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Mickey Thompson's Challenger I |

Mickey Thompson’s Challenger I

mickey thompson challenger 1960 bonneville

In 1959 Mickey Thompson was already well known in the Hot Rod world. He had built the first ever dragster in the early 50′s, and he was one of the first to build a twin engined dragster which was successful both in drag racing  and at setting a record at Bonneville.

However his  newest  challenge in 1959, was to  break John Cobb’s long standing Bonneville record of 394.19 MPH as well as to break the 400 MPH barrier.

The Beginning of the Challenger build. You can see All 4 Pontiac motors.

In order to break this record in early 1959, Mickey began construction of his Streamliner which he nicknamed Challenger I. The first thing that had to be done when constructing Challenger was finding tires that would be capable of handling speeds over 400 MPH. This ended up being much harder than he had originally thought!  Most of the major tire  manufacturers had no interest in sponsoring Mickey or producing tires for his Bonneville record attempt.

Here is Mickey sitting in Challenger. Everything had to be as compact as Possible.

However when Mickey went to the Goodyear Tire company, the executives listened to his proposal, figured it would be a great marketing deal and sponsor him and make his tires when they said “Ok, we’ll build them.”

Finding tires wasn’t the last challenge for building he had to face while building Challenger. The next challenge was finding the right engines that would be capable enough to make enough power to reach 400 MPH on land.

Challenger I at Bonneville in 1959

M/T would find four Pontiac 415 C.I. engines which were hooked up to four 1937 Cadillac transmissions. All four of the transmissions were controlled by a single lever system. The front engines were faced backwards to power the front wheels, while the rear engines were faced normal to power the rear wheels.

The body was next part of the build that had to be done. To ensure maximum aerodynamics the body had to be as streamlined as possible, to ensure this the  Body was given sweeping curves.

Challenger was soon completed and ready to make a pass at Bonneville. However, Mickey did not want to head out to the salt flats with her untested. In the early days of the Summer of 1959 Goodyear tires was able set up a test for M/T at Edwards Air Force Base. During this test Mickey would reach 250 MPH before spinning out on the runway.

Challenger I at Bonneville in 1959.

However, Goodyear would continue to support him and on October 6, 1959 the long awaited day had finally come. M/T and his team drove Challenger out to Bonneville on an open trailer that was hitched to his 59′ Pontiac.

M/T was ready to make the run of his life and get Challenger to push the envelope and break not just the 400 MPH barrier but John Cobb’s long stand 394 MPH record as well!

Disappointingly, 1959 would not be Mickey’s year to achieve this feat. Sadly the fastest Challenger was able to go was 363.48 MPH which did set a record in the A/BFS class that would stand until 1990. However, this was not the 400 MPH goal that he wanted to reach.

Mickey making his first record at Bonneville in 1959.

He wasn’t ready to give up on his goal of 400 MPH and his plan was to try again in 1960. During the next year he would make several changes to the car including dramatically redesigning the nose and tail to reduce drag and make the car even more aerodynamic than before.

He also realized that he would need more horsepower if he was going to reach 400 MPH. He would add a 6-71 GMC supercharger to each of the Pontiac motors which brought the horsepower up to 750 per engine!  Since the engines were now supercharged hood scopes had to be added to the body, which had to be as aerodynamic as possible since they would disrupt some of the aerodynamics in the body.

Look how much lower the Nose was in 1960 compared to the 1959 photo Above.

On September 9th, 1960 it was time for Mickey Thompson to make his faithful run for 400 MPH on the salt flats. He and Challenger were ready to go down in the Hot Rod and Landspeed record books. On his daring run he would not only break the 400 MPH barrier but he would be able to carry Challenger I to a speed of 406.6 miles per hour!

Challenger on the Historic day at Bonneville in 1960.

Sadly, mechanical troubles prevented him from making the return run that is required to get the official record. However, on that September day in Bonneville Utah, Mickey Thompson may have only set an unofficial record but he did go faster than any hot rodder in the world and faster than any man on Earth!

His accomplishment would inspire a new generation of American Hot Rods such as Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove to push the envelope even further and set goals such as 5 and 600 MPH! I bet if you ask any Hot Rod today they well say that Mickey did set the 406 MPH record on that September day.

Mickey and Challenger I making their 406 MPH run on the salt! There is something about Challenger I When I look at these pictures if it the car looks so majestic and it always looks like it is moving. I can’t explain it in words but it looks as if Challenger has a soul!






2 comments on “Mickey Thompson’s Challenger I

  1. Butch O'Neal on said:

    MT came really close to losing this car in the fire around his home in the Duarte Hills. The car was inside the orginal trailer and the tires were on fire as MT pulled it to safety. On that sad day, he did lose some of the Indy Car Tubs from the Speedway effort in ’66, and he lost Trudy’s two seater he and I used to pre-run Baja with. The doors on his garages were scorched, blackened and charred. Inside those garages, were many of his race cars from the 60′s, 70′s. His Ford funnycars and many other notable pieces. The garage was also filled with many never-to-be-gotten-again factory racing engines from Ford and Pontiac.
    Most of the neighbors lost it all in the fire, but MT was smart enough to have a 2 inch pipeline put in to fight fires with. When the water pressure dropped to a trickle, what saved the garages was the 50 or so fire extingushers that USAC made him buy to run in the Indycar race at the Speedway, which BTW, really made him mad at the time ! He was not so sorry after the big fire that USAC had forced him to buy the extingushers. By the time I got up there to the house, everything was smoldering, smoke and a few flareups here and there. He and John House were dead tired from fighting off the flames.
    What a day that was !

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