This story begins on September 16, 1947 when Britain John Cobb set the land speed record at the Bonneville Salts at 394.196 miles per hour. The very same day, Cobb went out for another run and blasted through the 400 mph mark with a single pass at 403.1 mph. The first time a wheel driven vehicle had surpassed the 400 mph barrier. Many attempts were made in the next decade to surpass Cobbs official land speed record, which requires that an average speed of two runs in opposite directions within one hour, and a new record mark must exceed the previous one by one percent to be validated. Cobb’s one-way pass was not recognized as an official record.
Enter American racer Mickey Thompson
Thompson was a well known drag racer in Southern California and is credited with inventing the slingshot dragster in 1954 by moving the seat behind the rear axle to improve traction to the tires and achieved even more notoriety when he became the first manager of Lion’s Drag Strip in 1955.
Mickey spent his life chasing speed so it surprised no one when he built his own land speed record car in his home garage. Calling it the Challenger I, Thompson embarked on being the first American to break the 400 mph mark and breaking the official land speed record. Using four Pontiac V8 engines to power the car, Thompson did indeed become the first American to break the 400 mile barrier by posting a 406.60 mph one-way run. He was unable to back up the run and set the official record because of an internal driveline failure.
The desire was still there and Mickey continued to work on the design of his streamliner while he actively pursued other speed and business challenges. In 1965 he published “Challenger: Mickey Thompson’s own story of his life of speed,” which detailed his racing and design innovations to that point in time.
In 1968, work on the Challenger II had begun in earnest as Mickey Thompson and several engineers used the best technology available to test components and aerodynamics in order to make a serious run at the existing 409 mph record for a piston engine, wheel driven car.
Before he could complete his dream of setting the speed record, Mickey Thompson was tragically killed by two gunmen at his home in Southern California. Adding to the tragedy, police investigations were unable to solve the case until many years later. Finally on June 8, 2004, former business partner Michael Goodwin was charged with the murder of Mickey Thompson and his wife. Goodwin was ordered to stand trial where he was found guilty of two counts of murder and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without parole terms on January 4, 2007. With a sense of closure, the Thompson family could move forward with their lives.
Mickey Thompson was elected posthumously to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2009. Thompson is ranked 11th on the NHRA Top 50 Drivers (1951-200).
Another Thompson Takes the Challenge
Mickey Thompson’s son Danny, a well respected racer in his own right, decided to pick up the torch and carry out his late father’s dream of running the Challenger II at Bonneville. Danny’s began racing at age 9 and established his skill as a driver by winning the quarter-midget championship the next year. Rapidly moving to motorcross racing and Formula Atlantic cars in his teen years, Danny took the next steps to sprint cars and stadium trucks. With the death of his father, Danny took control of the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group.
The younger Thompson left the industry in 1996 to pursue other interests. In 2003, he joined his father in the Bonneville 200 mph club and in 2008 he became the driver of “the world’s fastest Ford Mustang.”
Coming Around Full Circle
In 2010, Danny Thompson decided to complete his father’s ambition and he announced plans to begin building a 500 mph streamliner intended for a run at the Bonneville Salt Flats. We recently visited Thompson’s shop to check on his progress. According to Danny, “We’re going to make it. We have some great companies behind us, and we could use a few more, but we’re going to make it.”
We plan on routinely checking in with Danny and his progress with the streamliner each month. When the team pulls into Bonneville, we hope to be there covering the attempt.