We’ve written a bunch in recent years about the trials, tribulations, and, ultimately, triumphs that Danny Thompson and his Challenger 2 crew experienced while setting the record for the fastest piston-driven vehicle on land. Now, with that record-breaking car retired, for the first time ever both the Challenger 1 and Challenger 2, cars originally built by his father, Mickey Thompson, are on display together at the World of Speed Motorsports Museum in Wilsonville, Oregon.
We’ve closely followed Danny Thompson’s odyssey here the past few years with the twin-engined Challenger 2, a story that ended with a SCTA-sanctioned, 448.757-mph two-way average speed at the Bonneville Salt Flats this past August, some 50 years after his father first built the car as the Autolite Special. Challenger 1 has been on loan to World of Speed from Danny Thompson since the museum opened its doors in 2015.
World of Speed curator Ron Huegli told us that, following the record-breaking run and Danny Thompson’s decision to retire Challenger 2, “Danny and his wife, Valerie, just the two of them, spent a few months just getting it cleaned up.” Today, the two cars (which contain six engines between them) are lined up on the World of Speed floor with 70 or so other racing machines. Now, with Challenger 2 in place, visitors can get an up-close and personal look at the two record cars.
But…In the words of late-night commercials readily found on the triple-digit channels, but wait, there’s more! World of Speed also has on display three other Mickey Thompson speed record cars, plus one re-creation. On July 9, 1961, Mickey Thompson, aided by a crew led by mechanic and fabricator Fritz Voigt, a longtime Thompson collaborator, arrived at March Air Force Base not far from Riverside, California. In the blazing summer heat with temperatures well into the triple digits, Thompson and his crew set a host of speed records in different classes, across different distance, via the 13,300-foot runway.
Those four Pontiac-powered cars include the Attempt 1, a narrow, fully streamlined speed record car. The plan called for attempts in two different classes, with two different, modified Tempest four-cylinder engines. For the D class attempts, a destroked 180-cu.in mill with a 4-71 blower pushing 22 psi into the intake helped deliver an estimated 460 horsepower at 7,000 rpm burning a nitromethane cocktail. The class E engine had sleeved cylinders for a narrowed bore and an even shorter stroke, to displace 120-cu.in. With a 3-71 blower producing 20 psi, the E engine still boasted an impressive 420 hp at 7,400 rpm.
The Assault, a record-attempt car from a previous visit to March, featured a blown Pontiac 303 V-8 under the hood, with other engines available for the different class records Mickey Thompson was intent on setting. The Southern California Pontiac dealer group loaned a 389-powered Catalina to Thompson and crew, who pulled out the stock engine and installed a 421 Super Duty (available in 1961 as an over-the-counter item at the parts desk) for the day. With the 389 reinstalled, that Catalina went back into the dealer pool, delivered to some unsuspecting buyer, who, while almost certainly unaware of the car’s record attempts, was also likely unaware of the high speeds the Catalina was capable of. The car on display at World of Speed is a re-creation of that original ’61 Catalina.
The final of the quartet is perhaps one of the most unusual record-attempt cars: a rail dragster with a supercharged, two-cylinder 90-cc engine cut down—with a band saw no less—from a Tempest four-cylinder.
In all, Thompson set 14 different records that day in the flying kilometer and flying mile (why stop on such a long runway, right?), his mechanics working overtime as Thompson hopped from car to car. With the competition at Bonneville off that year due to weather and conditions on the salt, Thompson’s display of speed at March Air Force Base with American iron, putting to rest a bunch of records formerly held by European drivers and makes, certainly continued to cement his reputation as a racer.
Those four cars remain part of the Zero to 1000 exhibit and are now complemented by the two Challenger cars. As Ron puts it, “It’s an amazing thing to think about with the two cars together for the first time, here in public.”
The World of Speed Motorsports Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. each day except Saturday, when it opens at 9:00 a.m. in Wilsonville, just south of Portland. The Challenger 2 should be on display through at least May, according to Ron.