Story Of A Land Speed Record
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Tom Green and Walt Arfon's Wingfoot Express have somehow become the forgotton holders of the Land Speed Record.Overshadowed by the mightly battle between Walt's brother Art and Craig Breedlove, they have a unique and perhaps unenviable position in the history books,that of holding the crown the shortest time-span. In that remarkable, intense era of record activity during the mid 1960's they held the Land Speed Record for just 3 days! The story of this team is little known yet quite remarkable for it began with a chance meeting, features a driver who wasn't intending to drive at all, a tiny budget ,near catastrophe and in the end the help of their biggest rival at the crucial - and last possible- moment.
Tom Green was chief engineer for a company manufacturing torque wrenches when he first met Walt Arfons.It was late 1962, the venue was a trade fair in Gary ,Indiana and .Arfons had been running on the drag strips and dry lakes for something like fifteen years already. Green's interest in the Land Speed record grew from his passion for aerodynamics and he admits his previous active experience of motor sport was limited to a year racing stock cars in New Mexico,and that was a decade earlier. The two struck up a conversation and "Within ten minutes we were planning our assault on the world's land speed record" Green recalls. "Walt liked my theories on aerodynamic design.Within four days I sent him four pages of formulas for an ultra high speed vehicle". The veteran drag racer was impressed, although Green's original insistence on a single front wheel was overturned , Arfons pointed out the FIA rule requiring four wheels,so the project progressed along those lines. From the data , a balsa wood model of the car was produced and in essence "there was no change in the design of the Wingfoot after the model was carved".
Green figured 80% of the problem in creating a land speed record challenger was down to aerodynamics and the rest to pure power so his design featured the narrowest track practical and smaller wheels than most contemporaries were going for, in order to reduce frontal area to a minimum. Jet power was still new territory at this point in time but the benefits were already very apparent . Westinghouse J46 engines could be bought "on the surplus market for $400-$1000 each" and provided considerably more than the power Green calculated would be needed to push beyond 400mph. So Arfons acquired one.
With the design in place and the facilities to build the car, money, as always, was the stumbling block. A presentation was made to Good Year ,who were already backing Craig Breedlove's new SPIRIT OF AMERICA. Arfons and Green, armed with just a blackboard and chalk,offered their theories to a board of 13 executives and among other things they used aerodynamic calculations to predict that Bluebird CN7 was good for a maximum of around 400mph, Doc. Ostich's FLYING CADUSEUS for about 360 and their own project for exactly what Craig Breedlove was claiming, 480mph. "I pointed out that Breedlove's car was a fine example of aerodynamic design,in fact slightly superior to ours, but WINGFOOT had fewer square feet of frontal area and Breedlove's car weighed almost twice as much". Aside from the weight difference was the small matter of available power.The J46 engine put out some 7000lbs of thrust with afterburner compared to Craig's 4400lbs.
In due course the Ostich car managed to run at just the kind of speed that Green predicted, and no more. Goodyear executives were impressed and despite being committed to Breedlove's team, agreed to bankroll the project, now known as WINGFOOT EXPRESS.
At a time when SPIRIT OF AMERICA was on a $250,000 budget and BLUEBIRD, something over a couple of million, the Arfons/Green effort looks decidedly underfunded, "there was $78,000 in Wingfoot. Walt built the frame and mounted the engine, I built the body" and behind that statement lay thousands of hours of work. The cockpit was mounted just behind the front axle line and a plexiglass canopy stretched from behind the drivers head to a point well ahead of his feet.The front wheels were shrouded in aluminum bodywork not much wider than the engine but the rear wheels sat outrigged and unshrouded. Calculations indicated a 20mph hike was possible if shrouds were fitted but as the design speed was already well over 75mph faster than the existing record they were never tried.A tiny vertical fin sat above the tip of the car's nose,much as Breedlove had hung a fin under the nose of SPIRIT OF AMERICA, but where Craig's original concept was to use this as the car's sole means of steering, Green and Arfons stuck to rather more conventional methods.The fin was just to help
Originally Walt Arfons, already a grandfather, planned to drive the car himself but near disaster intervened. The completed car was taken out to a drag strip in the Midwest and Walt put another driver in the cockpit so that he could keep an eye on things from outside "I don't recall who" says Green.It was meant to be a systems check.The team figured 250mph would be achievable at the end of the standing quarter mile. The car was wound up and fired down the strip but when the twin braking chutes were triggered, both ripped away under the load and WINGFOOT careered off the end of the course.Green remembers the car "knifed through a chain link fence at 200 mph, ripped across a highway, jumped two four-foot ditches and plunged 75 feet into a wooded area! Only 300 feet of fence that had become entangled in her rear wheels stopped her". The driver climbed out unhurt but "when Walt saw the WINGFOOT heading for oblivion he had a heart attack on the spot".It was barely a month to the reserved date on the salt. Arfons was hospitalized but released himself and set to repairing the car's twisted frame. Green took the nose section off, strapped it to the roof of his station wagon and headed back home to fix it "it was ruined, I had to replace all the front body metal" Walt's plans to drive were pretty well finished by his heart problem and totally scuppered when he sliced through a ligament in his hand. With time running out, (only three days on the salt had been booked) ,Tom Green found himself elevated to the role of driver "because I knew the car... I had never driven above 130mph!"...continued on Page 2
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