Danny Thompson is Resurrecting the World's Fastest Hot Rod

Racing is full of unfinished business. For Mickey Thompson, the famed driver and innovator, it was breaking the piston driven land speed record. He came achingly close in 1960 with the Challenger I, but broke down on the return run. He struck back in 1968 with the Challenger 2, but was foiled by a rainstorm which turned the track at the Bonneville Salt Flats into a lake. After his retirement from racing in 1988, he partnered with his son Danny Thompson to make another attempt. Their collaboration was tragically cut short when Mickey and his wife were murdered.

On the 50th anniversary of his father's original 406mph run, Danny removed the Challenger 2 from storage and brought it to his Huntington Beach shop. Untouched for more than 40 years, he began the extensive process of restoring, retrofitting, and updating the vehicle. Danny wants to lay his father's business to rest. For him, that means using the Challenger 2, a vehicle that first ran in 1968, to challenge the piston driven land speed record.

Update: During Speed Week 2018, the Challenger 2 set a new SCTA AA/FS record of 448.757mph. As of today, that is fastest overall piston powered land speed record!

The Challenger 2

When the Challenger 2 was originally constructed in 1968, Sports Illustrated declared it “a rolling textbook in sophisticated automotive design.” Decades later, observers of its brief practice runs remained convinced that it was the fastest naturally aspirated vehicle ever built. As we restore the liner, it’s outward appearance will remain largely unchanged. Certain modifications must be made to comply with modern safety standards (we can no longer, for instance, deploy the parachutes by blasting off a section of the rear wing with compressed air), but we are using the same chassis, the same aerodynamics, and the same hand-formed aluminum skin. 

Rather than Ford 427s, the contemporary vehicle is powered by a pair of dry block nitro-fueled Hemi V8 engines in an all-wheel drive configuration. Overall horsepower has more than doubled, going from 600 front engine and 1200 rear engine to an even 2500 per. Twin three speed gear boxes link the two engines together and counterbalance output, a marked improvement over the original “split gas pedal and Mickey’s intuition” mechanism. The front of the car houses two 30 gallon aluminum fuel tanks that hold just enough nitromethane for one full speed pass. The total curb weight approaches 5200 pounds.

Streamliner Facts:

  • The streamliner is four wheel drive. Each engine drives one set of wheels. The drivetrains mirror each other exactly, so the front engine is actually mounted backwards in the chassis. 

  • The car's skin is made-up of 68 hand formed aluminum panels. They are connected to the subframe via Dzus buttons.

  • The engines are dry blocks (waterless), which means all of the cooling is provided by the fuel. A single run will consume around 50 gallons of a 87% nitromethane 13% methanol blend. As a result, the car's weight drops by approximately 500 pounds over the course of a one way pass.

  • The tires are a prototype nylon weave backed with banded steel. There is only 1/32 of an inch of rubber. Any more would spin off due to heat and expansion. They are custom made by Mickey Thompson Tires.

  • Primary stopping power is provided by dual parachutes with four foot blossoms. The car is also equipped with carbon ceramic disk brakes.

  • The Challenger 2 measures 32 feet in length, with a height of 27 inches at the tip and 37 inches at the canopy, and is 34 inches wide. It weighs 5700 pounds when fueled.

Danny Thompson

Step by step, Danny Thompson has maintained and expanded his family’s celebrated history in motor sports. He began his career in Motocross, winning his first eighteen consecutive events, before switching to cars and progressing through the Formula Atlantic Series, Supervees, and CRA Sprint Cars. He won the opening night of the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Grand Prix, and continued performing as a Chevrolet factory driver for the next seven seasons. After a decade of retirement, Danny came to Bonneville for the first time in 1992 and subsequently became a record holder in multiple classes. He gained further notoriety in 2007 for building and piloting the world’s fastest Ford Mustang in partnership with Hajek Racing.

Danny is well versed in the administrative and promotional side of racing, having served as president of the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group and later as a consultant to entertainment, promotional, and safety firms. He takes sponsor advocacy exceedingly seriously, and has spoken on behalf of backers at large trade shows, corporate events, and industry conferences. He is committed to generating positive press for sponsors in traditional media, online, and in person. 

The Crew

  • Lou Anderson - Fabricator

  • Larry & Randa Baird - Hospitality

  • Warren Baird - Pit Crew

  • Danny Bern - Pit Crew

  • Jason Brown - Pit Crew

  • John Burk - Pit Crew

  • Richard Catton - Engines

  • Judy & Cherico - Hospitality

  • Donnie Dye - Fuel

  • Tim Gibson - Engineering

  • Dave Hadley - Machinist

  • Frank Hanrahan - Fabricator

  • Terry Hegman - Fuel

  • Eric Hoenig - Fuel

  • Craig Johnson - Engines

  • Richard Kurtz - Engines

  • Bubb & Sophie Lannan - Photos

  • Abel Lannan - Cinematography

  • John & Kelly Lannan - Pit Crew

  • Ray Lara - Pit Crew

  • Holly Martin - Photos

  • Mike McGuire - Parachutes

  • Mike McGuire Jr. - Parachutes

  • Martin Menne - Photos

  • Reid Rutherford - Pit Crew

  • Travis Thompson - Press

  • Valerie Thompson - Manager

Our Full History

This project began more than 50 years ago with Mickey Thompson's homebuilt legend, the Challenger I. In the decades leading up to 1960, land speed racing was dominated by the British, gentleman racers backed by English motor component companies. America's answer to these juggernauts was a young hot rodder named Mickey, whose four engined vehicle was fashioned from junkyard parts in the garage of his family's El Monte home. In 1960, without the benefits of formal training or technical expertise, he became the first American race car driver to go over 400 mph, and the fastest overall driver in the world. This pioneering spirit led the NHRA Hall of Fame to dub him "the quintessential California hot rodder."

But Mickey, famously obstinate, was unsatisfied. Although he had clinched the highest overall speed, a breakdown on the return run prevented him from capturing the official record. An automotive purist uninterested in the emerging paradigm of jet powered cars, he spent years planning the construction of a new vehicle to break the wheel driven record. Circumstances finally came together in 1968, and the Challenger 2 was born.

Compared to the blunt Yankee hotrod character of the Challenger I, the Challenger 2 was a technological tour-de-force, a rolling textbook in sophisticated 1960's automotive design. Designed by Kar Kraft and assembled by a team of elite California hot rodders, 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. Their delight was abruptly transformed into despair when an unseasonal storm submerged their course at Bonneville, necessitating the cancellation of further tests and making a record attempt that year impossible. They were disappointed, but fully intended to return the next year, when another hammer fell. The heavy support provided by Ford Motors, Gulf Oil, and Reynolds Aluminum evaporated seemly overnight as American’s big three auto manufacturers decided to pull back from racing in 1969. Mickey, anxious to preserve his thriving speed equipment business, mothballed the project as he focused on drag racing and the blossoming off-road scene. 

The Challenger 2 sat dormant for nearly two decades as Mickey’s businesses and stature in the racing world grew. He fielded teams at Indianapolis, introduced the world to Baja, and captured more individual speed records than any other person, living or dead. But as retirement loomed, the man who had come to be called “The Speed King” found himself ruminating on his crown. Remarkably, the wheel driven world land speed record had not increased by even one mile per hour since the Summers Brothers captured it in 1965. He still believed himself capable of that feat, and he was convinced that his Challenger 2, derelict or not, was the fastest wheel driven vehicle ever built.

In late 1987, Mickey contacted his son Danny (now a successful racing driver in his own right), and told him that he wanted the record. He knew his own declining health wouldn’t permit him to drive, so the two men struck a deal. Mickey would take care of the financing and engineering, and Danny would handle the driving. The record would belong to the family. By January of 1988, the car was removed from storage and plans for a 1989 attempt were drawn up. By March, everything had stopped again, perhaps for the final time. Mickey and his wife were preparing to leave their home when two gunmen, employed by a former business partner, emerged from near their front gate and murdered them. Grief-stricken, Danny packed up the Challenger 2 along with his father's other possessions and placed it in long-term storage. He wouldn’t see it again for nearly fifteen years. 

Danny continued on as a full-time racing driver until 1995, when he retired from the sport and moved with his family to Colorado. His break with racing was relatively clean, and the quest for the speed record, which he considered a family undertaking, was not something he was interested in pursuing alone. His views on this did not begin to change until 2003, when he was invited to Bonneville to drive a newly restored small streamliner that had once belonged to Mickey. Despite Bonneville’s exalted position in his father’s personal canon, Danny hadn’t actually spent much time there as an adult, and was charmed by the pioneering spirit of event, which embraced both rank amateur and hardened veteran. 

Like his father, Danny caught the itch. He started returning to the salt each summer, bumping his streamliner record and partnering with Hajek Motor Sports to expand into different classes and vehicles. 2010 marked the fiftieth anniversary of his father’s remarkable run in the Challenger I, and Danny’s attention returned to the Challenger 2 and his father’s legacy. He knew it would probably be easier to start from scratch than to recondition the custom made vehicle to modern specifications, but he wanted to vindicate his father’s faith in the streamliner and honor his own heritage. He locked up his home in Colorado and setup shop in Huntington Beach, California, intent on capturing the record for the Thompson family.

Update: During Speed Week 2018, the Challenger 2 set a new SCTA AA/FS record of 448.757mph, which as of today is the fastest overall piston powered land speed record!