Sunday, March 10, 2013

02- The Jet Car Crash

There had been showers that morning and the sky was still a dull gray when I arrived at the Dallas International Motor Speedway. I was working part time for KTTV Channel 11 in Ft. Worth and had been assigned to shoot Art Arfons’ 280-mph jet-powered dragster as it tried to better the world quarter mile land speed record. His new two seat “Super Cyclops” was scheduled to make 3 runs, the first with passenger Gene Thomas, a reporter from WFAA Channel 8, who was doing a feature story on the event.
Gene Thomas 2nd from left and
Jack Smith with camera on Right
I’m not much of a car guy and had never been to a drag strip before, much less seen a jet car, but it was clear when I got there the WFAA-TV crew was getting what I saw as special treatment. No one was scheduled to make that second ride with Arfons so I saw no reason why it shouldn’t be me. To say I made a pest of myself would be putting it mildly. I ranted about the unfairness of letting my competition to do something I wasn’t allowed to do. The track officials were unrelenting. There was no way they were going to allow me to take that ride but I believe my protests encouraged them to loosen up on the rules restricting where I could shoot from. I overheard one official say to let me go anywhere I wanted if it would shut me up.
Besides WFAA, there was one other station represented there. John Jenkins of Ch 4 was shooting from the tower near the start line. When I later saw his film of the crash the picture appeared to have been shot on a tripod with a long lens and had much better detail than I got with my 16mm hand held Bell and Howell.
Channel 11 had only a 15-minute newscast back then so I didn’t plan to shoot much film but what I did shoot I would try to edit in the camera. It’s hard to believe but I was expected to get 3 voice over stories on a 100-foot roll of film that would run out in about 3 minutes. I got a couple of shots of the car being prepared and saved the rest of the film for the 1st run. I planned to move down to the finish line for the 2nd.
Whether using a still or movie camera, the true art of news photography is not necessarily shooting the picture itself but anticipating what’s going to happen and putting yourself in a position to get that picture. I moved to a spot near the start line behind a guardrail about 40 feet from the path of the car on the passenger side. I might not get my ride but at least I’d have a nice wide-angle full screen shot of the car as it went by. The car was about 50 feet behind the start line when the jet roared to life. Using short blasts the car slowly moved up to the timing lights. I’d never heard anything like it. Each time Arfons hit the throttle the force from the jet felt like a punch in the chest. I lifted my left arm to shield my ear as much as possible and noticed the track official I’d had words with earlier laughing with his buddies at my predicament. In spite of the blasts, if I’d had thoughts of moving before, they were gone now.
When the car finally reached the line I pressed the shutter release. The ground was shaking and the sound was painful but even after hearing the incredible roar from the roll up I wasn’t prepared when the Super Cyclops blasted into that quarter mile run. It parted my hair! The first thought in my mind was there’s no way I’d get in that car… My God, it could go straight up as easily as forward. I stayed with the shot, following the jet down the asphalt for the 6.01 seconds it took to approach a bridge running over the track at the finish line. Suddenly there was the blue smoke of skidding rubber tires and wreckage flying everywhere and then farther down the strip a column of smoke. I never hesitated. Jumping the guardrail, I ran toward the crash.
As I got nearer I saw a man crying and asked if he was OK. He couldn’t speak but gestured to a pile of debris down the track. As I ran closer I began to see it was a human torso scattered among several other body parts. After reaching a little over 183 MPH the dragster had blown a tire, spun 180 degrees and slammed through the guardrail on the passinger side, killing Thomas, then striking a track worker with such force that it propelled him into another worker killing them both. The carnage was overwhelming but I shot the scene as best as I could leaving out the grim details I knew would never be aired anyway. I had shot all 100 feet of film but had another tin in my pocket as I and a young still photographer started to run the several hundred feet farther down the track to where the burning jet car had come to rest.
As we ran a car pulled in front of us blocking our way and several large security guys jumped out and backed us into a retaining wall. One of the men demanded that we give him our cameras and to my surprise the young photographer complied. The man immediately opened the back and pulled out the film exposing it to the light. Although I was out of film I had pretended to shoot them as soon as they got out of the car and was still doing so when he turned to me. The Bell and Howell with it’s handy little leather strap made a pretty good club as I backed up against the wall and raised it above my head. “I’m dropping the first guy that touches me”, I warned. I wasn’t the biggest guy in that group but I sure wasn’t the littlest either. I was going to be a lot more trouble than that young guy with the still camera. They didn’t come any closer and I agreed to stop taking pictures of them as more people arrived on the scene to see what was going on. A truce of sorts was worked out when one of them contacted the control tower about the situation. He talked in front of me on the radio to a supervisor who told them not to touch me or the camera and politely asked me to return to the tower with them. I agreed.
In the office I was met by Malcolm Landess who was working part time at WFAA and freelancing as PR for the track. There were several other people in the room who seemed to be speedway officials. They didn’t demand the film but wanted to talk to my boss at Channel 11 and I gave them the number. I heard the conversation as they threatened to sue the station if we showed anything inappropriate. After several minutes they handed the phone to me and I was instructed to get back to the station with the film as quick as possible. It aired that night and the station never was sued.
Harry Reasoner 1971
Not long after the crash I was filming an interview with Harry Reasoner, then of ABC, at the Dallas Press Club when I ran into Travis Lynn, the news director at WFAA-TV. I’d been making the rounds of all the TV stations that summer trying to move up the news ladder, so Travis knew who I was. He complimented my work on the jet car crash and offered me a job at channel 8; this after telling me just a few weeks earlier that I needed more experience.
I worked at WFAA for the next three years, often with Malcolm Landess who I met that day at the track office. He was soon employed full time as a reporter by Ch 8 as well. A few years later we worked together again at KBTV/KUSA in Denver where he was known as Mike Landess. He's now an anchorman at KMGH in Denver.
So that’s how it happened, my first TV news job in a major market. Although I took his picture, I never met Gene Thomas but his career ended the day that mine began. Life and death are so strange and sad. In the news business you’re confronted with that time and again. The strangeness and the sadness just become part of the story.


  1. Chuck, I was there that day with my partner and we were racing our dragster. When they announced Arfons was about run, I and a crew member went to the pit side fence to watch. As the jet car was preparing to launch I had a strange feeling. I said aloud to my friend "That car is going to crash". I have never told anyone else about this. I was stunned when it did crash. Premonition I guess.

  2. The comments generated by my story and film on You Tube, from that long ago day in Dallas, have been amazing. It has stirred so many memories of people who were actually there or directly effected by what happened. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. It was a long time ago but much of what I've written is based on notes I've kept over the years. I wish I could offer you more information about your father but this is all I have. As I said in a You Tube comment, I saw him that day smiling, interested and very much in the moment with his work. Perhaps it gives you a look at him you wouldn't have had other wise. I'm very sorry for your loss. Seeing things like that was never something I ever intentionally signed up for. I'm sorry to say it wasn't the only tragic loss of life I've witnessed and photographed over the years. May they all rest in peace.

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