On the 50th anniversary of its construction, Challenger II returns to Bonneville for one last record attempt
Challenger II in 2016. Photo by Holly Martin, courtesy Thompson LSR.
In 1968, Mickey Thompson debuted his Autolite Special streamliner, built to set a wheel-driven land speed record at Bonneville. It was not to be: Thwarted by poor salt conditions, loss of sponsorship, and family tragedy, the car would not return to Utah for another 46 years, when son Danny began running the car as the Challenger II. Since then, Danny has experienced both Bonneville’s highs and lows, but in 2018, the 50th anniversary of the Challenger II, he’ll be back for one final attempt at a new speed record.
Since reintroducing the Challenger II to Bonneville in 2014, Danny has experienced numerous mechanical failures–including a 2016 mid-run universal-joint failure that shredded a rear tire and could easily have ended in disaster–and several weather-related cancellations that precluded him from besting the AA/FS record of 406.769 mph set at Speed Week in 2016. Last year’s Speed Week run of 435.735 mph showed how much potential the Challenger II still has, but his return run ended with a snapped connecting rod and damage to seven others.
Unable to repair the damaged Hemi–one of two beneath the Challenger II’s aluminum bodywork–the team returned to California to prepare for the World Finals in October 2017. Once again the elements refused to cooperate, and the World Finals were canceled due to poor salt conditions, forcing Thompson to postpone his retirement from racing, first announced in 2016. Last year was also going to be Thompson’s final time in the cockpit, but, once again, family business remains unfinished.
In 1960, Mickey Thompson became the first American race driver to top the 400mph mark, behind the wheel of his four-engine, home-built Challenger I. His speed of 406.6 mph bested British driver John Cobb’s 402-mph record, and had his return run not resulted in a breakdown, it likely would have given him the world record. It would be eight more years before Mickey returned to Bonneville for another record attempt, but the all-new Autolite Special was far more sophisticated than the Challenger I had been.
Mickey and Danny Thompson with the Challenger II–then the Autolite Special–at Bonneville in 1968. Photo courtesy Thompson LSR.
Designed by Kar Kraft and built in under six months by a team of Southern California hot-rod all-stars, the Autolite Special proved capable of running near the 400-mph mark, even in early shake-down testing. Once the bugs were worked out, it should have delivered a record-setting pace, but the team never got the opportunity to run in 1968; once again, wet weather closed the salt flats to competition.
By 1969, just one year later, the sport had changed. Big-dollar sponsorships from Ford, Gulf Oil, and Reynolds Aluminum had vanished, and with his parts business, drag racing, and off-road racing efforts to focus on, Mickey had little interest in funding a land speed-record attempt on his own. It would be another 18 years before he thought of running the car again, this time with son Danny behind the wheel. In 1987, discussion turned towards a 1989 record attempt, but it was not to be: On March 16, 1988, Mickey and Trudy Thompson were murdered in the driveway of their Bradbury, California, home.
Challenger II was placed in long-term storage, where it may have remained indefinitely had Danny Thompson not been invited to drive one of his dad’s old streamliners at Bonneville in 2003. Smitten by the salt, he began an annual pilgrimage to Utah, and, in 2010, the 50th anniversary of his dad’s run in the Challenger I, Danny made the decision to restore the Autolite Special streamliner and run it at Bonneville.
In 2014, one measured run resulted in a down pass of 419 mph, coupled with clutch failure on the return. Next, the parachute system deployed on a run, triggering the fire suppression system with the force of the deceleration. By the time the car was repaired and ready to run, the rains had moved in, ending any additional attempts that season, as well as throughout 2015.
If Danny’s 2016 Speed Week record run was a highlight of the year, the U-joint failure at the World Finals was certainly the low point. The good news was that Danny wasn’t seriously injured, and while the car suffered severe damage, it was rebuildable in time for the 2017 Bonneville season.
Which also failed to go as planned, ending with a broken front Hemi engine after a single pass at Speed Week. The car was repaired in time for the World Finals, but, once again, salt conditions prompted the cancellation of the event.
No one would blame Thompson for hanging up his Nomex; after all, how much frustration can one driver shrug off? Regardless of past misfortune, he remains upbeat, and has used the extra time to better prepare the Challenger II for the upcoming season. Connecting rods in both engines have been swapped for new ones, and Thompson now knows that 11 passes, running 84-percent nitromethane as fuel, is too many between replacements. The car’s bottom aluminum skin, corroded by the salt, has been replaced, as has the driver’s harness system. The Challenger II is as ready for 2018 as it can be, prompting Danny to declare,
We seriously considered retiring the car last year, but it seemed like a shame to miss the anniversary, and the whole team felt that higher speeds were attainable. After ruminating on it, we decided that the C2 probably had one more year in her.
While any additional talk of retirement has been put on hold for the time being, Danny’s current plans include only Speed Week in August, and not the later World Finals. Mounting a legitimate record run won’t come cheap, and Thompson is always on the lookout for additional corporate and private benefactors.
Much has to go right for Thompson to claim a new record, and the piston-powered, wheel-driven world record of 439.024 mph (held by George Poteet in the Speed Demon streamliner) may even be beyond his grasp. Still, could there be a better story to tell next August than Danny Thompson setting a new record in the car his father debuted a half-century earlier?