November 7

This Day in History

Automotive

Nov 7, 1965:

Art Arfons sets land-speed record

On November 7, 1965, a drag racer from Ohio named Art Arfons sets the land-speed record—an average 576.553 miles per hour—at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. (Record speeds are the average of two runs, one out and one back, across a measured mile.) Arfons drove a jet-powered machine, known as the Green Monster, which he'd built himself out of surplus parts. Between 1964 and 1965—a period that one reporter called "The Bonneville Jet Wars" because so many drivers were competing for the title—Arfons held the land-speed record three different times. He lost it for good on November 15, 1965, when a Californian named Craig Breedlove coaxed his car, the Spirit of America, to an average speed of 600.601 miles per hour.

Art Arfons, born in Akron in 1926, had been racing cars since he was 13 years old. In 1952, he and his half-brother Walt built the first of many Green Monsters (not all were actually green), a three-wheeled drag racer powered by an Oldsmobile engine that their mother had painted with John Deere's iconic green tractor paint. The next year, the Arfons brothers built a new Green Monster, this one powered by an Army-surplus aircraft engine. (That car was so powerful that it was banned from all officially sanctioned drag races.)

By the early 1960s, some daredevil racers had begun to build cars powered by Air-Force-surplus jet engines. They took these new super-powered machines to the enormous Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah—an ideal surface for extremely fast driving because it is hard, flat and smooth—to try and break the land-speed record (394 miles per hour at the time, set by Briton John Cobb in 1947). In September 1963, Craig Breedlove finally succeeded, beating Cobb's record by 13 miles per hour in his three-wheeled needle-nosed Spirit of America. The next October, a car designed by Walt Arfons (now estranged from his half-brother Art) called the Wingfoot Express beat Breedlove's record. Two days after that, a jet-propelled Green Monster took the title for the first time.

For the next year, Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove passed the record back and forth. On November 7, 1965, Arfons set the 576 mph record that would be his last. Just a week later, Breedlove broke the record along with the 600-mph mark. In November 1966, Arfons tried to make a comeback in a revamped Green Monster. His first run across the flats reached 610 MPH, but on his return trip one of the car's bearings froze, sending the car flying off the course. Arfons was uninjured, but the Green Monster was totaled and the record remained in Breedlove's hands for the next four years.

In 1997, a team of British drivers broke the sound barrier—763 mph—at Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

Art Arfons died in December 2007. He was buried with wrenches in his hands and a jar of salt from the Bonneville Flats.

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