Challenger 2.5: Danny Thompson Races Toward the Bonneville Salt Flats

The onetime Ford driver sets out to finish what his racing-legend father Mickey Thompson started before being murdered in 1988

Challenger 2.5: Danny Thompson Races Toward the Bonneville Salt Flats
Photography: John Gilhooley | Design: Dustin Ames

On one of those misty July mornings that are more common than sunny ones in Huntington Beach this summer, two gray-haired guys face the opening of a garage in a nondescript industrial park, their hands outstretched as if receiving manna from the heavens.

The manna is actually a rectangle of metal frame connected by chains to a forklift steered ever so slowly by a younger man. Between the forklift and the older gents is a platform on wheels for the cockpit section of a vehicle that will eventually weigh 5,500 pounds total—or about 1.5 times the weight of a standard automobile. The platform will allow the cockpit, which is just back from a nearby machinist, to be wheeled around the ThompsonLSR shop.

Just before touchdown, the older men call a timeout, kibitz, and then ask the forklift driver to rotate the frame a quarter turn forward so it doesn't slip off the platform. Without a crew of many more men, this task will rely on gravity and the brute force of two middle-aged chaps who could be crushed with one mistake, although they personally seem more concerned about maintaining the health of the cockpit.

Danny Thompson
John Gilhooley
Danny Thompson
Danny (left) and Mickey Thompson celebrate another racing trophy for the family’s crowded mantle
Courtesy ThompsonLSR
Danny (left) and Mickey Thompson celebrate another racing trophy for the family’s crowded mantle

An observer feels his heart stop when the dead quiet in the garage is interrupted before touchdown by the racket of wrenches that had been left inside the frame crashing like cymbals on the cement floor. A split second later: mission accomplished.

Danny Thompson, in the catcher's position had that back area of his garage been a baseball diamond, has no time to celebrate. Time is of the essence if he is going to finish his space-age streamliner in time to test it in early October at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. But he needs help—morally, physically, especially financially—to reach his ultimate goal of driving Challenger 2.5 450 mph at Bonneville by October 2014, bringing the wheel-driven, land-speed record (the LSR of his shop's title) back to his family. Over the past two years, Danny has had two days off from his quest to finally finish what his racing-legend father Mickey Thompson couldn't complete back in 1988, back when Mickey pulled his iconic dragster out of storage, secured a crew and sponsorships, and asked Danny to go behind the wheel and bring back the land-speed crown to the Thompson clan.

"That was a huge deal," Danny says in his shop, referring both to racing history and his own chance for special father-and-son bonding with Mickey.

"Three weeks later, he was murdered."

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Alhambra-born Marion Lee "Mickey" Thompson was a champion racer of vehicles on and off the roads, and "The Speed King" achieved more individual speed records than any other person, living or dead. He's credited with being the first manager of Lions Drag Strip near Long Beach in 1955; fielding teams for the Indianapolis 500; and creating the sanctioning bodies SCORE International, for desert rally races, and Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group, for other off-road vehicles and indoor motocross. He also helped to take motocross from dirt tracks in the middle of nowhere to large stadiums in big cities.

His Mickey Thompson Performance Tires company, whose genesis was the thin rubber tires he custom-made for Challenger I to go after the land-speed record in 1960, would go on to outfit Indy cars after the business opened in 1963. A member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and the Automotive Hall of Fame, the National Hot Rod Association (which ranked Thompson No. 11 among the top 50 drivers from 1951 to 2000) dubbed him "the quintessential California hot rodder" when it inducted him into its Hall of Fame.

"The Hottest Hotrodder in the World," a December 1959 Popular Science article on Thompson, described Challenger I as "the fastest U.S. car ever built," seeking to achieve what no other driver of a piston-driven vehicle had achieved at that point: 400 mph. But the then-31-year-old El Monte resident was already dreaming up ways of taking his "gas-turbine job" up to perhaps 500 mph, something that still has never been done, save for jet-powered land-speed cars that are actually rockets on wheels.

Thompson kept pen, pencil and paper on his nightstand because, as his then-wife (and Danny's mother) Judy explained to Popular Science reporter Wesley S. Griswold, Mickey would come up with his best ideas in the middle of the night. A high-school graduate with no formal training, he was considered a natural-born engineer, credited with having invented—through trial and error—the "slingshot dragster," which put the engine in the back of the car to create maximum thrust and traction, a design he'd parlay into Challenger I.

Griswold got at what a family effort going after the land-speed record has been for the Thompson family in this passage:

What is it like to cover the ground that fast?

"It's like trying to follow a road that is disappearing over the edge of the world," Thompson says.

And how does Mrs. Thompson, a young mother of two appealing youngsters, feel about her husband's obsession with speed?

"It's fine with me," declares Judy Thompson. "I've always said that if Mickey were a flagpole sitter, I'd be right up on a pole alongside."

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