express" snatched the record at Bonneville, Art had to be prodded into congratulating him, Hawley wrote. For his part, Walt didn't even stick around to witness Art's try for the record. At a stoplight in Wyoming, he heard the news of his brother's success.
"When the light turned green, Walt didn't move," Tom Green, the Wingfoot Express driver who was part of the convoy back to Ohio, told the Chicago Tribune in 1999. "Instead he got out of the car, casually walked back to where I was sitting, told me he just heard over the radio that Arthur had broken our record and, without waiting for a reply, turned, got back in his truck and drove away."
For Walt Arfons, the financial consequences were serious.
"It's not worth much to say we held the shortest land speed record in history," Hawley said.
The record was to ping-pong between Art Arfons and California driver Craig Breedlove several times over the next two years. The current record is more than 763 mph and was set in 1997 by British fighter pilot Andy Green.
Walt Arfons stayed involved in racing for several years and then retired to Florida. Art Arfons raced at Bonneville in his early 60s but spent many years staging jet-powered tractor pulls.
In 1989, Walt's 39-year-old son Craig Arfons died in Florida when his jet hydroplane cartwheeled during a competition. It was traveling at more than 300 mph.
Walt Arfons is survived by Gertrude Arfons, his wife of 76 years; daughter Patricia Stiff; son Terry Arfons; sister Lou Wolfe, eight grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.
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