The Bonneville Jet Wars

A California hot-rodder took on the feuding Arfons brothers in the 1960s.

Spirit of America Sonic 1
Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America Sonic 1 employed the transonic area rule via its high-waisted fuselage. Area ruling, which reduces drag at transonic speeds, enabled the early 1960s Convair F-102 to reach Mach 1.2. Courtesy Franklin Ratliff

General Electric’s J47 and J79 and Westinghouse’s J46 turbojets were designed for America’s high-flying cold war fighters and bombers. But during five weeks in the mid-1960s, they came down to Earth—taking the land-speed record from Britain and bringing it back to the United States.

The stage was Utah’s otherworldly Bonneville Salt Flats. The stars were two middle-aged Midwestern brothers who refused to talk to each other, and a slick young southern California hot-rodder who’d talk to anybody. By the time it was over, the three had raised the top speed by nearly 200 mph.

The jet-powered land-speed wars erupted in 1962, when three streamlined cars built around J47s—the engines used in North American F-86 Sabres—appeared on the flats. Physician Nathan Ostich, builder of the first jet car, took Flying Caduceus to 331 mph. Glenn Leasher got close to 400 mph but crashed fatally.

The third J47 driver, Los Angeles drag racer Craig Breedlove, picked up his engine for $500 and installed it in a low-slung, needle-nose chassis he called Spirit of America. He lined up Shell and Goodyear as sponsors and hired a team that included a Lockheed engineer. The next year, Breedlove screamed across the flats at 407 mph, claiming the land-speed record. (All speeds are the average of two runs in opposite directions along the measured mile.)

In 1964, Breedlove returned to Bonneville, this time facing competition. Walt and Art Arfons worked out of adjacent junk-strewn lots  in Akron, Ohio, separated by decades of estrangement. Independently, the brothers built two cars, each designed around a different jet engine.

Walt opted for a Westinghouse J46, used in the Vought F7U Cutlass. Although the Navy fighter was a dud, its engine measured up to Breedlove’s J47, and surplus versions were available for next to nothing. When his Wingfoot Express crashed during testing, Walt had a heart attack. Designer Tom Green, who’d never driven over 130 mph, was drafted as driver. On October 2, he reached 413 mph to claim the record.

Three days later, the newly crowned speed kings learned that their record had just been broken—by Art Arfons. His Green Monster was powered by a General Electric J79, the engine of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. Art got it for $600 and rebuilt it himself after GE refused him a service manual.

One week after Art snatched the record from his brother, Breedlove took it away from Art. Trying to go even faster, Breedlove veered out of control at 500 mph, flew over a dike, and nosed into the water. Miraculously, he avoided drowning or being pulverized. Afterward, he joked, “And now for my next act, I’m going to set myself on fire.” Still, Art Arfons got the last laugh: After tweaking his engine, he returned to the salt and made a 536-mph run, demoting Breedlove to number two.

In 1965, Breedlove was back, this time with a J79 in a new Spirit of America, dubbed Sonic I. Walt Arfons was back too, his Wingfoot Express now fitted with 25 jet-assisted-takeoff rockets. Although they propelled Arfons’ car to more than 400 mph, they couldn’t sustain that speed long enough for Arfons to challenge the record. But Breedlove clicked off a run of 555 mph to become the fastest man on wheels.

A week later, Art Arfons strapped himself back in Green Monster. During his second pass, a tire shred, but he emerged from the cockpit of his dented and smoking car with another record: 576 mph. A few days later, Breedlove went 600.601 mph, and he was immortalized in the Beach Boys song “Spirit of America” as “a daring young man [who] played a dangerous game.”

Cars have gone faster: In 1997, a British team broke the sound barrier with a speed of 763 mph, powered by two Rolls-Royce Spey turbofans, which powered  F-4M Phantom IIs. But land-speed racing has never been hotter than when cold war turbines were the coolest things at Bonneville.


Dr. Nathan Ostich’s Flying Caduceus was the first jet in land speed history. It first raced at Bonneville in 1960. In the summer of 1962, Ostich was nearing 330 mph when a front wheel came off. Ostich tried again in 1963 but never exceeded 331 mph and therefore could not beat Craig Breedlove’s 407 mph record. A replica of Flying Caduceus appeared in the 2005 film, The World’s Fastest Indian. Courtesy Louise Noeth, a.k.a. Landspeed Louise
The shell of Flying Caduceus trundles along behind its engine. The course on the Bonneville Salt Flats, which is 80 feet wide, is marked in miles and kilometers. The Flats were first used as a speedway in 1914. Originally the track was 20 miles long, but salt mining operations over the years cut it back to 10 miles. Typically, a racer will accelerate for 4 miles before reaching midcourse, a length of one mile, where the speed is recorded. After cutting off fuel, the driver has the last four miles in which to stop. Courtesy Louise Noeth, a.k.a. Landspeed Louise
Brothers Walt (pictured, in jumpsuit) and Art Arfons did not play well together. Jack Olsen quoted Art in Sports Illustrated, November 29, 1965: “If someone stops at his garage and wants to know where my garage is, he don’t know where it is, even though it’s next door. He don’t know what my phone number is or nothing. My brother has a real good personality, he’s a real pleasant guy, and he is sharper than anyone gives him credit for, and he knows how to make an ass out of me eight ways from Sunday.” Courtesy Louise Noeth, a.k.a. Landspeed Louise
Walt Arfons oversees last-minute tweaks to Wingfoot Express on October 2, 1964. Having recently suffered a heart attack, Arfons turned over driving duties to the designer of Express, Tom Green, who had never driven above 130 mph. In the turbojet powered land speed racer, Green reached 413 mph. Courtesy Louise Noeth, a.k.a. Landspeed Louise
Art Arfons built numerous versions of Green Monster. This one was constructed in 1968 to replace the Monster destroyed in a 600-mph crash at Bonneville in 1966.
The J79 turbojet engine Art bought from a Florida scrap dealer had damaged blades. According to Harvey Shapiro, writing for the website ThrustSSC Mach 1 Club (, Art said, “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 later I called General Electric and asked them to send me a J79 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 a colonel from Washington showed up and said that’s a classified engine and I can’t have it. I showed him my sales receipt. The colonel stomped out. Then I got a real nasty letter from GE saying the J79 was made for Marine and Air Force use and it should never be put in a race car.” Courtesy Franklin Ratliff/ Photo by Waldo Stakes
Art Arfons beams with Green Monster on the salt. “He was the kind of guy who’d find a piece of metal behind his barn and make something out of it,” says Kay Kines, an aerospace engineer who worked on Green Monster and, later, the space shuttle. “He did so much with so little.” Arfons’ first racer, the 8,000-hp Cyclops, was the first land speed racer to use a wing to provide “downforce,” which kept the vehicle from going airborne. In 1965, aerobatic pilot Betty Skelton set the women’s land speed record in Cyclops at 277.62 mph. Courtesy Louise Noeth, a.k.a. Landspeed Louise
Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America Sonic 1 employed the transonic area rule via its high-waisted fuselage. Area ruling, which reduces drag at transonic speeds, enabled the early 1960s Convair F-102 to reach Mach 1.2. In 1992, Breedlove started building a new Spirit with the same J79 engine. He crashed on his first run in October 1996 in Black Rock Desert, doing 675 mph. Another crash in 1997 beat up the engine. In 2006, Breedlove mused to Chronicle Auto, “I’m going to be 70…. A 900 mile-an-hour jet car is not exactly what every family needs.” Breedlove sold the latest Spirit to the obsessive record-setter Steve Fossett. On August 13, 2007, a brief on Fossett’s progress with the land speed racer appeared on his Web site. “We’ll be back at Bonneville in mid-October to take the speeds higher,” he wrote. Three weeks later, Fossett was reported missing after he failed to return from a recreational flight over the Nevada desert. The wreckage of the Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon was discovered October 1, 2008. DNA testing proved that bones later found nearby were Fossett’s. Courtesy Franklin Ratliff

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