FeaturesTim Sutton

Danny Thompson

FeaturesTim Sutton
Danny Thompson

50+ years in the making, it is a story of obsession, glory,

achievement and tragedy. And it’s about family.

Thompson Archive

Thompson Archive

Thompson Archive

Thompson Archive

Thompson Archive

Thompson Archive

Thompson Archive

Thompson Archive

The Bonneville Salt Flats have been calling out a challenge to

hotrodders since the 1920’s. This otherworldly landscape is the

place to test machinery, ingenuity and it’s the place to test

yourself. That call crossed continents and oceans. In the 1930’s

the British made several all-out efforts to break the 400mph

barrier, using huge amounts of money, massive 12cyl. airplane

engines and the best engineers available, mostly culled from the

aviation industry. None could break the magic number, though

after the war speed legend John Cobb came painfully close with a

394.196mph run in 1947. This record held for years.

 

A Southern California hotrodder named Mickey Thompson

considered this a personal insult. MT kept a frantic schedule

throughout the 1950’s, competing and innovating in drag racing,

road racing and speed trials. He held numerous records and

became one of the top builder/drivers. He also had the gift of

promotion and was able to attract sponsorship of various types at

a time when that was a rare luxury. As the ‘50s closed in on the

‘60s, MT came up with what would be his biggest challenge yetto

go for the outright land speed record and break the 400mph

barrier. And he would do it like the home garage hotrodder that he

was. With ace engine builder, fabricator and partner-in-crime Fritz

Voigt at his side, the two rodders opened a couple of beers and

chalked out the basic car architecture on the floor of MT’s

garage. Four Pontiac V8’s. All-wheel drive. A wide and low

streamliner and a complicated transfer system to get all four

motors synched up and power to the ground.

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Thompson Archive

Thompson Archive

Thompson Archive

Thompson Archive

Thompson Archive

MT put together a crew of self-taught builders and the plan took

shape. Working nights after work and weekends, the Challenger I

rose from the garage floor. Finished in beautiful hand-pounded

body panels, the blue streamliner was ready for the Bonneville

salt for the 1959 speed week. Tires were always a weak

component for land speed cars and MT had convinced Goodyear

to come up with special rubber to withstand the extreme forces.

MT had become obsessed with taking the record away from the

British. When the stunning Challenger I hit the salt, it proved very

fast, faster than any home- built hot rod ever, managing a

blistering two-way average of 330.51. Mickey Thompson was the

fastest American driver, ever, but Cobb’s record eluded him.

Bolting superchargers onto all four Pontiacs seemed like the

formula to put the car past the magic number. Returning in 1960,

Thompson pushed the improved and more brutal Challenger I to a

one-way pass of 406.6 mph. Suffering a breakage on the return

pass, the record couldn’t be certified as official, but MT had

proven the capabilities of himself and his team.

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Thompson Archive

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Thompson Archive

Business and multiple racing teams, including an ongoing Indy

500 effort pushed the LSR record onto the backburner, but the

obsession was never far off. Exotic jet and rocket cars had gone

way past 400 but that didn’t matter to MT; those weren’t real hot

rods. The wheel-driven piston record was the only one that

mattered. In ’68 MT returned with a new, more refined streamliner,

christened Challenger 2. Two ferocious SOHC Ford 427s would

power the car past 400 mph, hopefully WAY past that mark. Ford

and Autolite came up with the big money needed and MT the

promoter made sure that everyone knew that he was going back

to Bonneville to hit home just who was the king of the salt. Early

testing approached 400mph and proved that the Challenger 2 had

what it took to shatter the record. All systems were go and the

obsession was buzzing when Mother Nature stepped in and

swamped the salt flats with water. Bonneville was a lake and the

attempt was over before it started. A few months later the

sponsorship was pulled and Challenger 2 was rolled to the back

of the shop and covered with a tarp while Mickey shifted focus to

drag racing and the exploding desert racing scene.

 

It is always tough being the son of a famous person and things

weren’t easy for Danny Thompson. Wanting to race from an early

age, he ran into a wall named Mickey. MT didn’t want his son

driving. Over the years he had lost friends and drivers to crashes

and they all hung heavy on his conscience. Danny continued to

compete without help from his famous father and met success in

cars and on motorcycles. He was a natural. The hardheaded,

competitive father had produced a hardheaded, competitive son.

MT and DT would eventually make peace and even drive together

through numerous desert races.

The Bonneville itch never went away. MT had always thought that

Challenger 2 was the fastest piston-powered car ever built. His

businesses were thriving and he was a rich man. The means

were available. In 1987, Mickey approached Danny with a

proposition. Let’s get Challenger 2 back to Bonneville and I want

you to drive it. The father-son relationship was finally back on

track.A couple of months later, Mickey Thompson was murdered

in the driveway of his house. But that’s a story for another day.

 

Flash forward to 2006 and I am at the Danny Thompson

compound in Colorado working on a documentary film about MT.

DT was in his mid-50’s and extremely fit. He was friendly and

helpful but it was obvious that he was not a guy to mess with. He

had an energy. There was a fire burning inside him. We spent a

few days filming and following Danny around his large workshop

where, since retiring from racing in 1995 he’s been expertly

restoring historic racecars. A Dan Gurney-driven Indy car is up on

a table, stripped to a bare chassis. Too big to stash away,

Challenger 2 is on rollers in the center of the shop. I recognize it

immediately from photos in magazines. The SOHC Fords are

gone, but it is in great shape otherwise. Between filming I ask

about the car. He studies the car, as he must have a thousand

times before. He mentions how much he would like to restore it

and take it out to Bonneville to finish what his father had started.

He had recently earned his red 200mph hat on the salt and land

speed racing was on his mind in a way that it hadn’t been while

he was racing professionally. His desire to proceed with

Challenger 2 was tempered with the enormous sums of cash that

would be involved. It seemed at the time to be a wall that was

insurmountable. To hear him talk, it was clear that the Thompson

LSR effort was unfinished business and he wanted to get the car

once again through the speed traps as much for his Dad as for

himself.

After a few days at the compound, we traveled with DT to Speed

Week for more filming and he graciously acted as our escort

around the salt. The Thompson name has always held a lot of

weight at Bonneville and Danny made sure that every courtesy

was extended to our crew by the organizers. Though extremely

busy with the normal chaos of filming, the appeal of Speed Week

infected us all. On the long ride back to L.A., I found myself

hoping that Danny would somehow be able to scrape up the

money and backing to finish what his father had started.

August 2016- after two years of bad salt conditions, Danny

Thompson is set to make a statement for the ages about

persistence, dedication and focus. There is a tremendous amount

of interest in the Thompson journey and the LSR obsession that

carries the son as it did the father. A long, difficult process has

brought DT to this point in history. The Challenger 2 is back,

powered by two 2500hp Hemis running on nitro. The drive is

through two three-speed gearboxes, linked and counterbalanced

a huge improvement over the original hot-rodder “split gas pedal

and Mickey’s intuition” set-up. The shape and body panels are the

same only now painted a solid blue and lettered to match

Challenger I. Before the salt went to hell, Danny fired off a

stunning 419mph shakedown run, becoming only the 12th person

to break the 400mph barrier in a piston car. As an echo of his hotrodder

father, the car suffered a mechanical breakage on the

follow-up run. Talk of a once-unthinkable 500mph run rumbled

through the pit area. Challenger 2 only needed a good surface to

run on.

After setback after setback, the Thompson family is poised to

finally scratch the LSR itch. DT and his team have refined

Challenger 2 into an engineering marvel. The wait is over and

they are ready to blow past- way past- the current record of

439mph. Mickey’s name is painted on the car right next to

Danny’s because he will be sitting right there with his son as the

engines roar out their 5000hp howl and the miles of white

desolation blur into a flash of glory.