Speed habit

Art Arfons broke land speed records for two decades before a monstrous car crash sent him back to his workshop. "The Green Monster," Tuesday night on PBS, tells his amazing story.

Jeff Stark
June 29, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Racing across the Bonneville salt flats in Utah at just over 580 miles per
hour, you can see the Earth curve on the horizon. Art Arfons first noticed
that effect while chasing the world land speed record in a jet car. Then he
lost sight of it as his car lifted off the ground and crashed in a twisted heap of metal and fire.

Arfons is the subject of the documentary "The Green Monster," a one-hour
program that airs Tuesday night on the PBS series "P.O.V." From the film's opening shot -- a silhouetted Arfons curls his helmet under
his arm as smoke curls behind him -- it's clear that first-time director
David Finn sees Arfons as a hero. It's a scene that evokes the brave and
severe early astronauts, who were similarly compelled by a desire to do
something that no one else had done.


Arfons is an unlikely champion. With only three years of high school and no
formal engineering experience, he decided to build his own car after stumbling upon his first drag race in the 1950s. His second car set a world
record its first time out, and from that point on he was hooked on speed, debuting a newer, faster car every year or two through the late '50s and
'60s. His brother Walt also raced, and for years the two topped each other's records, breaking speeds of 200, 300, 400 and 500 mph.

The intense rivalry eventually drove the brothers apart, but the two continued to compete until Art Arfons nearly died in a disastrous crash in 1971, which took out two bystanders and killed a
journalist who was in the passenger seat. Later, Walt's son died in a hydrofoil wreck.

Finn seems nearly as obsessive in collecting footage as his subject is
about cars. And Alan Oxman, who spliced together "Happiness" and "Welcome
to the Dollhouse," is a genius editor, weaving together family interviews,
Finn's gorgeous Bonneville location shots and amazing archival reels. (The
early drag racing sections are a blast and the crashes are sickeningly
spectacular.) Matador, the indie record label, produced the film and lends
songs by Pell Mell and Kustomized to the soundtrack.


Like all good documentaries, "The Green Monster" is about much more than its subject.
In the end, it's about the fine line between obsession and mania, and about finding a
single reason to live, then realizing that there's more to life than that reason.

"The Green Monster" airs Tuesday night, at 10 p.m. EDT on PBS stations. Check your local listings for times.

Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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