All photos courtesy THOMPSONLSR/Holly Martin
Danny Thompson’s quest to restore his father Mickey’s Challenger II Land Speed Record car, chronicled by the man himself here at RACER.com over the past year, has been ?the hardest thing I’ve ever done, by three- or four-fold,? but the most daunting hurdle “ a shortage of funding “ is now facing the project. Yet after all the time and effort Thompson and his small but dedicated Southern California-based team of craftsmen have put in to get the car back to Bonneville’s Salt Flats, he’s not about to give up.
Originally constructed by Mickey Thompson in 1968, the car was intended to succeed where his Challenger I had failed in establishing a new wheel-driven world speed record. Although Challenger I proved that point by clocking 406mph at Bonneville, a breakdown on its return run prevented it from receiving the official FIA record.
In contrast with its blunt, sports car-styled predecessor Challenger II was designed as a cigar-shaped streamliner, a two-engined vehicle clad in an uninterrupted skin of hand-formed aluminum. Test runs at Bonneville were promising but Thompson, increasingly focused on off-road and drag racing, mothballed the program.
In 2010, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the initial run of Challenger I, Danny Thompson set to complete a restoration and updating of its successor which he and his father had started in 1988 but was cut short by Mickey’s death later that year. The program has made steady strides, as he has related in his columns for RACER, but he still faces the necessity to find some more bucks to put toward the Buck Rogers.
?It’s way, way harder than I anticipated it to be “ the challenges are just immense but we’ve got enough good people on board. The problem is we’re out of money,? relates Thompson (RIGHT) from the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, where he is pressing flesh and spreading the word about his goals among the motor industry movers and shakers in attendance in hope of landing sponsorship to help get Challenger II rolling as early as next month.
?We’re making really good progress “ a bit slow, but you have to fabricate every single part; there’s nothing you can go buy. And before you fabricate it you have to engineer it,? he notes. ?We hope to run by the end of December or the first part of January. You can’t run Bonneville ’cause it’s underwater, but we’re hoping to run locally, like at El Toro (a decommissioned Marine Corps Air Station in Orange County, Calif.). It’s got a 10,000ft runway and at least get some of the fundamental testing out of the way, like ensure it shifts and the clutches disengage.?
That might seem simple enough, but the fact Challenger II has two engines makes it not.
?Everything your doing, you’re doing times two,? he says. ?You’ve got one clutch pedal that runs both clutches, and you got to have all the adjustments and linkages right. So we’ll go out and test it, make sure everything works and that it steers. Then we’ll pull it all apart and paint it.?
The team would then ready for the brief ?season? at Bonneville later in the summer.
?Basically you get to run Bonneville in August, September, the beginning of October,? Thompson says. Sometimes you can run later, but then you get into the rainy season and you’ve got to wait another year. It’s the Mother Nature element that you’ve also got to work around.?
Still, it’s the ?money burn,? as Patrick Dempsey termed a similar challenge in his recent documentary series about his Le Mans team, that is what’s complicating the process the most for Thompson now, and has prompted him to redouble his efforts to secure sponsorship.
?Without money it’s really hard,? he acknowledges. My guys don’t want to work for free “ although they’re working this week for free, some of them!?
Danny himself is one of those ?volunteers.?
?I’ve sold everything I have “ I’ve sold racecars, three cars out of the NHRA museum just to feed the beast,? he relates. ?I’ve built this brand-new trailer that’s the bitchenest trailer in the world and now I’ve got nothing to tow it with. So there’s lots of little things?I call ’em little, but they’re major obstacles that you have to keep addressing as you get down the road. If you figure payroll until a year from now, that’s a big chunk right there “ and I haven’t paid myself in three years, so my wife would really enjoy it if I brought a check home!?
Particularly given the costs involved in intensive fabrication work with high-quality materials. ?The front end cost about $60,000,? he says. ?Materials alone were $6,000, just to build all the bits “ U-joints, axles and all that kind of stuff.?
So what will it take to seal the deal to put Challenger II back on the salt?
?About $1 million,? he says. ?You could probably do it for about $500,000, but more would be better!?
As Danny’s project updates this year here at RACER.com have repeatedly demonstrated, he and his team are only interested in doing it the right way. Here’s hoping some deep pockets see the wisdom in that, and the merits of associating themselves with a project that bridges a half-century of one of the ultimate motoring challenges in an evocative technical and personal journey.