Ethos

1970-1974: A Brutal Period for Drag Racing

When it all goes wrong

October 16, 1971, was a chilly day in Lewisville, Texas. It rained that morning at Dallas International Motor Speedway, but the pavement had dried enough to make what was expected to be a historic run at the state-of-the-art quarter-mile dragstrip. And it was historic. For all the wrong reasons.

Television newsman Gene Thomas—real name Eugene T. Alred—started out as a disc jockey in his home state of Oklahoma, eventually moving to a co-hosting job at a then-innovative morning show for WFAA Channel 8 in Dallas, long the market’s top station.

The station’s “News 8 Etc.” show was a mix of hard news, soft features, and celebrity interviews. Thomas might report on a bank robbery, interview “Hee Haw” stooge Junior Samples, or wrestle a 750-pound tiger. The tiger won, by the way.

Thomas, a dedicated fan of high-performance cars, raised his hand when the offer came to ride in a jet-powered dragster, built and driven by Art Arfons, who, with his older brother Walt, helped pioneer the idea of strapping a military-surplus jet engine to four wheels.

Art Arfons, who’d held the land speed record three times—the last with a pass of 576 mph in the legendary Green Monster in 1965—had redesigned his dragster, Cyclops, into the Super Cyclops. Arfons built unconnected pods on either side of the huge 17,500-horsepower General Electric J79 jet engine, with Arfons, the driver, on the left side, a passenger on the other. This straight-through design allowed for unrestricted airflow into and out of the engine.

Arfons and Thomas climbed aboard for a practice run as Arfons prepared for what he expected to be a 300-mph pass down the quarter mile before the weekend was complete. Arfons lit the fuse, and the Super Cyclops blasted off. Arfons and Thomas shot through the traps at 286 mph in 6.01 seconds.

A split-second later, the Super Cyclops crashed. “The dragster had blown a tire, spun 180 degrees, and slammed through the guardrail on the passenger side, killing Thomas, then striking a track worker with such force that it propelled him into another worker, killing them both,” video-grapher Chuck Richardson said. “The carnage was overwhelming.” Thomas, 31, Robert Kelsey, 20, and Sean Panse, 17, were dead on impact. The two younger men were part of the crew for the International Hot Rod Association, which sanctioned the race.

Art Arfons had only minor injuries, and according to one account, he was back home in Akron, Ohio, by the next day. It was a different time: Authorities apparently didn’t perform much of an investigation, and not only did security bar photographers from the crash scene, but police also confiscated film from at least one of them.

Art Arfons, who never performed in another jet car after the incident, died in 2007 at the age of 81.

Thomas wasn’t the only one to lose his life in a jet-powered car owned by the brothers Arfons. Garth Hardacre was killed in May 1970 driving Art Arfons’ jet-powered Chevrolet Corvette, the Jettvette. Chuck Morris died in August 1970 driving Walt Arfons’ jet-powered Chevrolet Chevy II. And Dave Corey died in August 1972 driving Art Arfons’ Malco Monster.

Separately, in March 1974, Dave Anderson was killed driving a rocket dragster at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s eighth-mile dragstrip, which was essentially the pit road of the stock-car track. The Pollution Packer—so named because the sponsor was a trash-compactor manufacturer— went out of control and killed not only Anderson but also two crewmen for another dragster, and it injured three others.

Of course, to put this into perspective, that 1970-74 period was a brutal one for drag racing in general. The website DragstripDeaths.webs.com documents a stunning 62 fatal crashes in that five-year period. Certainly the vast majority of them didn’t involve jet- or rocket-powered dragsters, but the vast majority of dragsters, then and now, are powered by internal combustion engine.