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Art Arfons Is Still in the Fast Lane--and Still Pulling His Own Weight

January 16, 1988|TOM HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

Art Arfons drives a tractor, but he has never cultivated a cornfield. He lives on a one-acre ranch in Akron, Ohio, and he doesn't grow crops.

Arfons, 62, drives a 7,200-pound tractor powered by two helicopter turbine engines capable of 6,000 horsepower in the U.S. Hot Rod Assn.'s truck and tractor pulling competition throughout the country.

Arfons competes with his son, Tim, and daughter, Dusty, at local fairs throughout the Midwest during the summer and in weekend stadium events in the United States and Canada. This weekend, Art and Dusty will headline the Motorsports Doubleheader Extravaganza beginning at 7:30 tonight in Anaheim Stadium.

Arfons has been living in the fast lane for 32 years. He once raced his Green Monster jet car over the Bonneville Salt Flats at 576 m.p.h. In another version of the Green Monster, he was the first driver to exceed 200 m.p.h. on a quarter-mile drag strip.

These days, Arfons hasn't slowed down, he's simply trimmed the distance he travels to 200 feet.

The challenge in tractor pulling is to see how far a driver can pull a 7,000-pound weight transfer machine--commonly called a boat--that resembles a flat-bed trailer. The boat has a metal skid in the front and a weight box in the rear.

As the tractor pulls the boat down the dirt track, the box gradually moves forward until its entire weight is transferred to the boat's front. This increases the friction of the skid and ultimately everything comes to a grinding halt. The winner is determined by the length of the pull.

What's the attraction? Arfons' tractor releases a thundering roar that echoes through the stadium. The six-foot-high rear wheels light up and 15-foot-high flames bellow upward from the twin turbines.

"You won't find another form of racing with more powerful engines," Arfons said. "Some of the drivers have five or six dragster engines that produce 9,000 horsepower. I was in drag racing for 20 years, and it takes more brains to run my tractor than it does to run down a drag strip."

Arfons turned his talents to tractor pulling 12 years ago and introduced the first turbine-powered vehicle. He was the national points champion in 1984 and has finished in the top five every season that he's competed.

"The secret is knowing the dirt and learning how to balance your tractor right," he said. "There's a lot of luck involved. Sometimes, you can get an early draw when the dirt is good and firm and make a good run. Other times, you can get a bad draw and the track has very little dirt left.

"The sport is getting more sophisticated all the time. My first tractor put out about 1,800 horsepower, and I had problems with it breaking down. I learned by trial and error. My second one lasted seven years, but I had to build a new one because it was becoming obsolete."

Arfons' competition comes from even his own household. Dusty, 22, competes in the same class with her father, driving the Dragon Lady. She finished fourth in her rookie season four years ago and beat her father twice last season.

"And she never lets me forget it," Arfons said. "Both of my kids grew up in the sport. Dusty and I travel together while Tim is racing a 1986 Corvette funny car in another organization."

Last year at Anaheim, Tim Arfons introduced the first All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) powered by a 1,500-horsepower jet engine.

"He scares me to death on that thing," Arfons said. "I'm getting too old for something like that. Everyone keeps asking me when I'm going to retire. I plan to keep driving for another couple of years.

"Traveling all over the country takes its toll. I've put 200,000 miles on my transporter in four years. We're on the road for 11 months. When we get the month of December off, we sure don't go on a vacation."

Arfons owns three tractors and a transporter, and he estimates hisracing operation is worth $500,000. He buys engine parts from aircraft surplus stores across the country and said it is becoming increasingly difficult to locate parts.

"A lot of the hydroplane boat racers are using the same parts and it's getting more and more difficult to track down parts," he said. "I do most of the work on the engines.

"We usually get back home for two or three days to work on the tractors before we have another event. I spend more time working on the transporter than I do on the tractors since we only make one or two runs a night.

"I've really enjoyed watching the sport grow and entertaining the fans. I've always said that if you can make a living at your hobby, you've got a great job."

ANAHEIM DOUBLEHEADER MOTORSPORTS EXTRAVAGANZA

Dates: Today and Sunday

Times: Gates open at 6 p.m. with opening ceremonies beginning at 7:30 tonight. Gates open at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday with opening ceremonies beginning at 1 p.m.

Site: Anaheim Stadium

Admission: Tickets priced at $17.50, $15 and $12 with children 12 and under admitted for half price. Available at Ticketmaster outlets or at the stadium boxoffice.

Highlights: Tonight's show features a truck and tractor pull, a battle of the monster trucks and exhibitions by funny cars such as "One & Only", "King's Kid", "Canned Heat" and wheelie performers "Midnight Express" and "Orange Blossom Special." Sunday's competition features side-by-side mud bog drag racing. Also, Monster truck "Bigfoot" will attempt to jump 10 cars.

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