Eight years ago, Danny Thompson pulled his father’s Autolite Special streamliner, renamed the Challenger 2, out of storage. Then, it was little more than a partially bodied chassis, but today the car is the fastest piston-powered vehicle in the world. Its recent record-setting 448.757-mph run at Bonneville will be its last, however, as Thompson has officially declared the car retired.
As Hemmings Daily readers know, Thompson’s achievements on the salt over the last five years have been a series of ups and downs. Thompson documents this in the spreadsheet below, recording the Challenger 2’s 10 long-course runs since its 2014 debut, a count that includes the car’s initial function test at El Mirage. In addition to Thompson’s pair of records, the spreadsheet marks the mishaps, too, including the September 2016 U-joint failure that could have ended with tragic results.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the recent record is that the Challenger 2 isn’t a modern car. Its dual Hemi-engine design makes it difficult to service in the time allotted before impound, and it lacks contemporary safety features like traction control (which, ironically, may have produced a faster first run last month). What it does have is power — about 5,000 horsepower driving all four wheels — and a pilot and crew willing to make the most of it.
There’s meaning in the fact that the Challenger 2’s new record was set on the 50th anniversary of the car’s first appearance at Bonneville, and it would be hard to go out on a better note than this. Still, the real reason for the car’s retirement has little to do with a milestone date or the close calls that Thompson has had behind the wheel (including a hair-raising slide that required a lock-to-lock correction with the steering wheel last month).
Instead, it comes down to the same reason that Mickey Thomson put the car into storage after the 1968 season: money. Even with sponsors — for which Thompson is vocally appreciative — much of the cost of running the Challenger 2 has come from his own savings, something he describes as “not in a way that was sustainable,” even with a tolerant and understanding wife.
Though he admits the Challenger 2 may be capable of more, Thompson is happy with owning — if only temporarily — the piston-powered speed record (something he recognizes isn’t an official title). Of future challenges to the record, Thompson says,
And if someone breaks the 448-mph average tomorrow, that’s perfectly fine, that’s racing, that’s as it should be. Bonneville is the greatest amateur sporting arena in the world, and we’re all chasing speed like our lives depend on it. I’m going to be on the sidelines now, rooting for everyone. And based on some of the numbers that came out of this year’s Speed Week, there’s a lot to look forward to.
Spoken like a true champion, Danny.