( Holly Martin / Peter Vincent )

Sideways at over 400mph

Danny Thompson
Written By
Peter Turford

Over Half a Century Ago:

In 1968 Mickey Thompson was already a motorsports legend. He was known for his drag racing exploits, as a driver, owner and promoter. He showed up at Indianapolis with some of the most unconventional, yet fast cars. His name became legendary in the world of speed equipment and he was deep into trying to break the World Land Speed Record at Bonneville, Utah. He had shown up at the Salt flats with his Autolite Special and was ready to make a record run on Oct 28, 1968 – when the Salt Flats was flooded.

Before Mickey could return the next year the funding had been pulled from the land speed record car. He and Danny Ongias were doing amazing things in the world of funny cars. The Autolite Special was parked and mostly forgotten about for close to 50 years. A lot happened in that time and we tragically lost Mickey. In 2010 Mickey’s son Danny began the long, expensive and arduous task of restoring the Autolite Special. Not for display, but to actually break the World Land Speed Record for Piston Powered Vehicles. In 2018 Danny Accomplished his goal – Happily he recently shared his story with us at The Drivers Project.

Unfinished Business:

August 11, 2018: I had barely slept – maybe 2-3 hours at most. I’ve never been a big sleeper, but to be honest, I was concerned. I was about to fit my almost 70 year old butt into a 50 year old hot rod, with 1 Monster Hemi behind me and another at my feet, making an estimated 6000 combined Horsepower. Along with the Hemis and myself there was 50 gallons of specially brewed Nitro. I was concerned about only 1 thing – failure.

This was my “Last Stand”. It was the conclusion of a 50 year journey started by my dad in 1968. I had so much on the line, including my family’s good name. I’d sold everything I could, I had broken the #1 racer’s rule and borrowed money. The hopes and dreams of my fellow team members, sponsors, supporters and followers around the world were riding with me. Most importantly, my immediate family was as invested in this as I was – my incredibly supportive wife; Valerie, my son Travis and my 90 year old Mother Judy!

To me, the Most Magical Place on Earth is a hot, barren desert in Utah, The Bonneville Salt Flats. Not only is it my favourite speed playground, but the sunrise is one of the most picturesque on Earth. The problem is that you can’t enjoy it. You are busy preparing to go crazy fast in a race with several nasty competitors; the weather, physics, the salt’s condition and a few other bad asses who see 399 mph as a “failure”.

We were attempting to break the World Land Speed Record for Piston driven cars with no room for failure. The rules require a new record holder to have a 2 run average speed in excess of the previous record. I had enough spares for 2 runs only – not 2 ½ runs not 3 runs – 2 runs only.

At $4000 per run there is no financial room for error. The neat part? The tires were named after my dad, Mickey Thompson!  We were carrying fewer engine spares than most Sunday afternoon drag racers. A set of pistons, a couple of rods and not much else. We had some spare clutch bits and pieces and that was pretty much it. There was no time for working up to speed – just get in the car no warm up, no nothing, just do it!

My son Travis and I

Getting in line is somewhat strategic. You want to be near the front of the line.  There are fewer cars in front of you to have issues on the salt. You want to be up front – but don’t want to be first. My concern is starting a run, much less completing a run and find out the clocks didn’t work! It costs too much money to make a wasted run, compounded by our lack of  “spares” situation. While waiting, I have my ears tuned to listen for tire slip when the first couple of cars go. My mind needs to know what is out there for traction.

The other issue is physically getting in the car and waiting. Somehow old photographs show my father as being physically larger than he was. He was not a big man and when the car was built in ‘68, everything was smaller. Helmets were smaller, there were no HANS devices. The cockpit is VERY TIGHT. When I am in the car I can not move my head up or down or right or left. I can only see straight ahead. I can’t even see the switches! Anything on the left side of the car, I have to use my right hand to operate it. The cockpit is reliant on canopy size.

Inside the cockpit of Danny’s Challenger 2. ( Holly Martin / Peter Vincent )

In all honesty I could have made things easier on myself, but I wanted to keep the car as historically correct as possible. This may sound crazy, but the steering wheel I ended up using took nearly 30 iterations to get it where I was happy with it.  I practiced getting in and out of the car hundreds and hundreds of times – You cannot get past tech if you can’t get out of the car in under 30 seconds.

The ambient temperature can be over 100F outside the car and it is even hotter in the car. You are praying the cars in front of you have a clean run. Once I am in this thing – I’m not getting out until I have completed my run.

It’s Alive!

Now the tension really starts – getting those 2 motors to light. We start the rear engine first, so I can leave the canopy open and get a little bit of air.. We fire the motors using alcohol for fuel. RC (Richard Catton) my engine guy – will instruct me through the procedure via radio. At this point we are feeding the alcohol from a nine gallon pressurized tank that is on the trailer connected to the car by “Umbilical cords”. Once RC feels everything is humming properly, he will tell me to switch one of the motors to “Nitro” and they will disconnect that engine’s alcohol feed – repeating the process with the second engine. At this point I am actually feeling pretty good. Both engines are firing and I know it will leave the start line. 

This is the engine start-up- at the shop

After letting things settle down for about 30 seconds the word is given to go, and the push truck does its thing. Our push truck is a 4×4 and driven by Mike McGuire who also packs my chutes – No one can break records alone – so there are some people I have to place a ton of trust in – Mike is one of them. Mike was part of the original team back in 1968! Most importantly my mother is in the push truck with him!

We only push to about 12-20 mph and then start accelerating on our own. Some teams accelerate to 80-100 mph – I don’t buy into this, you only have so much real estate to get the car up to speed, – even with our gear ratios, we are faster accelerating on our own. At a relatively slow speed you have to really modulate the throttle – The salt’s grip is more like driving on snow rather than asphalt. 

My Mother Judy and I

Now we are really starting to roll and I’ve got my foot in it – digging as hard as I can while trying to avoid wheel slip. The Hemis are at full growl and they are deafening! At 7300 rpm the shift light comes on and I just slightly breathe it and grab 2nd. At this point I am going approx 275 mph and then the car decided to step out and get a bit sideways! In this case it turned out to be easily overcome and we did not lose time or speed, so I kept my boot back in it.

We continue to accelerate and the mileage markers are starting to really fly by and you grab 3rd gear – at 4 miles, the wait to get to the finish at the 5 mile mark seems to take forever. The car is skating and moving, the time to cover a mile is just 7 seconds, it feels like 7 days. Finally you pass the 5 mile marker and you are out the back door. 

The fast part is over, but it’s busy. First you have to shut the fuel off for both engines. Which means steering with one hand while shutting it down. It is time to pull the chutes, again driving one handed. We soon get the whole thing shut down and stopped. I have no clue how fast I went. At first nobody is around. I do have GPS but in the confined cockpit it is pretty much hidden. I have to wait several minutes for the crew to show up and let me know my speed. They are listening for it on the officials’ radio. You don’t know how fast you’ve officially run for 3040 minutes before you finally get your timing slip on the way back to impound.

The car may have stopped but the work hasn’t. Our crew chief Frank Hanerhan has 1 hour to report to the impound area. The thrash begins anew, we are draining the oil, pulling the oil pans and checking/replacing the bearings on the bottom end, resetting the valves, replacing 32 spark plugs, – remember all the engine work is multiplied by 2 to cover off both engines. We are also cleaning body panels, changing the 4 tires, mixing up 50 gallons of nitro all within a 4 hr time allotment. The decision had been made to add 3% more Nitro to the fuel mixture – which should be good for an extra 600 hp – but what about reliability? The car is impounded overnight, we all head out to grab a meal then get some sleep in preparation for “Return Run Morning”.

Return Run Morning:

Return Run Morning begins at 3:30 am, when we all meet up for breakfast. We head to the track to get in line. When they open things up you are escorted to the impound area because it is so dark prior to desert sun-up. You can truly get yourself lost. Your heart rate is picking up. The second run is extremely stressful as your equipment now has been pounded on by a run in excess of 400 mph. You have 1 hour to get ready and be out of impound by 7:00 am. Everybody is rushing, the car has to be fueled and the engines warmed up, cylinders cleared. The car is put on the trailer and moved to the start line 3 miles away. Every team is doing the same thrash to get to the start line for a preferred spot in line.

At 7:49 am we made our 2nd run – this is my time – the canopy has been closed, radio communication has ceased, I am truly alone. Everything is up to me. On the 2nd run we felt the additional 3% of nitro immediately. “Oh My God, We’re in for a ride” – We picked up 13-17 mph from the day before in the first mile. Things were cooking!

Unfortunately we picked up a 12 mph crosswind. At the 4 mile mark doing 430 mph it hit us and hit us hard, I was sideways in a HUGE way. Typically when you get sideways at over 400 mph you pull the chute for stability. In my case, 8 years had been invested along with all my money. For me, when you are sideways at 430 mph you keep your leg in it. I was sideways and trying to correct it. At that speed it is hard to keep a correction from becoming an over correction – fortunately on my 3rd correction it came back slower – and I knew I could save the mess. That 5 mile marker was a beautiful sight indeed.

Now my concern was, had I set the record? For what turned out to be 2 1/2 seconds my foot was not in it. You do not set records with your foot off the throttle. Now it was shut off/parachute time – and all worked to perfection. I opened the canopy as soon as I could – probably still doing 60 mph because it is so freakin’ hot. When I get stopped and my top end crew showed up, they hadn’t been able to hear the speed. Eventually we heard 450ish. You again have to return and go back through tech even though we are essentially unlimited. This takes another hour or so. You actually don’t get your official speed until an hour or 2 after the run. We then learned the record was ours, 448.757 mph!

The run – Around the 55 second mark things get real interesting
Nobody goes fast on their own- HUGE Thanks to the Challenger II Team

Post Script:

WAS IT WORTH IT??? I would do it all again tomorrow morning. When I got home I experienced the feeling of a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders. After 3 weeks or so I was bored out of my mind! I really want to build a new car using all of the latest gadgets, traction control along with modern day engine management. I am only 70, I’d like to get some more seat time. Let’s get us a sponsor and do this!

Danny Thompson

For More information; http://thompsonlsr.com