You wouldn’t believe this story if it were a Hollywood movie. It is quite simply an over-the-top but true tale of a son fulfilling the quest of his murdered father. The dad was one of racing’s most colourful characters and innovators, the late Mickey Thompson.
Here’s the severely condensed version of how Danny Thompson took his father’s streamliner out of storage and rebuilt it for a land speed record attempt at Bonneville.
They had come achingly close in 1960 with the Challenger I, with four supercharged Pontiac motors. The Challenger II was a sleeker design with two Ford engines and Mickey did run 406 mph, but was unable to make the back-up run in the opposite direction, as required by FIA rules, within one hour due to a mechanical failure. Then the rains came and the salt flats were flooded preventing another attempt. The LSR racing was put to the side while Mickey developed his other racing cars and stadium Trophy Truck racing series.
The years go by and Mickey still has the dream of getting that 400+ mph LSR record and asks his son to help restore Challenger II and be the driver. Not long after the father and son team up on this quest does tragedy strike the family when Mickey and his wife, Danny’s step-mother, are brutally murdered at their home north of Hollywood in March 1988. The LSR project comes to a halt as the family comes to terms with this loss. On the 50th anniversary of his father’s original 406 mph run, Danny pulls the Challenger II from a storage container - untouched for more than 40 years - and brought it to his Huntington Beach race shop to begin the extensive process of restoring, retrofitting and updating the vehicle to today’s safety standards.
Danny needs to lay his father’s business to rest and that means using the original Challenger II – a vehicle that hasn’t run since 1968 – to break a world land speed record.
“I’ve raced all sorts of other things,” says Danny Thompson. “I’ve driven Formula cars, off-road stuff, motorcycles. I drove for Ford for three years as a paid driver, but I came back to Bonneville. It’s like where a son was born, and a father died. I kind of stopped going there voluntarily after my dad died but I asked myself, ‘What do you do now?’ As I got older, I started thinking about Bonneville again.”
Danny was 59-years-old when be began the five-year project to bring the old racecar back to the salt. The new version of Challenger II is about three feet longer and has a larger vertical stabilizer for the higher speeds. Its power comes from a pair of nitro-fueled Hemi V8 engines in an all-wheel-drive configuration. The engines are dry blocks or waterless, so most of the cooling is provided by the fuel. Overall horsepower is approximately double that of the original Ford SOHC 427 cubic-inch motors, from 600 front engine and 1,200 rear engine to an even 2,000 horsepower each. The 1968 Challenger II was 1,800 horsepower; the 2014 version has 4,000 horsepower.
A test run in June on the much shorter track on the dry lakebed at El Mirage proved to be very promising. The engines ran well and the car was stable to 200 mph. The goal at Bonneville would be significantly faster.
The first time the Challenger II gets salt on her special M/T tires is at the 2014 USFRA Test and Tune event one month later. The car passes technical inspection with flying colours and the next day the dual engines are fired up on alcohol.
“We got to run the car on the salt, and I can’t describe how cool it was,” Thompson recalls. “We made a clean 246 mph checkout pass early that morning.” Rising wind speeds delayed a second run until the next day when Danny hit 317 mph on the three-mile long course. The Challenger II needs five miles to reach her potential top speed and safely stop using her dual parachutes, however.
Finally, August arrived and Danny and his team of 22 people headed north from Los Angeles to the 2014 Edition of Speedweek. But, like everyone else, many of whom had travelled from Europe, Danny discovered a shallow salt lake that stretched to the horizon. Just as his father had been foiled from making his record run by floodwaters, Mother Nature had played a cruelly ironic trick on Danny.
“Sure we were disappointed, but we were never discouraged,” he says. “The car was still ready to run. We went back home and sorted through details that required additional time over the three weeks before World of Speed when we could make the next attempt on the record.”
The Challenger II team reconvened in September and the car was prepared for its first five mile run down the course. The track was somewhat rough for the first couple of miles from the flooding, but it smoothed out.
“I ran 390 mph on the first run when the fire bottles released inside the cockpit and I couldn’t even see my hand in front of me,” chuckles Thompson. “I had no vision at all and realized by this time I was nearing the end of the eight mile course. So I gently steered off the course and hoped I wouldn’t get stuck in the soft salt and mud.”
Danny safely stopped the car after popping open the canopy at 80 mph. He later discovered the cable release for the extinguishers was too tight and the massive negative G-load from opening the chute had pulled the pins on the bottles.
The next day the crew was looking forward to a good run and, after solving a fuel issue, the Challenger went 419 mph, meaning that Danny had surpassed his father’s top speed of 406 mph and thus lifted a huge weight from his shoulders. From now on, Danny will be racing for his own legacy and his mother, Judy Creach, who was present trackside in the run-off area to greet her son with a hug.
The following day would be the most trying as Danny and his team had to make their follow-up run that must equal or exceed the previous days speed in order to be awarded the record for their class. This was only the car’s third full run on a long course.
“We started out a little later in the day than I would have liked, which gave the salt time to warm up and soften,” recalls Thompson. “That said, the surface was much better than yesterday, and the car felt more composed during the run.
“The Challenger never left the line so hard. When the tach hit 6,000 rpm one of the clutches blew and the car dropped into neutral and I guided it off the course.”
But there’s plenty of potential in Challenger II as the dual motors have been burning only a 70-percent dose of nitromethane so far.
Danny has more time on his hands than ever before as he waits for Speedweek 2015 when he will take another kick at the can, so to speak. For a man who has spent the past five years working seven days a week, easily 12 hours a day making an old, dilapidated streamliner into a bona fide contender for the world’s fastest car, having to wait that long will be a challenge in itself. Hopefully, the waiting will be the hardest part.