By John Gunnell
Being involved with a Bonneville racing team, the cover of the January 2017 issue of Hot Rod magazine really grabbed me. "406.769 mph: A record 48 years in the making" it read. "Danny Thompson's return to Bonneville."
The story inside told how Thompson's project unfolded. It described the way he dusted off a car called the "Autolite Special" that his father, Mickey Thompson, had run at Bonneville in 1968. Danny re-dubbed the car Challenger 2 and gave it a second chance to shoot for a Bonneville record run. Actually, the car represented two second chances — one for Danny to revive his dad's car and race it over the salt and one to have a "Challenger" streamliner like his dad did.
Despite international exposure on the cover of the January 2017 issue of Hot Rod magazine, Danny Thompson is looking for sponsors for his racecar. At 68 years old, Danny Thompson drove his streamliner at just over 406 mph.
In 1968, Mickey Thompson built the Autolite Special with backing from Ford Motor Co. and Ford's Autolite division. Utah's strange weather kept the car from running for a time. Then, Ford pulled its sponsorship. Mickey sold the car, but in 1988 bought it back to work on with Danny as a father and son project. When Mickey died that same year, the project halted. According to Hot Rod, Danny didn't want to race without his dad until just recently, when he rethought his life and decided he wanted to give the car a second chance as Challenger 2.
The name Challenger 2 comes from Mickey Thompson's Challenger I. That was the car that Mickey took to Bonneville 57 years ago to shoot for a record. The Challenger I did set a one-way record of 406.6 mph for a piston engine car, but it did not do a second pass in that bracket to make it an official Southern California Timing Assoc. (SCAT) record. Therefore, the Challenger 2 represents a second chance for a Thompson family member to better 400 mph.
The Challenger I, a metallic blue streamliner powered by four Pontiac V-8s, set its record in 1960. The Autolite Special of 1968 was a somewhat narrower, red-white-and blue streamliner that had two single overhead cam (SOHC) Ford engines. In its revised 2016 format, the same car — now painted all metallic blue with white and gold lettering and renamed Challenger 2 — uses a pair of nitro-burning 500-cubic-inch 2500-hp Hemi V-8s built by Brad Anderson.
The Challenger I that Mickey Thompson drove to a one-way record in 1960 is also still in existence.
Mickey Thompson's 1960 record run of 406.6 mph outdid the one-way record of 402 mph set by Englishman John Cobb' in 1947. Here is the Challenger I on display at the 2013 SEMA Show. The car has four Pontiac V-8 engines.
In this format, the car carried Danny Thompson to his new 406.769 mph two-way mark. His first pass was taken at 411.191 mph. The car was impounded overnight for the second run the following day, which was a 402.348-mph jaunt. That averaged out to the headline number Hot Rod put on its cover.
Mickey Thompson was friends with Bunkie Knudsen and followed him from Pontiac to Ford, where he raced cars like this Mustang Mach 1.
Danny Thompson was not a total stranger to me, since Dave Sarna, the driver of our Bonneville car, and myself had called him about a year ago to discuss an idea we had about making a Mickey Thompson movie. Dave and I attended a "Save the Salt" meeting at the 2015 Performance and Racing Industry Trade Show (www.prishow.com) in Indianapolis and we thought that a movie might be a way to raise money to finance the salt erosion fight at Bonneville.
Members of the Save the Salt Coalition were at the 2016 SEMA Show to enlist support for their cause. Mining operations have depleted the salt level.
Although Danny Thompson has old movie footage of his dad's races and speed runs, he told us that making a movie isn't a practical idea. None other than Jay Leno later backed up his feelings on this, during a second phone call we did. However, Dave and I couldn't get the movie idea out of our minds. We kept thinking someday we'd meet Danny Thompson to discuss it more.
With thoughts of this floating around my head, I set out for the 2016 PRI Trade Show in Indianapolis, but found out there were no plans to hold a Save the Salt meeting there this year. I was enjoying other aspects of the show, when my stomach started growling. I grabbed a hot dog and Coke at a food stand and spotted an empty seat in the lobby. A thin man dressed in black was sitting next to me. I asked, "Where are you from?" He answered, "Colorado." Was he into racing I asked. "Yes," he said. "We're into land speed racing." So, I said, "You must know Danny Thompson," to which he replied, "I am Danny Thompson!"
The well-known Bonneville streamliner of racer Don Vesco was exhibited at this year's SEMA Show to draw people into the Save the Salt booth.
This streamliner was also at SEMA to drum up interest in the natural threats to automobile racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
I immediately asked Danny Thompson if I could interview him for Second Chance Garage.
SCG: Tell us why you're here Danny.
Danny: We're just roaming around seeing what kind of new products are out; seeing what we can find. Anything that will help our streamliner project. And looking for sponsorships, always the ever-elusive, hardest thing in motorsports. Finding the money to keep running.
SCG: Now, you just made a big splash. You're on the cover of Hot Rod magazine. You'd think potential sponsors would be knocking on your door.
Danny: Yeh, it's pretty cool when you walk through an airport and see the cover of Hot Rod magazine sitting there and you're on it. You walk through just smiling. That's really cool. You know, we've had a lot of exposure. We had good exposure in Hot Rod, we had good exposure in Roadkill.com and we had good exposure in Racer magazine. We've even done some television stuff and some commercial stuff, but, we're still looking for that elusive big sponsor.
SCG: Tell us about the car you're running.
Danny: Well, it's the car my dad, Mickey Thompson, drove in 1968. The car is 48 years old. It will be 49 years old this coming year. When it ran in 1968, my dad did about 360 mph with it and then it sat for, you know, 46 years. I got it all back running. Mostly it's the same as it was. The basic shape is the same. It's about two feet longer and has a couple of little aero tweaks. The air intakes from the front to rear engines are placed differently. It has a different engine and transmission combination. But, the basic car is the same one that ran in 1968.
SCG: How fast do you go out there at Bonneville?
Danny: We set a record at Bonneville Speedweeks 2016 at 406.769 mph, so that's pretty cool, but we're still gunning for more. We were going to retire the Challenger 2 after the FIA race, but then we ran into some problems and hurt the car pretty badly. So, now I've decided that I left too much on the table and now we want to go back and run in 2017.
SCG: Where was the FIA race?
Danny: It was at Bonneville. It was in September so it's Mike Cook's effort. It falls the week after "World of Speed" and the week before "World Finals."
SCG: What happened to the car?
Danny: You know, we're still trying to evaluate it, but we lost the drive shaft and it took a tire out and, you know, that took a whole bunch of other stuff out. We were at 415 mph when it went, so we had a hell of a ride.
SCG: What kind of engine does it have?
Danny: The car now has Brad Anderson aluminum block Hemis. So, it's a drag race combination, but they're injected. So, in drag racing, it would be A-Fuel. They are 500 cubic inches and injected and 2500 hp running on nitro.
SCG: Now, how many times have you gone out there to Bonneville yourself? Did you grow up out there?
Danny: The first time I was there was probably 1964 or 1965. But, I didn't start racing there until, I think, '99. That's because I was doing other things: Indy car stuff, road race stuff and all sorts of off road stuff. So, I finally got back to realizing that land speed racing is probably the coolest form of motorsports. It took me a while to figure that out. I should have figured it out earlier, but I didn't.
SCG: Did you have backing this year or did you race on an out-of-pocket basis?
Danny: Mostly I had Concrete Plants. Inc., from New York and Mickey Thompson Tires and at the very end of the year United Health Care and Ball Watches came on as sponsors. We had some help for sure, but not enough. But, that was last year and this is a new year. Right now we have Concrete Plants, Inc., for sure and we have Ball Watches, but that's about it as far as definites.
SCG: Did the Bonneville racers have a meeting here at PRI this year?
Danny: Not that I know of. They were at the SEMA Show. Unfortunately, I missed the meeting at SEMA. I didn't realize it was happening. Tom Birkland is from Ogden, Utah and he's involved and I saw him here at PRI; he was at the Danko Wind Tunnel booth.
SCG: Do you think that racers are going to be able to keep running at Bonneville?
Danny: That's a hard thing to speak to. The issue of deteriorating salt needs to be addressed more aggressively and Save the Salt and the Utah Salt Coalition are doing so, but we need more help on the Federal level. SEMA is trying to do some of that, but we really need some help on the level of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to convince the BLM that the salt is actually going away. They don't seem to be convinced that the salt is deteriorating. So, those things need to be addressed more aggressively.
SCG: I heard that the Salt Flats just won the 2016 International Historic Motoring Awards Lifetime Achievement Award as a tribute to over 100 years of inspirational achievements in a unique location.
Danny: I was going to go to that (ceremony) but they didn't call me until the week before the event and I was out of town. By the time I got all the information it was a little too late and a little too costly to go.
Danny: Well, I would hope that Ford would hop on my project because they were the only one involved with this car initially in 1968. It was a Ford-Autolite project at the time. But, they have not (come aboard). We have asked them once. So, that's all right. We're doing it whether anyone comes on board or not. It's happening. It's because of the passion about Bonneville; the passion about trying to get and keep that record and the passion about trying to continue to be the world's fastest piston-engine car.