Danny Thompson and Challenger 2 Blow Past Own Records at Bonneville Salt Flats

Danny Thompson in Challenger 2 at 2018 Bonneville Speed Week. (Courtesy of Optima Batteries)

The last time I saw Danny Thompson’s Challenger 2, it was in pieces and still being together in a Huntington Beach industrial park space.

That was in 2013, when Thompson told me of his plans to rebuild Challenger II, his late father (and racing legend) Mickey Thompson’s dual-engine streamliner, to break the national land speed record for piston-driven engines.

Danny Thompson did just that at Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah in 2016, when he clocked in at 406.7 miles per hour. It went on to exceed 435 mph, and at the 2018 Bonneville Speed Week this past weekend, Thompson shattered his own records by hitting 450.909 mph and averaging 448.757 mph.

Alhambra-born Mickey “The Speed King” Thompson, a champion racer of all kinds of on- and off-raod vehicles, was snakebit when it came to setting land speed records in his gasoline powered “slingshot dragsters.”

His goal was to reach the then-out of reach 400 mph in his custom-made Challenger I, which had been dubbed “the fastest U.S. car ever built,” but he had to settle for 367.83 mph on rain soaked salt flats in 1959.

Cover photo by John Gilhooley, cover design by Dustin Ames

A year later, he hit 406.60 mph on one run, but the rules of Bonneville are that the first speed be combined with a second speed going the opposite direction. Thompson’s record quest was nullified when Challenger I’s axle broke on the return run.

That sent Thompson into the shop to create Challenger II, which was described as “a technological tour-de-force” and easily went on to reach speeds of 400 mph in trials, but heavy rains drowned its 1968 debut at Bonneville, which by then was taken over by jet-propelled vehicles. Thompson intended to come back the following year, but first his sponsorships dried up and then his businesses took off, prompting him to hang up his racing helmet.

Challenger II remained in storage through late 1987, when Thompson, who was in declining health, convinced his son Danny, a pro car, truck and motorcycle racer, to take over behind the wheel so the speed record could stay in the family. Mickey would take care of the financing and engineering. The dream appeared to have died on March 16, 1988, when Mickey and his second wife (and Danny’s stepmother), Trudy, were assassinated by gunmen in their Bradbury estate’s driveway.

The man, the legend Danny Thompson (photo by John Gilhooley)

Overcome by grief, Danny Thompson stepped away from racing and Challenger II stayed in storage for years. Then, on the 50th anniversary of Mickey’s 406.60 mph Bonneville run in 2010, Danny came up with the idea of taking Challenger II out of mothballs and back to the flats.

He left Colorado to set up shop in Huntington Beach, where he would tell the Weekly–while looking at a portrait of his father in the garage–“I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it; I want to do it for him. I want to finish what he almost did when he went 406.6 in ’60. Now, we’re going to do it.”

He became a man of his word in 2016, and the Optima PowerPro Ambassador wants you to know that he relied on the company’s H6 Yellowtop Din fitment battery and a new Optima battery mount to break his own record this weekend past. It marked the seventh and final “torture test” for Optima’s H6, which previously survived challenges from Germany’s Nürburgring tracks, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and the King of the Hammers off-road race in Johnson Valley, CA.

Of course, much credit also goes to the hardworking crew of racers/restorers at Danny Thompson Motor Sports, which used Mickey’s original Challenger II chassis, although for the younger’s Challenger 2 the Ford 427 engines were swapped out in favor of a pair of dry block nitro-fueled Hemi V8s in an all-wheel drive configuration. Those and other modifications doubled the horsepower.

Somewhere a Speed King is smiling.

Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.

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