TOM GREEN, WALT ARFONS & WINGFOOT EXPRESS
Tom Green and Walt Arfon's Wingfoot Express have somehow become the forgotten holders of the Land Speed Record. Overshadowed by the mighty 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.
Wingfoot Express at Bonneville Salt Flats
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 Ostich's car managed the speed that Green claimed, and no more. Goodyear were impressed and despite being committed to Breedlove's team, agreed to bankroll the project, now known as WINGFOOT EXPRESS.
Wingfoot Express head on
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 un-shrouded(SEE LEFT). 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!".
When repairs were done, there was just time to reach Bonneville. To familiarize himself with the car, Green cruised carefully back and forth across a section of the flats known as "the parking area" . First time out on the course itself he ran 236mph but found the experience far from what he had expected "I hadn't fully anticipated that I'd have the feeling of rattling and banging down the black line like a rock in a can…the salt was a little rough….".There were other problems as the speed rose ,"at 250 mph the upholstery of the seat hugged me like a pressure suit, at 275 I had the weird feeling it was snowing in the cockpit!" the cockpit was actually pressurizing as the air speed increased and filling with stray salt crystals which bounced around in a most disconcerting way. The problem highlighted concerns that the plexiglass canopy might be blown out or ripped off at higher speed. Handling was OK until a serious oscillation built up in the front axle "because it was so short". Additional shock absorbers were fitted and from then on it handled a treat . Green recalls that he could quite easily steer with one hand, using the other to hover over power and chute levers, "I never drifted more than 8 feet from the black line".
Wingfoot Express - engine
The first use of the after burner produced a 300 mph run and when it was shut down it felt like someone had "slammed on the brakes, but the airspeed indicator showed that I was still accelerating under regular engine power". 335mph was clocked before the engine suddenly went off-song. Salt crystals were being flicked off the front wheels and back into the engine where they stuck to the turbine blades, throwing them off balance. Time was running short and although every effort was made to clean the blades, the job couldn't be completed in time. It was 1963 and the WINGFOOT team left Bonneville to Craig Breedlove - who promptly put the record above 400mph for the first time with his 3 wheeled Spirit of America only to run into controversy - but that, as they say, is another story!
Returning in 1964, WINGFOOT EXPRESS struggled to pick up speed. For a week the team ran it back and forth without getting nearer to 400 than they had the previous year.The engine lacked it's previous power and as the allotted time on the salt drew to a close a desperate last minute fix was sought. At one point 14 people simultaneously swarmed over the car, changing to a back-up engine but once completed the performance was still not what they had previously experienced. Finally Art Arfons took his brother aside and suggested opening the "clamshells" on the exhaust a touch. He figured the current 17 inch opening was maybe too small and back pressure was stifling performance. "There had been a great rivalry between Walt & Art Arfons. but for the most part this had been healthy "says Green "it was a 1/16 turn of the idle adjustment on the engine and opening of the afterburner clamshells (to 19 inches) that brought the engine up to record performance". As a final tweek, Green took a snips to the bodywork and cut away some of the engine intake to help relieve back pressure when the throttle was shut down - only afterwards did he realise, to his horror, that he'd cut away part of a Goodyear logo in the process…
Back out on course and WINGFOOT clocked 299mph without using the 'burner. Time was now getting very short.On October 2nd at 4.06pm the car recorded 406 mph with a few short stabs of afterburner. At the turnaround there was no time left to refuel as darkness was about to fall so in order to conserve what they had, the team rolled WINGFOOT up to a starting point just 2 miles away from the timing lights. Green gave the car it's head and turned a 420,07mph return run to grab the record at an average 413.20 mph - a shade under 2% above Breedlove's 3 wheeled best. One hour of daylight remained on the last day they had booked on the flats.
Wingfoot Express in drive
Sadly for the crew, they had little time to bask in the achievement for within 3 days the record had been hiked by none other than Walt's brother Art and WINGFOOT EXPRESS was no longer the fastest car on earth. Despite the potential to run the car much faster on a longer run-in, Tom Green had no desire to risk his neck on getting the record back . He returned to his job and today sits as vice president of the company, producing wrenches for SNAP-ON. "I did offer to help Walt with his rocket car but the design was his own". Arfons went on to build the second WINGFOOT EXPRESS with solid fuel rockets but, despite fiercesome performance, it lacked enough sustainable power to maintain record pace through the measured distance. Reading between the lines, one feels the radical concept of the car was somewhat alien to Green and his involvement with Land speed records had reached it's conclusion.
He still keeps in touch with Walt Arfons and met up with him again last summer.Of the current record, held by his namesake, Andy Green, Tom considers it "a tremendous breakthrough, which may not be surpassed for many years". One question remains unanswered : where is WINGFOOT EXPRESS today? Tom Green has no idea and neither, apparently does Walt Arfons!
Wingfoot Express 1964 - Story Of A record How Tom Green and Walt Arfons broke the record at 413mph
Simon Lewis Transport Bookshop Huge on line catalogue of car and bike racing books and collectables includes much Land Speed Record material, books, photos, models,prints etc.
JETWEBB site Dedicated to Jet cars and vehicles, lots of dragsters and a few Land Speed links and features on here.
AUSTRALIAN DRY LAKE RACERS page News and results from the southern hemisphere, includes a big long list of lake racing and land speed links.
DRAG LIST Drag racing links by the dozen includes some Land Speed ones and lots of references to people like Arfons.
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