Samuel Hawley has written a book that belongs in any gearhead’s collection. Speed Duel: The Inside Story of the Land Speed Record in the Sixties is about land speed racing at a time when things became faster and faster, and deadlier and deadlier, by the week. Speed Duel also follows the two out-sized personalities that navigated this world in a most tumultuous time.
The 1983 movie, The Right Stuff opened with this narration: “There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. And men came to the High Desert in California to ride it. They were called test pilots. And no one knew their names.”
They might as well have been talking about land speed record (LSR) attempts in the 1960s. LSR racing has always been exceedingly perilous work, but in the 60s it went from perilous to nearly suicidal. Up until then, it had been, although very dangerous, a relatively straightforward affair: build a chassis, get the biggest engine you could, wrap the whole thing in a swoopy-aerodynamic body, and fare thee well.
By the 60s a perfect storm arrived. First, there was a bumper crop of fearless gearheads left over from World War II. Guys that were just itching for more and more action, whatever that action may be. Second, there was a burgeoning knowledge of making things go faster (again, largely due to the war). And lastly, there came jet engines. To say jets revolutionized the LSR world carried about the same weight as saying it revolutionized the fighter plane world.
As these things often do, who was going to be “king of the hill” and the “fastest man alive” came down to two guys: Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons. Speed Duel: The Inside Story of the Land Speed Record in the Sixties tells their story in full detail.
On the left, Art Arfons and his Green Monster from October 1964 in a photo taken by Tom Mayenschein. On the right, Craig Breedlove poses with his Ford coupe and sponsor Ed Perkins (circa 1959) in a photo taken by William A. Moore.
It’s a Long Way To The Top . . .
Those blessed fools (they both lived, somehow) were the two fellows most consistently trying for the top step on the podium. Breedlove and Arfons were sort of like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Sure, there were other bands around in the 60s, and some of them were very good indeed, but when it came down to who got the press; who sold the most records; who was at The Top; people never said Herman’s Hermits were in the running.
Speed Duel was written by Samuel Hawley and clocks in at a healthy 360 pages (including notes and an index). It’s softbound, about the size of a laptop screen, with all its photos clumped together in two big groups, for those who like to blow through the copy in three big gulps.
It’s smartly written and moves along at a good clip. And although Breedlove and Arfons are the linchpins of the book, Hawley does cover the other racers who wanted to be the fastest man alive. Before this, land speed records were, somehow, the realm of rich British guys. Hawley gives them their due, but really this is a two man show.
Stark Yet Commanding Personalities
Hollywood thought Ford v Ferrari was a natural movie to make. One of our heroes is a movie star, good looking southern California hot-rodder with an unquenchable desire for more and more speed. And the other guy was a tough-as-nails war vet from the American heartland.
Breedlove (sheesh, even his name is Hollywood) was all slick and methodical, and leveraged the current version of the American Dream to gain access to airplane designers, jet engine specialists, tire manufacturers, and money. Lots and lots of those green back dollars!
Ohio native Arfons was a mechanic and junk dealer who happened upon a “surplus” General Electric J79 jet engine from an F-104 fighter plane. To make sure it ran right, Arfons chained it to a tree in his back yard, fired it up, red lined the throttle, cut in the afterburner, and summarily incinerated his neighbor’s chicken coop.
Ponds, Pop Songs & Blowouts
Hawley also (quite nicely) details the soap opera aspects of trying to beat the other guy while simultaneously cheating death. Art and his brother Walt had some sort of falling out, so Walt went and built different jet and rocket cars riding on Goodyear tires (Art was a Goodyear man). Breedlove had a song written about him by The Beach Boys. Arfons had a tire explode at over 400 mph and lived. Breedlove lost a drag chute at might-as-well-have-been the same speed, crashed into salt pond, and nearly drowned.
How ironic would it be to drown in the middle of a desert?
Speed Duel Tells The Real Story
It’s not boring, it’s not rote, and it’s not all statistics. There’s enough engineering here to tell you what they were up against, but there’s also enough personal and emotive stuff to tell you about the people involved. And I can say, personally, that in all my life and work around cars and racing, I have rarely found people more interesting than Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove.
All the more reason why Speed Duel: The Inside Story of the Land Speed Record in the Sixties is now on my coffee table.
Tony Borroz has spent his entire life racing antique and sports cars. He is the author of Bricks & Bones: The Endearing Legacy and Nitty-Gritty Phenomenon of The Indy 500, available in paperback or Kindle format. Follow his work on Twitter: @TonyBorroz.
Samuel Hawley was born and grew up in South Korea, the son of missionary parents. After earning BA and MA degrees in history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, he returned to East Asia with his wife to work as a teacher for nearly two decades, first in Japan and then Korea, ending in 2007 as an associate professor of English at Yonsei University in Seoul. Hawley has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting, sumo wrestling, land speed racing, and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903.