Danny Thompson with the Challenger II in 2014. Photo by Holly Martin; all photos courtesy Thompson LSR.
Danny Thompson, son of American racing legend Mickey Thompson, has been trying since 2014 to set a Land Speed Record at Bonneville in the Challenger II, a streamliner built by his dad in 1968 and originally known as the Autolite Special. After two years of mechanical frustrations and environmental delays, the Thompson LSR team caught a break last weekend, turning in a pair of passes that averaged 406.7695 MPH, good enough to set a new Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) record in the AA/FS class.
Mickey Thompson with the Autolite Special in 1968.
Mickey Thompson’s time on the salt in the Autolite Special, nicknamed the “Flying Needle” for its long and narrow shape, proved equally frustrating. Then powered by a pair of 427-cu.in. Ford V-8s (one supercharged and the other normally aspirated), the streamliner ran a single pass at 411 MPH in testing, but a 240 MPH slide and poor salt conditions meant that no record was forthcoming for Thompson in 1968. In 1969, sponsorship from Ford Motors, Gulf Oil and Reynolds Aluminum was withdrawn, giving Thompson no choice but to put aside the car and focus on his core business of making cars go faster in the quarter-mile.
The Autolite Special was sold and later repurchased by Thompson, and in 1987 Mickey and Danny Thompson began a dialogue about reviving the Autolite Special for another go at a piston-powered speed record. This time, Danny would be the Thompson in the cockpit, and in early 1988 the car was pulled from storage to begin the work necessary for a new go at the record. Then came the senseless March 1988 murder of Mickey and Trudy Thompson, and in the aftermath, the Flying Needle was once again placed into storage.
The Challenger II as it appears today.
Eventually, Danny began pursuing records of his own at Bonneville, and in 2010, he once again turned his attention to the Autolite Special, or as it was also known, the Challenger II. Restoring the liner and bringing it up to modern safety standards was a multi-year project, but much of the original car remains today. The chassis is essentially the same as in 1968, and with a few small changes, so is the aluminum skin. Like the original, this version retains four-wheel drive, but power comes from a pair of normally aspirated Chrysler Hemi V-8s instead of the original’s Ford engines.
By 2014, the Challenger II was ready to take to the salt. In September, Thompson piloted the car to a one-way pass of 419 MPH, but on the return run one of the car’s two clutches failed, forcing a premature end to the required second pass. Later that same month, the violence of a parachute deployment activated the car’s fire suppression system, leading to more delays. Then the rains moved in, ending any hopes of another attempt that season.
The same would hold true for 2015, when poor environmental conditions once again prompted the SCTA to cancel Bonneville Speed Week and the later World Finals. Seeing opportunity in adversity, Thompson and his crew went to work on the Challenger II, making subtle but significant improvements in five key areas for the 2016 record attempt.
To ensure that clutch failure wouldn’t be an issue, the team re-machined parts to increase clearances, eliminating the source of the problem in 2014. Gear ratios were changed to improve acceleration, and the rebound setting for the front shocks was altered to ensure a nose-down attitude at speed. Aiding this, small canards were added to Challenger II’s nose, while a rear undertray was fitted to create a negative pressure zone and addition louvers were added to vent engine heat. Finally, the percentage of nitromethane in the fuel was upped from 75-percent to 80-percent, though this was later dialed back to 72-percent to aid traction at the end of the long course.
The start of Saturday’s 411.191 pass.
The changes helped to deliver the expected result, and on Saturday, August 13, Danny piloted the Challenger II to a one-way pass of 411.191 MPH. Per the rule book, the car was impounded to prevent alterations, and on Sunday, August 14, he returned to the salt, completing the second pass at 402.348 MPH. Combined, the two runs averaged to 406.7695 MPH, good enough to beat the existing SCTA AA/FS record of 392.503 MPH, set by Charlie Nearburg in October of 2009 with the Spirit of Rett streamliner.
The 402.348 MPH pass, from inside the cockpit.
The FIA also recognizes speed records, and in the Challenger II’s class (specifically, Category A, Group II, Class 11), the record remains with Charlie Nearburg and the Spirit of Rett, which set a two-way average speed of 414.316 MPH in the mile on September 21, 2010. With ample time remaining in this year’s Speed Week, it’s a safe bet that Danny Thompson will be looking to best this record as well.