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.