In just a few short years, Danny Thompson did what nobody else in the world has done. Not only did he set a land-speed record for a piston-powered vehicle at nearly 450 MPH, he did so in a mostly untested vehicle originally built decades prior. With that record under his belt – and his father’s designs validated – Thompson has now decided to put the Challenger 2 streamliner up for auction.
Mickey Thompson’s original Challenger I set the land-speed racing world on its ear when it debuted in 1959, in part with its design – four Pontiac V-8s in the tightest possible package – and in part with the speeds it reached. “By October 1959, most of the bugs had been worked out and Mickey pushed it to 363 MPH… coming to within 31 miles of (John) Cobb’s mark,” Samuel Hawley wrote in “Speed Duel: The Inside Story of the Land Speed Record in the Sixties.” “Suddenly, he was no longer an upstart hot-rodder with overblown LSR dreams. He had become a serious contender.”
The next year, he hit 406.6 MPH in a one-way run in the Challenger I, but that proved the peak of his land-speed racing career. Poor weather and course conditions kept his speeds down for the next two years, and though he announced his retirement from land-speed racing in July 1962, he still kept his eye on returning to the salt, first in a never-realized rocket-assisted Challenger I and then, a few years later, in his Autolite Special.
As a successor to the Challenger I, the Autolite Special still relied on multiple reciprocating engines driving all four wheels for power. However, instead of a quartet of Pontiac V-8s, Thompson – thanks to Ford sponsorship and with the assistance of Kar Kraft – installed a pair of Ford SOHC 427 engines in tandem, in part to reduce the streamliner’s width and thus its frontal area. Its Quin Epperly-built spaceframe chassis used a combination of square and round chromemoly tubular steel, while its aluminum body came out of the shop of Tom Jobe and Nye Frank. By then jet cars had taken over the quest for the world land-speed record, but Thompson was still confident he could capture the wheel-driven record and even surpass 500 MPH in the Autolite Special.
Its first test runs proved promising – according to Danny Thompson, it ran up to 411 MPH – but the salt at Bonneville flooded that year. Even worse, Ford withdrew its sponsorship, so Mickey Thompson pushed the car into storage and retired from land-speed racing to focus on off-road racing.
While the elder Thompson sold the streamliner, then bought it back when he entertained thoughts of having Danny pilot the Challenger II in the late Eighties, the murder of Mickey and Trudy Thompson in March 1988 put a halt to those plans. “After that, it just didn’t feel right running the car without him,” Danny said.
Still, Danny held on to the streamliner and in 2011, with sponsorship from the tire company his father founded, decided that the time was right to finally drive it to a wheel-driven land-speed record. To do so, he replaced the SOHC 427s with a pair of Richard Catton-built fuel-injected Chrysler Hemi V-8s, each 500 cubic inches and good for up to 1,500 horsepower sipping a nitromethane/methanol blend. Other than the engines, some on-board telemetry, and a new paint scheme, though, the Challenger II remained largely as Mickey Thompson built it.
Over the next several years, Danny Thompson and his team encountered both setbacks and success. In 2014, Thompson recorded a one-way run of 419 MPH; in 2016, he set an AA/FS record of 406.769 MPH; and in 2017, he made a one-way pass in excess of 435 MPH. Over that time, he also broke a clutch, lost a universal joint at speed, and his parachutes accidentally deployed on a record run.
It took until 2018 – the 50th anniversary of the car’s introduction – for Danny Thompson to set an SCTA AA/FS record with a two-way average of 448.757 MPH, the fastest record for piston-powered land-speed vehicles. After doing so, Danny Thompson officially retired from land-speed racing. It wasn’t quite the 500 MPH that his father believed the car was capable of, but a win nevertheless. “If someone breaks the 448-mph average tomorrow, that’s perfectly fine, that’s racing, that’s as it should be,” Thompson said at the time. “Bonneville is the greatest amateur sporting arena in the world, and we’re all chasing speed like our lives depend on it.”
Since then, the streamliner has gone on exhibit alongside its predecessor at the World of Speed Motorsports Museum in Wilsonville, Oregon, entered the Dry Lakes Racing Hall of Fame, and served as the focus for a Smithsonian feature story on Mickey and Danny Thompson.
Now, as Danny Thompson noted in a Facebook post announcing the sale of the streamliner, it’s time “to find a permanent home” for the Challenger 2. Thompson has thus consigned the Challenger 2 to Mecum’s Kissimmee auction. No pre-auction estimate for the streamliner has been released.
Mecum’s Kissimmee auction is scheduled for January 2 to 12. For more information, visit Mecum.com.