Pioneer of the jet dragster and parachute brake dies

| 11 Jun 2013

Walt Arfons – who was the first person to develop a jet-engined dragster – died last week from pneumonia at the age of 96.

Arfons started drag racing with his half brother Art in the early ’50s.

Their first car would feature a six-cylinder Oldsmobile engine and was nicknamed the Green Monster thanks to its colour and unsophisticated appearance.

The brothers soon graduated to aero piston engines, due to their relative abundance, reliability, cheap price and huge power.

The latter meant that the siblings were the first to reach 150mph over a standing quarter-mile.

The pair would soon turn from allies to rivals, though, with Walt choosing to experiment with jet-power, building his first machine in 1959.

Five years later, Tom Green drove Walt’s turbojet-powered Wingfoot Express to a speed of 413.2mph taking the Land Speed Record, only for Art to better his effort three days later.

More success would come thanks to Paula Murphy, who broke the Women’s Land Speed record in The Avenger, which Walt designed.

Thanks to the huge speeds involved, the jet specialist would also pioneer the use of parachute brakes.

Their maiden test resulted in him suffering two broken ankles as both ’chutes came free from their tethers, causing an accident that would destroy the car.

Arfons would go on to build jet-engined funny cars for Chrysler in the late ’60s and retired in the early ’70s.

Speed was in the blood, though, and Walt’s son Craig was sadly killed trying to break the Water Speed Record, crashing his jet-powered, 5500bhp hydroplane at 263mph in 1989 on Jackson Lake near Sebring, Florida.

Walt leaves wife Gertrude, surviving son Terry and daughter Patricia, plus many grand and great-grandchildren.