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

The writer went into that section of his story with an aside on what would prove to be the first of three times Thompson was snakebit trying to break the land-speed record at Bonneville. Unseasonably early fall rains in the northwestern Utah desert in 1959 softened the pavement-hard surface of the salt flats, spoiling Thompson's initial efforts to beat the 394.19 mph speed set by Great Britain's John Cobb. Thompson had to be satisfied with 367.83 mph.

He did achieve international fame during his second effort in 1960, as the first American to surpass the 400 mph barrier, hitting the 406.60 mph mark that also broke Cobb's one-way record of 402 mph. However, the rules of Bonneville are that one's speed going one direction is combined with the speed going the opposite direction, and the average of both represents the official speed. The Challenger I axle broke on its return run; with that half-trial, no record was set.

That sent Thompson back to the shop to create Challenger II. At the time, Sports Illustrated called it "a rolling textbook in sophisticated automotive design." An article in Dragzine stated, "Compared to the blunt Yankee hot rod character of the Challenger I, the Challenger II was a technological tour-de-force. . . . The two-engined vehicle, cigar-shaped and clad in a skin of hand-formed aluminum, was built at a blistering pace and rolled out the back doors of Mickey's shop after just five months of construction. Early function testing proved extremely propitious, and the crew celebrated trial speeds approaching 400 mph."

Challenger II is ready to assault the Bonneville Salt Flats
Courtesy ThompsonLSR
Challenger II is ready to assault the Bonneville Salt Flats
Side view shows what was inside and still inspires Challenger 2.5
Courtesy ThompsonLSR
Side view shows what was inside and still inspires Challenger 2.5

While jet-propelled cars took over Bonneville by 1968, lugging beasts that generations of kids would remember from pictures in the Guinness Book of World Records, Thompson returned with Challenger II for a third time, with an obsession to finally be recognized for having driven the fastest piston- and wheel-driven car on the planet. Unfortunately, heavy rains turned the salt flats into a lake. Foiled again.

He had every intention of returning the next year, but support from Ford Motors, Gulf Oil and Reynolds Aluminum seemed to evaporate overnight, following the cue of America's big three auto manufacturers pulling back from racing in 1969. Thompson, who by then was consumed with his thriving businesses and the drag-racing and off-road scenes, quit racing and mothballed the land-speed project.

Challenger II remained in storage for the next two decades. Then, in late 1987, Mickey contacted Danny, who by then was a successful racing driver of his own, to say he wanted the land-speed record. Mickey's declining health would keep him from driving, so he agreed to take care of the financing and engineering, and Danny would pilot the car—to keep the record in the family.

The plans were set. But on the morning of March 16, 1988, Thompson was stopped at his Bradbury estate by an intruder, who shot and wounded him and dragged him into the driveway. A second gunman came out from nowhere to shoot and kill his second wife, Trudy, then walked back up to Mickey—who was being watched over by the first shooter—and executed "The Speed King" with a bullet to the head.

The Thompsons together were shot six times, but neighbors heard no gunshots, only Trudy's screams. Witnesses also said they saw two black men ride bicycles into the woods surrounding the Thompson home that were too thick for cars and trucks. Four hours after the shootings, a gray, 10-speed Columbia-model bicycle was found down the hill from the Thompsons' residence.

It remained a cold case for 13 years, despite Thompson's sister, Collene Campbell, the former mayor of San Juan Capistrano, pressing authorities for action. Then a couple who saw a television program about the unsolved mystery came forward to say they had seen Michael Frank Goodwin, Mickey's former business partner, casing the Thompson home with binoculars before the slayings.

Goodwin was originally charged in Orange County Superior Court with the murders, but a state appeals court overturned that case on jurisdictional grounds. On June 8, 2004, Goodwin was formally charged in Los Angeles County Superior Court. A judge in Pasadena ordered Goodwin to stand trial for the murders two years later.

Besides the couple who fingered Goodwin, the only witness to the killings was a 14-year-old girl. At the six-week-long trial, Goodwin's attorney presented testimony from a psychologist who said memories fade quickly and suggested a 13-year-old identification would not be trustworthy. Lacking direct evidence, the prosecution put on a circumstantial case, alleging that Goodwin arranged the slayings out of revenge. Both he and Thompson had become rich together staging motocross events in stadiums, but their business relationship soured, and the Thompsons won a legal judgment of more than $700,000 against Goodwin. Witnesses would tell the court they heard Goodwin say before the double homicide he wanted Thompson dead.

The defense contended the killings occurred during a botched robbery attempt. But Trudy was still wearing $70,000 worth of jewelry when she was found, and she and her husband had $4,000 in cash on them.

On Jan. 4, 2007, the jury found Goodwin guilty of two counts of murder. He was sentenced to two consecutive life-without-parole terms. The judge also denied a defense motion for a new trial. Mickey's first wife, Judy Creech of Huntington Beach, was in the courtroom for the verdict, as was her son Danny, who later told The Orange County Register's Frank Mickadeit the jury's decision made him feel "100 pounds lighter."

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