How I Met Danny Thompson

How I Met Danny Thompson
Despite international exposure on the cover of the January 2017 issue of Hot Rod magazine, Danny Thompson is looking for sponsors for his racecar. At 68 years old, Thompson drove his streamliner at just over 406.7 mph.

Let me be frank – I actually met land speed racer Danny Thompson because of a hot dog. I was out to lunch one day during the PRI Show in Indianapolis. I sat down next to a man dressed in black.

“Are you into racing?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the man.

“What kind?” I asked.

“Land Speed Racing,” he said.

“You must know Danny Thompson,” I surmised.

“I am Danny Thompson,” the man said.

“Holy Cow!” I thought. This was the same Danny Thompson we had called about a year earlier, and the same Danny Thompson featured in the previous month’s Hot Rod Magazine. Danny was on the cover, in fact. Last fall, he drove his dad’s — Mickey Thompson’s — old 1968 Autolite Special Streamliner to a two-way average speed of 406.769 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The significance of that was mostly in going faster than the 406.6 mph Mickey Thompson’s Challenger I had set for a one-way run 48 years earlier.

Our phone call to Danny in 2015 had to do with attending a meeting about the fate of the Salt Flats at that year’s PRI Show. During the meeting, Dave Sarna and I had put out the idea of doing another movie about Bonneville to raise money for the well-known “Save the Salt” effort. We figured that if “The World’s Fastest Indian” had done well, a movie about Mickey Thompson would do even better. Dave drives the Fox Valley Tech Firebird, which went 192 mph on the salt in 2012. He got very pumped about the movie idea and called Danny Thompson. We had a conference call, but things never moved past that. And now I was sitting in the lobby of the Indiana Convention Center next to Danny Thompson.

I immediately asked Danny Thompson if I could interview him for, and he said he was at the PRI Show looking for “anything that will help our streamliner project.” He was looking for sponsorships, which he described as “always the ever-elusive, hardest thing in motorsports; finding the money to keep running.” I asked if being on the cover of Hot Rod didn’t help.

Yeah, it’s pretty cool when you walk through an airport and see the cover of Hot Rod magazine sitting there and you’re on it,” he answered. “We’ve had a lot of exposure. We had good exposure in Hot Rod, we had good exposure in and we had good exposure in Racer magazine. We’ve even done some TV stuff and some commercial stuff, but we still need a big sponsor.”

According to Danny, the Autolite Special is now called Challenger II. “The car is 48 years old,” Thompson noted. “It will be 49 years old this coming year. When it ran in 1968, my dad did about 360 mph with it. Then it sat for 46 years. I got it all back running. Mostly it’s the same as it was. The basic shape is the same. It’s about two feet longer and has a couple of little aero tweaks. The air intakes from the front to rear engines are placed differently. It has a different engine and transmission, but the basic car is the same one that ran in 1968.”

The car set a record during Bonneville Speedweeks 2016 at 406.769 mph, but now Danny is gunning for more. He was going to retire the Challenger II after the FIA race, but ran into some problems and hurt the car bad. “I’ve decided that I left too much on the table,” he said. “Now we want to go back and run in 2017.”

Thompson was still trying to evaluate what went wrong. He lost the drive shaft and it took a tire out and did more damage. “We were at 415 mph when it went,” Thompson emphasized. “So, we had one hell of a ride.”

The car now has Brad Anderson aluminum block Hemis. It has a drag race combination, but the HEMIS are fuel injected. They are 500 cubic inches and injected and 2500 hp running on nitro.

Concrete Plants. Inc., from New York, and Mickey Thompson Tires are still backing the car. Near the end of 2016, United Health Care and Ball Watches also came on as sponsors. “We’ve got some help for sure,” Thompson said, “but not enough. Right now we have Concrete Plants, Inc. for sure and we have Ball Watches, but that’s about it as far as definites.”

Thompson said he wishes that Ford would hop on his project. “They were the only one involved with this car initially in 1968,” he pointed out. “It was a Ford-Autolite project at the time. But they have not (come aboard). We have asked them once. So, that’s all right.”

Thompson said he and the car will be back on the salt whether anyone comes on board or not. “It’s happening,” he promised. “It’s because of the passion about Bonneville; passion about trying to get and keep that record and passion for trying to continue being the world’s fastest piston-engine car.”

About John Gunnell 143 Articles
John “Gunner” Gunnell has been writing about cars since ‘72. As a kid in Staten Island, N.Y., he played with a tin Marx “Service Garage” loaded with toy vehicles, his favorite being a Hubley hot rod. In 2010, he opened Gunner’s Great Garage, in Manawa, Wis., a shop that helps enthusiasts restore cars. To no one’s surprise, he decorated 3G’s with tin gas stations and car toys. Gunner started writing for two car club magazines. In 1978, publisher Chet Krause hired him at Old Cars Weekly, where he worked from 1978-2008. Hot rodding legend LeRoi “Tex” Smith was his boss for a while. Gunner had no formal journalism training, but working at a weekly quickly taught him the trade. Over three decades, he’s met famous collectors, penned thousands of articles and written over 85 books. He lives in Iola, Wis., with his nine old cars, three trucks and seven motorcycles.

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