Art Arfons is an American original. Without a high school diploma, engineers, even blueprints, the small town Midwesterner in the ’50s and ’60s designed and drove a series of speed-hungry automobiles he dubbed “The Green Monster.” First, he made himself a drag racing champion, and then shattered land speed records in jet-powered editions of The Green Monster on the great salt flats at Wendover, Utah. Arfons captured the record three times in a repeated showdown contest with his own brother, Walt, and other famed record-holder Craig Breedlove at speeds surpassing 611 miles per hour. Arfons also repeatedly walked away from flaming, metal-twisting wrecks to drive another day — until he had a Bonneville crash so severe it took him more than 20 years to stare it down.
Arfons — now in his early 70s and still building cars — is the subject of a wry and insightful documentary, The Green Monster, airing nationally on Tuesday, June 29, 1999 at 10 PM ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the POV series, PBS’s award-winning showcase of independent non-fiction films. The movie is no simple race down memory lane. Directed by David Finn, The Green Monster catches up with Arfons as he returns to Bonneville to drive for the first time since that 1971 crack-up that killed two spectators and the reporter he had allowed to ride with him.
To be there, attempting once again to be the fastest man on land, he’s had to overcome his own inner turmoil over the crash, the opposition of his wife, the resigned forbearance of his children, even the admiring puzzlement of a racing world that figures three records ought to be enough for anyone. Arfons is still a prodigy of practical engineering and he has a new Green Monster to prove it He’s also had heart bypass surgery, and has been forced to admit he lacks the strength he once had. His brother, Walt, for one, regards Art’s latter-day race for the record as foolish.
The Green Monster is an unvarnished portrait of a highly skilled, single-minded, slyly charming, individualistic and even obsessed man driven to do something so unique that it has mythic reverberations for everyone around him.
Will Art Arfons defy age and break the record again at Bonneville? Will this indeed be his last run? The Green Monster includes archival photos and film footage of Arfons’s cars and races and the crack-ups that were gut-wrenching for his family. His wife and children recall the pride, pain, and perplexity caused by a man so determined to go fast. Walt Arfons recounts his estrangement from and competition with brother Art, and the death, while chasing a water-speed record, of his own son, Craig. In another rare scene, Craig Breedlove and current land-speed record holder, Richard Noble, depart from the language of engineers and mechanics to describe in lyrical, personal terms the sensation of hurtling at near sound barrier-breaking speeds across a glittering white expanse so vast you can perceive its curvature in the distance.
“Art Arfons has pursued a dramatic, Shakespearean obsession to do one thing — go fast,” said director Finn. “He’s constantly had to make choices between following that obsession and normal social expectations. When we started out, we thought we might base a fictional story on Arfon’s return to Bonneville. But after we got Art to open up to us, we realized there was a better movie in him than anything we could dream up.”