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The Junkyard Genius

Submitted by on October 31, 2010

Before I was even out of middle school, each and every weekend, I would sit next to my father in his pickup truck and we would drive – hauling a Chevy Nova with a 427 Cubic Inch powered Pro Gas car on a trailer –  to Thompson Drag Raceway in Ohio. As a kid, I saw incredible things at this drag strip. I watched the greatest Top Fuel drivers of the era, including “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and his Swamp Rat dragster go 200 miles per hour along the quarter mile. I saw the superstar Funny Car drivers of the time – including my idol – Don “The Snake” Prudhomme (my mom still has a photo of me, at age 5, standing next to nitro burning Funny Car. I’m wearing striped pants, brown Buster Brown shoes and a Winnie the Pooh shirt.)

The biggest race of the year at Thompson was the annual Fourth of July Pro Stock Meet where the nation’s top Pro Stock drivers gathered every Independence Day weekend to try and win one of biggest drag race meets of that period. Perhaps the strongest Pro Stock car of them all was the Gapp & Roush Ford Pinto. Owned and masterminded by Jack Roush, little did I know at the time that I was looking on at a greasy mechanic who would, years later, go onto create one of today’s elite NASCAR Sprint Cup teams. (In fact, three years ago, while working with NASCAR driver Boris Said, I sat in a hauler during a rain delay at Daytona International Speedway and asked Jack if he remembered Thompson and the Fourth of July meet. Roush seemed astonished that I even knew the race existed. When I explained that I had watched his team race there as an 8 year old, Jack was pretty lit up by it all).

But I digress…

The craziest, most insane, radical, mind boggling thing I ever saw at Thompson was the Green Monster. A man named from nearby Akron, Ohio named Art Arfons built and drove the F-104 Starfighter General Electric J79 17,500 lbf static thrust jet engine-powered machine. Art was something of a legend in his own time in Ohio as he was world renowned for setting land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. From time to time, he would show up at Thompson and shake down one of his Green Monster contraptions before heading west to Bonneville.

One Saturday afternoon, when I was 10, I walked through the rocks and dirt that served as the pit area at Thompson. I was eating a hot dog when I saw it – the Green Monster – being wrenched on by Arfons and his crew. When I asked one of the mechanics if the car was to run later that night, he said yes and showed me around the monstrosity. Even now, at age 42, I can remember just how larger than life the car appeared to me.

Then, about nine hours later, the car was rolled out to the starting line and prepared to make a pass. When the time came and with the crowd – most members of it drunk on beer – gazing on in a collective stupor, the jet engine was started. It took a few minutes, but it slowly wound itself up into a high pitch whine, built thrust, and a few seconds later –  and  in an afterburner flash of fire and burnt JP4 jet fuel – the car lit up the entire sky and simply vanished. I can still remember the heat coming off of the car and my hair blowing back. My mind was blown.

Art’s was about to be, too, as the car burned off its parachutes and couldn’t be stopped. The Green Monster shot off the end of the drag strip, through all the run off area, a pasture full of cows (seriously – that’s how far off the track the car shot, but I guess that can happen when you’re going 300 miles per hour with no brakes) and into the side of a white house. In what seemed like an eternity, an announcer over the public address system informed the crowd that Art was okay, but the Green Monster was completely destroyed. An hour later I watched on in both horror and amazement as the car, on a flatbed truck, was driven back up the drag strip and before the grandstands for the crowd to see. The Green Monster was no longer green. It wasn’t even a piece of machinery. It was so fucked up there was nothing left to even sell.

Art smiled and waved to the crowd. He looked happy. He looked like he was okay. He looked like he was insane.

The legend of Art Arfons…

Art Arfons came from a family that operated a mill in Ohio. And it was in the Buckeye State where he initially honed his mechanical skills and strengthened his whacked-out ingenuity. After his junior year of high school, Art joined the United States Navy and fought in some gnarly ass battles at Guadalcanal. But he lived through it and duly came back home to Ohio where he and his brother Walt built the VERY first Green Monster.

The Green Monster was the name of several vehicles built by Art Arfons who was often described as a “junk yard genius”. They were initially Dragsters and motivated by clapped out automobile engines, then by war surplus piston aircraft engines (Ranger and Allison V-1710), which were plentiful, durable, and cheap, then by jet aircraft engines. The jet powered dragsters developed into jet powered vehicles built to break the land speed record, finally a series of turbine powered pulling tractors.

The first “Green Monster” came in 1952. Several years and several iterations later came the most famous “Green Monster”. It was powered by an F-104 Starfighter General Electric J79 17,500 lbf static thrust jet engine with four-stage afterburner, which Arfons purchased from a scrap dealer for $600 and rebuilt himself, over the objections of General Electric and the government, and despite all manuals for the engine being classified top secret.

In 1963, the meanest “Green Monster” of all, a beast with the most powerful powerplant of its day – a General Electric J-79 jet engine boasting 17,500 horsepower with four-stage afterburner – was born. The J79 engine was supposedly classified by the military, and yet Art Arfons drove to a Florida scrap dealer, paid $600 in cash and hauled away the damaged engine. “I didn’t try to chisel down the price,” said Arfons. “I never said nothing, just gave him the money and we put it in the bus. Of course, I didn’t even know at that point whether or not the engine would run.

“There was no sense in trying to straighten out the blades, so I just pulled them out. I figured the engine had more than enough power without them. A few days after I called General Electric, told them I had a J79 and asked them to send a manual. The guy said, ‘you don’t have that engine. You can’t have that engine.’ And I said, ‘well, I sure do.’

“The next day or the day after that a Colonel from Washington showed up at the shop and said that’s a classified engine and I can’t have it. I said I bought it; and showed him my sales receipt. The Colonel stomped out. Then I got a legal letter from GE, a real nasty letter, informing me the J79 was made for Marine and Air Force use and it should never be put in a race car.”

Art Arfons never received the letter…

“The concept wasn’t terribly sophisticated, but it worked,” he furthered. “I hung the engine up and built the car around it.” That “Green Monster” set land speed records of 434, 536 and 576 miles an hour in 1964 in the blistering battle of jets.”

In 1966 Arfons returned once again to Bonneville, but reached an average speed of only 554.017 miles per hour. (891.604 km/h) On run number seven at 8:03 AM on November 17, Arfons crashed his vehicle travelling 610 miles per hour (982 km/h) when a wheel bearing froze. He subsequently built another Green Monster land speed record car, but for the first time in his life, common sense set in. As soon as he had completed the car, he sold it.

Good for Art.

By Eric Johnson

Images via The Rocketman

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