The United States in the late 1950’s was car crazy. This was especially true on the West Coast, specifically the Southern California region which was just starting to blossom and grow. It truly would have been a magical time to have been of age to take it all in. Unlike today, when everything is so specialized, the car culture of the day was truly a free for all. Everything was on back then, from custom cars, to drag racing to sportscar racing. Even land speed record racing was a part of the equation.
Not many did it all as well as Mickey Thompson. Mickey had his fingers into pretty much everything. He started with drag racing as was typical in the hot bed of car culture that Southern California was back in the day. A visit to the vast salt flats of Bonneville in the State of Utah convinced Mickey that he simply had to compete there and work to bring back the Land Speed Record to the United States. If there were two things that Mickey was known for was his incredible desire to succeed as well as his pride in himself and in his country.
So Mickey took on the challenge. His original attempt was with a twin engine dragster in which he designed streamliner bodywork for it. Unfortunately it didn’t accomplish what he’d hoped for, so in the great American tradition of slight overkill, he decided that if two engines weren’t good enough, four should do the trick. So Mickey went ahead with his plans, knowing that to bring the land speed record to the USA, he’d need to take on the might of England’s John Cobb and his Railton Mobil Special.
Cobb had managed to turn a two way average speed of over 394 mph on those Salt Flats in 1947. He was hoping to break 400, which he did on one leg, but his return speed was slower, which dropped his average below the hoped for goal.
In order to be competitive with his plan, Mickey knew he’d have to be as efficient as possible. That would mean that he would be looking not just for brute power, but also light weight as well as a streamlined package with a significantly smaller frontal area than what Cobb accomplished his record with.
The 2-engined dragster propelled Mickey to just under 300mph, making him the fastest American thus far. That two engine streamlined dragster was propelled by two Chrysler motors, the front engine facing backwards so that it powered the front engines, while the rear engine was in a conventional arrangement, powering the rear. Going with four engines would make the packaging much more difficult, but Mickey knew it was something that he needed to do.
His initial attempt to procure engines out of Chrysler fell on deaf ears, so he made enquiries to other manufacturers and Pontiac replied with a supply of for motors out of the test fleet. The plan was a go. Mickey Thompson was soon to start on a creation that was soon to be called Challenger I.
When the engines arrived, they were arranged on a concrete floor in an approximation of what was in Mickey’s head. Armed with not much more than a piece of chalk and the concrete floor, Mickey started on the design of a framework that he hoped would propel him to 400 mph and beyond.
The layout he came to was a two by two arrangement, in which each of the roughly 500 hp motors would power one of the four wheels, each through a separate 3 speed Cadillac gearbox. This layout looks incredibly complex and must have been staggering back in the day, which must be remembered is before the computer and also before the use of electronics changed the way in which we look at cars. Back then it was good old mechanical linkage all the way…
The attention to streamlining was critical and almost proved to be Mickey’s undoing during an early run. Mickey was a large man (and also larger than life) and when the cockpit was designed, it was designed to barely fit him. He sat in the car is a position reminiscent of someone on a recumbent bike, with the steering wheel low and under the instrument panel. In this position, real life driving would be extremely awkward, but with only a need to keep the car in a straight line it proved to work adequately.
As complex as the mechanical layout proved to be, it was simple compared to what was required for a tire. In those days, 400 mph was unheard of and company upon company turned down requests to supply tires to the cause. Finally Goodyear came to the rescue, offering to develop a tire capable of meeting the challenge.
Once the source of tires was situated, then the real work started. Construction really kicked off late in 1958 and by the summer of 1959, Mickey and his crew were ready to give it a try. First off, a showing of the car to the media took place late June in Beverly Hills, but unknown to most, the engines had yet to be installed in the car. Mickey and the crew worked day and night to get the car ready and by early August they towed the car up to the Mojave Desert and shook down the car at Edwards Air Force Base.
It was later in the year that the car achieved over 363 mph in the flying mile, establishing the US record, but falling short of what was hoped. One last attempts almost ended the project. A crewman failed to properly secure an oxygen line to Mickey and in the midst of speed run, he dislodged his source of breathable air and started to be overcome by the nitrous enhanced exhaust fumes.
Somehow he managed to slow the car by pulling the chute before blacking out. Because he was so wedged into the car and the roll cage, he was not able to remove the canopy, so when the crew eventually found him, he was almost gone – overcome by the quite nasty fumes. From then on out, the oxygen line was a critical piece of the pre-race checklist. In the haste to get the car up to speed, there simply wasn’t much effort expended in properly expelling the exhaust fumes from the car and the cockpit. It obviously wasn’t helped by the rather rudimentary “firewall” separating the engines from the cockpit.
Following the “oxygen” mishap, a determined Mickey announced to the world that he would be back the following year, with that magical mark of 400 mph as an ultimate goal.
In the off season, the car was further sorted with the intention of reaching 400m mph. Among the changes was the addition of superchargers to the four engines, boosting the output to around 700hp per motor, all in a car that weighed approximately 4600 pounds. The addition of the superchargers necessitated in the addition of massive scoops for both clearance and air intake. These scoops restricted the already limited vision of the driver, but Mickey’s son, Danny told me, “It didn’t really matter. In driving this you needed to keep the black line between the scoops. If you lost vision of the line from between the scoops the run was over anyway.”
On the subject of vision, what appears to be a nicely streamlined cockpit is marred on the car by a small square of glass. When asked to explain, Danny stated that at speed “the original windshield started to collapse, necessitating a quick fix.” What you see on the car in the accompanying photos was salvaged from a welding shield. Anything in a pinch…
These changes almost worked. On September 9th, 1960, Mickey made a run at 406.60 mph into a slight headwind. Their hope were high that the return run would be even better, giving them the record but the car failed to complete the necessary return run when a mechanical failure interfered. Reportedly a driveshaft failed, ending any chances of officially setting a world record. Ever a spokesman, Mickey may have been covering up for the fact that one of the Pontiac engines had actually failed. That would be bad publicity for a sponsor, so the story of the failed drive shaft was the official reason for not completing the run. Thus may have been born a tradition that continues to this day – never does a sponsor’s product fail on a race car…
Mickey never had a chance to return to the land speed record chase. He shifted focus, opting to compete at Indy, all while continued to compete in and promote drag racing, eventually turning to off road racing, where he made a very healthy living. He did have another car created in which to chase the speed record, but track conditions initially halted their efforts. The final straw was when Ford pulled their support of the effort in the late 60’s before Mickey could put forth a serious effort.
Sadly, Mickey and his wife were gunned down one early morning in their driveway. The assassins were never found, but eventually an ex-business partner was tried and found guilty of hiring the hits for the murders.
Danny, Mickey’s son recently revived the car – Challenger II – and brought it to Bonneville. In 2014, he was able to achieve 419 mph, but just like his dad, he was not able to back it up. This time a clutch failed, ending the run (the DSC Ed spotted the car being trailered him as he was en-route to see the car run!) Attempts to run in 2015 were cancelled when the salt flats were deemed unusable. Danny hopes to return in 2016, where he also hopes to take care of some long unfinished family business…
The 1960 Challenger I is on display at World of Speed (www.worldofspeed.org) a new museum that opened last April in the Portland Oregon region.
As I’ve been volunteering there during the last few months, I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to see this beast on a regular basis. Every time I look at it, I find myself in awe of the machine and the people responsible for creating it and also preserving it. What an era – sometimes I wonder if I was born too late…
Period pics courtesy of www.thompsonlsr.com
Museum pics from Gary Horrocks