Posts Tagged ‘Art Arfons’

THE FLYING CADUCEUS

November 3, 2008

As track workers mop up the space age detritus from the last failed attempt down the drag strip, Roy goes to take a piss and I hang on the fence thinking about guys other than Breedlove who did second-hand shopping from military boneyards: Dr. Nathan Ostich, who showed up at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1960 in a contraption he tagged the Flying Caduceus, a needle-nosed machine shaped like a tightwad’s pencil and sporting a J47 jet engine as a propulsion system; Walt Arfons followed suit with his Green Monster, a jet car that looked like an armadillo run over by tractor tires and used a Westinghouse J46 engine out of a Navy fighter for power. Then there were more: Romeo Palamides’ Infinity; Gary Gabelich in Bill Fredrick’s Valkyrie; Art Arfons and HIS Green Monster. For a brief instant in the early 1960s, there was a small battalion of gallant, courageous men out at Bonneville who had strapped such devices onto rolling frames of steel, albeit with mixed (and sometimes tragic) results…

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THE TWENTIES

November 3, 2008

THE TWENTIES

“Everything was going well and the record appeared to be in the bag, when, suddenly, at a speed of more than 200 m.p.h., the weakened rear tire blew out… the Black Hawk swerved to the left, skidded for several hundred feet, then jumped into the air in three great leaps. (Frank) Lockhart was not strapped in, and he was catapulted out of the car. The unconscious driver was dead when he reached Halifax County Hospital. The record set by Ray Keech still stood.” – Paul Clifton, THE FASTEST MEN ON EARTH.

By the end of the 20s the back-to-back-turnaround, two-way-average-within-an-hour system is established as the criteria for holding the record. The LSR wars crank up throughout the remainder of the 20th Century with Brits Henry Segrave, Sir Malcolm Campbell, George Eyston, Richard Noble and Andy Green as well as Yanks like Craig Breedlove, Art Arfons (Walt’s half-brother) and Gary Gabelich; on flat tableaus such as the beaches of Wales, Denmark, and Daytona and fossilized badlands such as Verneuk Pan, South Africa; Bonneville, Utah; Lake Gairdner, Australia and Black Rock, Nevada.

Art Arfons, a guy who crashed at 600 mph and lived, told me over the phone that “the real trailblazers were the ones at Daytona; Eyston and Cobb and them guys.” Art Arfons also had this to say about the rich, gallant British aristocrats who broached the 200 mph benchmark, “Those men really had to be something else.”

Arfons litanized the British Land Speed Heroes, the men who had dominated the Salt as America attempted to dig itself out of its economic Depression and as it slugged it out in World War II. American involvement in the Land Speed Record had ended before the Stock Market Crash of 1929… After that, the daredevils and speed maniacs seemed more content with drag racing than the massive and expensive undertaking of an ultimate Land Speed Record…

March 1927. It is a battle of the Bluebloods. Great Brit Henry Segrave punctures the 200 mph benchmark for automobiles, clocking 203 mph on the “treacherous sands” of Daytona Beach in his Sunbeam. His source of motivation was a pair of 12-cylinder Sunbeam Matabele aircraft engines. A year later Segrave’s mark is raised by Malcolm Campbell – a rigid, regal man with an angular mug and a buzzard’s beak of a nose who claims to be a pirate in a past life but looks more like the Human Fly with his bug-eyed goggles – who clocks 206 on a pass that nearly had Ol’ Malcolm singing “Nearer My God to Thee”; while blazing across the beach at 200 mph, Campbell’s Bluebird encounters a sand ridge which serves as a catapult and launches the hapless, passive car and driver 100 feet into the air. Cowabunga! Campbell lives and splits the beach scene in search of some Salt Flats – preferably in the colonies of the British Empire – that could safely accommodate his target speed of 250 mph.

THE OTHER X-1

November 3, 2008

July 23, 1966, Union Grove, Wisconsin. On this day, an afternoon as hot and as sticky as taffy, the Space Age comes to the local drag strip in the guise of a revolutionary new dragster concept. After three years of testing and two years of construction, the X-1 rocket car, built under the aegis of the Reaction Dynamics Corporation (basically a three-way partnership between a couple of shade tree propulsion experts as well as an expert fabricator and welder, all working out of a garage in Milwaukee), finally makes it maiden voyage down the pavement…

The X-1’s rocket engine has no moving parts and burns 9.5 gallons of hydrogen peroxide. By design, it shoooshes down the 1/4 mile pavement like a shot, and runs out of fuel 1000 feet into the run. Even after coasting for the length of a football field before entering the timing lights, the X-1 is still the quickest and fastest machine on a drag strip, effortlessly eclipsing the speeds and elapsed times of the state of the art nitro-burning dragsters that roar through the speed traps in full song, week after week across America.

Reaction Dynamics’ goal is to design a supersonic vehicle with a target speed of 1000 mph. The first step is to use the drag strip as a means to shake down their ideas.

The throughline for this project goes back to Germany in the 20s. As a pup, Richard A. Keller (“Dick”) saw a photograph of Fritz von Opel’s rocket car, the black brautwurst-shaped roadster that exploded and killed Max Valier. Dick was smitten with the stark white lettering on the car, which spelled out “RAK,” short for “raketen” (Kraut fur “rocket”). It was an eponymous coincidence as RAK was young Keller’s initials also. Of such coinky-dinks, does the trajectory of history twist… Likewise, at a drag strip, the fortuitous meeting of Keller and Ray Dausman with Top Gas dragster racer Pete Farnsworth also tweaks the course of history.

August, 1967, U.S. 30 Drag Strip in Crown Point, Illinois. Chuck Suba, an All-American boy with a healthy sense of curiosity and a clean cut appearance not unlike that of Eisenhower’s favorite son, has been hired to pilot the X-1 rocket car.

This day is a day of destiny.

A gurgling sound bubbles out of the rocket’s decomposition chambers, like Frankenstein on day old pizza. DRAG RACING Magazine reports that Suba “holds the steering yoke vertically, 90 degrees off axis, and aims the front of the car between his third and fourth knuckle, like a sight on a revolver.

“The rocket engine’s exhaust is 4 times the speed of sound… a noise like an afterburner kicks in and suddenly he is off, riding on the head of a bullet.” The X-1 zips to a 5.41 second elapsed time – the quickest ever on a 1/4 mile drag strip. By a bunch.

Documentation of the X-1, and its follow-up, the Blue Flame (both being preeminent rocket cars in the history of maximum velocity) is rather sparse, as is accurate information about Reaction Dynamics, the small business that operated and designed these machines. I know they were based out of Milwaukee, but that is about all I know. So I fly out to Wisconsin on a whim. Once there, I cold call Reaction Dynamics co-founder Pete Farnsworth and arrange to meet him and his wife Leah for Chinese food.

It is thirty years after the Blue Flame set the Land Speed Record. Its driver, Gary Gabelich, might call this meeting of conversation and won ton ala Wisconsin “blenderized karma.” As the Farnsworths and I sit down in a restaurant whose decor can only be described as “cavalier and relaxed rusticana,” I take notice of Pete’s prosaic build and underspoken demeanor. There is absolutely nothing about this guy that says “I-was-part-of-the-intellect-behind-what-once-was-the-quickest-car-on-the-planet-and-I-still- have-a-rocket-dragster-in-my-barn-as-some-weird-totem-and-memento-to-the-days-when-I-set- the-world-on-fire.” Nothing. His accomplishments are absolutely hyper-intense, but the guy is more laid back than a back lot security guard. His wife Leah is small in stature, but there is nothing diminutive about her worldview and opinion. Both strike me as no nonsense. During the course of dinner I begin to understand something that I never knew: that holding the Land Speed Record could be as sweet and sour as any Chinese pork.

Between forkfuls as brackish as Bonneville, I masticate and ask Pete about his transition from Top Gas dragsters to the rockets:

But how did you go from reciprocating engine drag racing into the more, you know, thrust driven stuff?

PETE FARNSWORTH: It was a matter of necessity, really. I was working full time and racing full time and it just became a twenty four hour a day thing to try to maintain a fuel dragster and work 8 or 9 hour a day too, so I was looking for a way to build an exhibition car of some sort.

Um hmm, what, what year was this?

PETE: Probably about ‘63, ‘64, when the jet cars were just starting to tour the circuit. As I have mentioned, we know (amputee jet car driver) Doug Rose quite well and he was running for Walt Arfons at the time and broke away from Walt and started his own car, the Green Mamba (jet dragster) and uh, we figured “these guys have cars that will run all day long, they don’t have to do a massive amount of maintenance on them.” I thought the next step up from a jet car would be a rocket car – and I started looking around at propulsion systems that were available in the early 60s and there basically wasn’t any.

I was out at Oswego Dragway with a gas dragster and an acquaintance from out past in Chicago – we both grew up in Evanston (just north of Chicago) and Chuck Suba had run a shop there, building race cars and doing specialized tune ups and things like that, and he had one of his customers that, uh, I was an acquaintance with – his name was Dick Keller and um, Dick was out there and happened by our pit and recognized me, and we got to talking. He asked me what we were doing and I said, “You know, running a gas dragster now, but trying to put together a rocket car for exhibition.” He said, “Well, that’s funny, cause a friend of mine, Ray Dausman, and I had just finished building a twenty five pound thrust rocket engine.”

Um hmm.

LEAH: And they were both going to go to Chicago where, um…

PETE: … the Illinois Institute of Technology and uh, Dick worked part time as a research assistant into gas technology, which was the research arm of the American Gas Association. So that was our first tie-in with the gas association was the fact that Dick knew people in the industry.

So that connection was made even before you guys ran the X-1?

PETE: Yeah, he was working there at the time when we got together. We started out as DFK Enterprises, for Dausman, Farnsworth and Keller and um, I believe that was 1965. We formed that and this was after a discussion meeting about whether the 25 lb. thrust motor they had built was scalable for something usable for drag racing – and all indications it was so, I decided from what I had heard from all this that this was the way to go because it was throttle-able, it was a reasonably safe fuel to handle and uh, hydrogen peroxide didn’t have any possibilities of explosion, (it is) reusable safe to handle as long as you didn’t pour it into a pile of rags or something and it wasn’t going to spontaneously ignite…

Um hmm.

PETE: We were having truckers trying to drop off great big drums of nitromethane while – you were thinking about your kids taking a nap – that was what they did one day when I was at work and they came with a 55 gallon drum of 98 percent nitro next to benzol straight from California. The guy didn’t have a loading shoot, so we decided we were going to take the back off a semi trailer…

LEAH: Well, it was labeled as cleaning fluid…

PETE: Um hmm, “cleaning solvent.”

LEAH: Cleaning solvent, you know, “no problem, it’s just a solvent.”

PETE: Well, my wife panicked, went down to one of my garages and grabbed a bunch of old tires and they rolled in down and dropped it off onto the old tires. If it had gone off it would have leveled the neighborhood –

LEAH: See that’s why I’m so gray.
(laughter)

PETE: She’d had to cover for me a lot.

Was the design goal ultimately to go to Bonneville and take the LSR?

PETE: No no….

Exhibition money?

LEAH: Um hmm.

(discussion turns to Pete Farnsworth and Chuck Suba towing the X-1 to California in an effort to get the car approved by the National Hot Rod Association for exhibition runs at their tracks.)

PETE: My idea to start with was just to build and exhibition car and Dick and Ray had ideas of going to Bonneville for the Land Speed Record. They started to use it as a stepping stone and I wasn’t involved with the land speed record at all. At that time I had interest in it, but I was following it since I was a kid. You can’t help it if you’re in Hot Rodding to not read about Bonneville, but I had never been there.

HOT ROD did a nice article on it and then we went over to NHRA (in California) and uh, we had contacted them before that we were coming out, (because) we couldn’t even get anyone to come out into the parking lot and look at the car… Finally, I think it was Bernie Partridge came there and he took one look at it and he said, “No.” I explained the car to him, Chuck and I did, and he said well, “We’ll let you know.” So we went back in and in a while they came back out again, you know, didn’t invite us in at all.

(laughter)

PETE: In a while they came back out again and said, no we can’t do this – and explained that they were supported by the automotive industry and that the automotive industry would not want this sort of competition at the track, and from that standpoint I could see it, so they basically said, “No, we’re not going to let you run.”

And one thing was that they said that the car was so fast that it would have too much kinetic energy if it got into the crowd. Well the top fuelers were much heavier and they were going proportionally pretty fast, they had more kinetic energy than we did, but they flat refused to consider it.

LEAH: That was a real heavy disappointment to send the car all the way out there and…

Sure, and you had to know in hindsight that they had their mind made up even before they saw it… then again, you guys were so far ahead of the curve that, whether it was collusion with the automotive industry or not they just couldn’t deal with it.

PETE: I think they saw that after we ran the car and we were the first to go below 6 seconds – we clocked a 5.90 in Oklahoma City and, uh, Labor Day weekend of 1968 – that was the last time the car ran and we went 6.03 and 5.90. Nobody ever recognized it except the Guinness Book of Records, which did recognize it and so we were in there as world 1/4 mile elapsed time record holders. We were two miles an hour short of what Art Arfons did with his J79 Green Monster Car. He had gone 267 mph and we went 265 but we weren’t even running all the way through to 1/4 mile with it (because of) the fuel tank’s capacity. We never had enough fuel to go all the way through and considering we were coasting going through the trap and we were running 265. We probably figured the terminal speed was probably 280, 285 something like that when we shut off and coasted. But uh, that was basically the end of the X-1, we ran it down at the meet at Oklahoma City. We had already started on our promotion with the Gas Industry people and they were there observing what we were doing the day we set the world record (for the drag strip).

Within a month we had signed a letter of intent with them to build the Blue Flame.

1960

November 3, 2008

“I don’t believe in boundaries.” – Ken Norris, co-designer of Donald Campbell’s Bluebird CN7 car.

The Great Confrontation at Bonneville: Thompson is back with Challenger I. Malcolm’s kid, Donald Campbell, unveils his own Bluebird, a turbine-powered machine five years and many millions of quid in the making… Out of a chicken feed mill in Akron, Ohio, Art Arfons is on the scene with the Anteater, an aardvark-shaped car with an Allison engine… Nathan Ostich debuts his Flying Caduceus, a turbo-jet on wheels… after five weeks of record runs Thompson turns a one-way speed of 406 mph in 1960, but fails to back it up nor break Cobb’s record, succumbing to a blown engine on his return run… Arfons breaks and splits… Ostich crashes and lives… Donald Campbell crashes and lives… Graham crashes and dies…

“I felt I knew enough about driving at very high speeds to tell that Graham, driving his car through only two wheels, could not hope to deliver enough horsepower to the Salt to go more than 355 MPH… I got up at the crack of dawn on August 1 and went out to have a look at the course. I had a spooky feeling that morning, which I explained to myself on the grounds that Graham was driving awfully fast for a man who had only made a couple of runs on the Salt… I headed down to the north end, where Graham’s pit was located, found him and spoke with him for the first time. I offered him any and all the help I could give… But he looked at me as though from a remote distance and said, ‘Look. I’ve gone 344. I don’t have anything to learn below that speed.’

“I tried to point out that he had changed the car radically since that time and that the surface of the Salt changes almost from hour to hour. But his mind was completely preoccupied… It was at this point that a heavy premonition settled upon me. I gave up talking and drove to where I knew it would happen and set up my movie camera… Graham took off at 11:02 that morning and 47 seconds later he was doing well over 300 MPH when he got sideways in front of my station. The tail section peeled away from his car; the car leaped high into the air, crashed upside down and then bounced and slid for a good half mile.

“I was one of the first to the wreck, hoping to reach Graham in time to do him so good. But it was too late. His roll bar had withstood the impacts but the upper tip of the firewall which was between his back and the engine somehow bent forward and had chopped his spine just under his crash helmet. I walked back in his tire tracks for a mile, analyzing what had happened. It was crystal clear. He had been accelerating very hard and his car had begun to drift off the black line. If he lifted his foot at all, he didn’t lift it very much. The tire tracks showed he just got farther and farther off course until he got sufficiently sideways to trip over his own wall of air.” – Mickey Thompson, CHALLENGER.

AFTERBURNERS AU GO GO (1962)

November 3, 2008

The assault on the 400 mph barrier cranks into high gear via the intrusion of some wily Americans who sully what theretofore had been the sanctified sandbox of European aristocracy. After the shootout between Eyston and Cobb concludes, the Yanks begin kicking up dust storms on the Salt Flats in contraptions so stripped down, coarse, and primitive that the Brits kinda’ viewed them as uncouth tinderbox folk art.

Perhaps most emblematic of this mindset is Akron, Ohio scrap yard scavenger Art Arfons, a drag racer who terrorized the strips with Allison aircraft engines until the National Hot Rod Association pulls the rug on both his ingenuity and his aircraft engines, and tried to relegate Arfons to a circus act. In retaliation, Arfons doesn’t get mad, he just turns up the boost on a mighty mastadon of mutant machinery that he has christened Cyclops, and aims his crosshairs on the Salt Flats, leaving the drag strips in the rear view mirror of his memory. “I had an Allison (aircraft engine) for ten years and I couldn’t get to 200 in the 1/4 mile,” Arfons recalls about the ’60s. “I wanted more horsepower.” It is difficult to ascertain what was the bigger monster at this point: the race car or Arfons himself.


“I had three children by my twenty-first birthday,” remembers Breedlove, reflecting on the transformation of the LSR tableau from the domain of Euro high society to working class ‘Merican motorheads like himself. “I was financially strapped. Even if you could afford the Merlins (aircraft engines) or what have you, the costs of developing the transmissions and the gear trains and so on and so forth were really prohibitive. When I saw the jet engine, I went, ‘Oh boy – there’s no way we can go wrong with that.’ In ‘61 we located a J47 engine at Airmotive Surplus down on Alameda Street in L.A,” he continues. “They had a whole batch of ‘em coming in that were Korean War vintage. The engines were being scrapped out for $500. I had a sponsor, Ed Perkins, who had an aircraft fastener company. I talked Ed out of 500 bucks and that became the first engine for the Spirit of America.

But the prodigious-yet-cost effective horsepower that aerospace technology provides to the salt flat racers did not come without a price: And in 1962 drag racer-cum-jet setter Glen Leasher pays it – in full. While driving the J47 powered Infinity at maximum velocity, the jet car veers off course. Glen corrects at full burner and the stress and torque loads the suspension, precipitating a possible wheel or axle failure; the motor explodes and scatters its remains – as well as Leasher’s – across the measured mile of Bonneville potash.

Regardless of Leasher’s fate, however, the fuse of the paradigm shift has been lit. Taking bald exception to the stateside jet set, however, is the progeny of Sir Malcolm himself, Donald Campbell. Piloting an immaculate, brand new turbine-engined, axle-driven re-invention of his old man’s Bluebird streamliner, Campbell is caught in an awkward transition, as he sets a water speed record with a jet engine, yet rigorously maintains that any proper heir to the LSR throne would not be thrust driven like the abominations Breedlove and Arfons were disgracing the Salt Flats with; By 1960, Campbell sinks over three million dollars of other people’s British Pride to ensure that the stateside vulgarities never triumph. And this was just startup lucre; by 1963, after a spectacular 500 foot hurtle across Bonneville, the venture capital doubles. As Bluebird is humpty-dumptied back together, Campbell seeks a new venue for his mission. He takes aim in Lake Eyre, Australia.

Meanwhile, Breedlove petitions the FIA to sanction his impending incursion on the LSR but the FIA sniffs its nose and harrumphs at Breedlove’s request, noting that the Spirit of America a) is not wheel-driven; and b) only has three wheels, therefore it is a motorcycle, not an automobile. Craig shrugs his shoulders and shrewdly summons the FIA’s kid brother, the FIM (Federation Internationale de l’Motorcycle), seeking its approval and timing resources. The FIM is down with the SOA’s request, under this criteria: Breedlove’s cigar-shaped streamliner fits the description of their “Unlimited Sidecar” category (!), and they will happily sanction the record runs if Craig adds thirty kiloliters of ballast to one side of the vehicle, as to mimic a sidecar sans passenger (!!). Done. Spirit of America cranks out a two-way average of 407.45 in the summer of ’63 to reclaim the LSR. Breedlove is officially the first man to travel at over 400 mph on land – all accomplished in a “motorbike” with a virtual sidecar. Brilliant.

Amidst the controversy and hullabaloo over the SOA, Campbell continues to sojourn in his Bluebird, albeit with mixed results. His Australian expedition is hammered by monsoons, weather conditions that enable Breedlove to score the LSR uncontested back in the States. Indeed, the weather in Australia was so disheartening that Campbell’s benefactors begin to view this whole land speed record thing as a multi-million dollar boondoggle and yank their sponsorship. Finally, on Friday, July 17, 1964, Campbell goes 403.1 – twice – with a backup pass so brutal that it rips the wheel from out of his hands. Both Campbell and the FIA claim the de facto record runs went down in Australia, that this was the “real” LSR. Latter day pop psychologists would refer to this way of thinking as “denial,” for history remembers Breedlove’s run not as a bogosity on a tricycle, but as triumphant; it remembers Campbell’s run as valiant as Paul Bunyan, but unfortunately a day late and a few quid short. There indeed had been a changing of the guard in the 1960s at the Salt Flats, as it became not only the domain of new technologies with godawful gobs of horsepower, it also becomes distinctly American.

Equally important, Breedlove has trumped the FIA, who were now sucking hind teat as far as sanctioning prestige goes. With its ego bruised, the FIA swallows its pride and allows jet technology into its competition, opening the floodgates for folks like Arfons, “the junkyard genius of the jet set,” the man who set out to conquer the LSR in a post-modern mongrel contraption that featured a ’37 Ford truck axle, depression-era Packard steering and a top secret fighter plane engine. Breedlove, Arfons and their ilk were now legitimate.

How legit? Even as the FIA and the hot rod set thumb their noses at the exploits of a tricycle that strapped a military surplus jet just on axis of where the sidecar should go, the Beach Boys write and record an eponymously monikered B-side about such an endeavor. So… What is more relevant? The approval from pop stars that sold more records worldwide at that time than Beatles or the signing off from a French bureaucracy?