Danny Thompson is chasing a dream, but just experienced every driver’s nightmare.
The 65-year-old racer is trying to break a land speed record for piston-powered, wheel-driven cars in a streamliner first built by his father, American racing legend Mickey Thompson, in 1968. Challenger II has gotten a few modifications since then, including more power and added modern systems – but one of them bit Danny in a spectacular way.
After finishing a 390 mph average pass at the Bonneville Salt Flats last week, Thompson pulled the chutes, which slowed the car so abruptly that it set off the fire extinguisher. The team had intentionally put in a low-resistance switch to make it easier to engage, but never expected G-forces alone to do it. Within seconds the cockpit filled with white foam and natural instincts developed over decades of experience at high speeds took over.
“When you are moving at that speed you just react and get a chance to think about it later,” Thomson says. “In this case it was important to keep the steering wheel straight until I thought it was safe to turn off the race course, which can be a problem as it is hard to judge speed when you are slowing down from 400 mph.”
Thompson flipped up his visor to try to get a look speedometer, but the extinguisher was still spraying and he was blinded. Eventually, sensing he was going slowly enough, he popped the canopy for a clear view and pulled off the course.
Despite the setback, after a quick fix Thompson came back the next day with a 419 mph pass that would have been good enough for a class record for naturally-aspirated cars. Unfortunately, one of the clutches on the twin-engine car broke on a later run before he could officially set the record, which currently stands at 392 mph and requires two passes.
But Thompson’s not done yet. Challenger II will be back on the flats on September 27th competing in the SCTA World Finals, where he’ll be looking at that record and beyond. Eventually, on a long enough track, he thinks Challenger II is good enough to take the overall piston-powered, wheel-driven record of 439 mph and maybe even one day crack 500 mph.
Now that would be a real eye-opener.