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

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Mickey Thompson never wanted his only son to race.

"That's because of the 10 guys who were closest to him, eight died racing," Danny Thompson recalls as he holds a space-age part from Challenger 2.5.

Danny Thompson, who had not visited Bonneville since he was a kid, was called back after retiring from racing
Courtesy ThompsonLSR
Danny Thompson, who had not visited Bonneville since he was a kid, was called back after retiring from racing
Danny Thompson with the world’s fastest Mustang. He was a Ford driver for years
Courtesy ThompsonLSR
Danny Thompson with the world’s fastest Mustang. He was a Ford driver for years

But the younger Thompson would not be denied. He began racing motocross behind the old man's back. "I didn't want my ass kicked," he explains with a laugh.

He'd win his first 18 consecutive events on the circuit. But at a dirt track in the Mammoth Lakes area, Danny turned around in the pit area to find Mickey glaring at him. The son would go on to win his first two races that day—before crashing in the third. It didn't matter: his father supported and accepted him as a racer after that. Mickey even allowed Danny to be his co-driver in off-road races in Baja. But, as fathers and sons are wont to do, they "butted heads. A lot."

Danny decided to rebel by going into Formula racing, something Mickey opposed out of safety concerns. Justified safety concerns: During his racing career, which also included stints with Supervees and CRA Sprint Cars, Danny would break his neck, both legs and—three different times—his back.

On the highlights side, Danny won the opening night of the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Grand Prix and was a paid driver at different times for Ford and Chevrolet. He retired from racing in 1995, the same year he moved his family to Colorado. He has served as president of the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group and later as a consultant to entertainment, promotional and safety firms. He was a Ford representative, and he still does promotional work for Mickey Thompson Performance Tires, which is now owned by Cooper Tires. A large illustration of the logo of his dad's old company hangs in the ThompsonLSR shop.

Does Danny think, in the words of Lightning McQueen, the "need for speed" is in his blood?

"It absolutely is."

But Challenger II had to wait. Overcome by grief immediately after his father's death in 1988, Danny had put the car and Mickey's other belongings in long-term storage. He would not see the car for another 15 years.

He had only been to Bonneville as a child, but he began thinking about the salt flats in 2002.

"I've done all sorts of other things," he says. "I've driven Formula cars, off-road stuff, motorcycles. I drove a Ford for three years; I was a paid driver. But I came back to Bonneville. It's like where a son was born, and a dad died. I kind of stopped going there voluntarily after my dad died. But I asked myself, 'What do you do now?' As I got older, I started thinking about Bonneville again."

Danny was invited in 2003 to drive a newly restored small streamliner that had once belonged to Mickey. He'd go on to become a world-record holder in multiple classes. In 2007, he built and piloted the world's fastest Ford Mustang in partnership with Hajek Racing.

In 2010, the 50th anniversary of Mickey's remarkable 406.60 mph run in the Challenger I, Danny came up with the idea to bring Challenger II back to the flats. With all the advancements in engines, materials and technology, it would have been easier to build a rig from scratch, but Thompson wanted to honor his father's faith in the streamliner. Danny left Colorado and set up his shop in Huntington Beach for the Challenger II remodel.

"I'm getting goosebumps just talking about it; I want to do it for him," he says nodding toward a large black-and-white portrait hanging in the garage of his father at Bonneville. "I want to finish what he almost did when he went 406.6 in '60. Now, we're going to do it."

Keep in mind that since 1947, only 11 people have gone faster than 400 mph in a car that wasn't a jet rocket on wheels. And while Danny has driven dragsters, he has never been in a missile like the one he's itching to ride 450 mph in Utah. The closest he came was three years ago in a lower-class vehicle that, once it hit 264 mph, flew 25 feet into the air for more than 1,000 feet before it rolled seven times. (Do a YouTube search for "Danny Thompson racing crash.")

"That's something I never want to experience again," he says, shaking his head. "Driving on salt is like driving on snow and ice. You're slipping like heck."

Not that it'll stop him from getting into the cockpit of Challenger 2.5.

"I need to finish what he started," Danny repeats of his father. "Plus, I want to go fast really bad. I'm six years older than he was, but I'm full of piss and vinegar."

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When the Challenger 2.5 project started, Danny was alone. He isn't anymore. You'll just about always find him with two Orange County fabricators in his garage. Two machinists from San Diego County drive up at least twice a week. Specialists from other nearby shops get some of the work. Tim Gibson, an aero engineer going back to his days at Boeing and later a crewman for former drag racer Kenny Bernstein, has stepped into Mickey Thompson's shoes as the project engineer.

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