1965:The final report from a special committee called by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to review the nation’s defense readiness indicates that the United States is falling far behind the Soviets in missile capabilities, and urges a vigorous campaign to build fallout shelters to protect American citizens. The special committee had been called together shortly after the stunning news of the success of the Soviet Sputnik I in October 1957. Headed by Ford Foundation Chairman H. Rowan Gaither, the committee concluded that the United States was in danger of losing a war against the Soviets. Only massive increases in the military budget, particularly an accelerated program of missile construction, could hope to deter Soviet aggression. It also suggested that American citizens were completely unprotected from nuclear attack and proposed a $30 billion program to construct nationwide fallout shelters.
Although the committee’s report was supposed to be secret, many of its conclusions soon leaked out to the press, causing a minor panic among the American people. President Eisenhower was less impressed. Intelligence provided by U-2 spy plane flights over Russia indicated that the Soviets were not the mortal threat suggested by the Gaither Report. Eisenhower, a fiscal conservative, was also reluctant to commit to the tremendously increased military budget called for by the committee. He did increase funding for the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and for civil defense programs, but ignored most of the other recommendations made in the report. Democrats instantly went on the attack, charging that Eisenhower was leaving the United States open to Soviet attack. By 1960, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was still hammering away at the supposed “missile gap” between the United States and much stronger Soviet stockpiles.
Born On This Date:On November 7, 1965, a drag racer from Ohio named Art Arfons sets the land-speed record—an average 576.553 miles per hour—at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. (Record speeds are the average of two runs, one out and one back, across a measured mile.) Arfons drove a jet-powered machine, known as the Green Monster, which he’d built himself out of surplus parts. Between 1964 and 1965—a period that one reporter called “The Bonneville Jet Wars” because so many drivers were competing for the title—Arfons held the land-speed record three different times. He lost it for good on November 15, 1965, when a Californian named Craig Breedlove coaxed his car, the Spirit of America, to an average speed of 600.601 miles per hour.
Art Arfons, born in Akron in 1926, had been racing cars since he was 13 years old. In 1952, he and his half-brother Walt built the first of many Green Monsters (not all were actually green), a three-wheeled drag racer powered by an Oldsmobile engine that their mother had painted with John Deere’s iconic green tractor paint. The next year, the Arfons brothers built a new Green Monster, this one powered by an Army-surplus aircraft engine. (That car was so powerful that it was banned from all officially sanctioned drag races.)
By the early 1960s, some daredevil racers had begun to build cars powered by Air-Force-surplus jet engines. They took these new super-powered machines to the enormous Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah—an ideal surface for extremely fast driving because it is hard, flat and smooth—to try and break the land-speed record (394 miles per hour at the time, set by Briton John Cobb in 1947). In September 1963, Craig Breedlove finally succeeded, beating Cobb’s record by 13 miles per hour in his three-wheeled needle-nosed Spirit of America. The next October, a car designed by Walt Arfons (now estranged from his half-brother Art) called the Wingfoot Express beat Breedlove’s record. Two days after that, a jet-propelled Green Monster took the title for the first time.
For the next year, Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove passed the record back and forth. On November 7, 1965, Arfons set the 576 mph record that would be his last. Just a week later, Breedlove broke the record along with the 600-mph mark. In November 1966, Arfons tried to make a comeback in a revamped Green Monster. His first run across the flats reached 610 MPH, but on his return trip one of the car’s bearings froze, sending the car flying off the course. Arfons was uninjured, but the Green Monster was totaled and the record remained in Breedlove’s hands for the next four years.
In 1997, a team of British drivers broke the sound barrier—763 mph—at Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
Art Arfons died in December 2007. He was buried with wrenches in his hands and a jar of salt from the Bonneville Flats.
And so it goes.