Feature

The need for speed

Racing is in Danny Thompson's blood, and at 64, he's gunning for a land speed record

DANNY THOMPSON IS trying to become the fastest driver of a piston-engine car, just like his dad, Mickey Thompson.

When the temperature dances around the century mark and the horizon shimmers over the Utah desert at Mike Cook's Bonneville Shootout, beginning Sept. 12, Danny Thompson will squeeze into the "cigar on four wheels" that he has rebuilt by hand and rage across the desert floor faster than a 747 at takeoff.

When his turn comes, he will lie almost flat, his body mere inches from the earth, in a space the size of a coffin. He will see blinding white light ahead, noxious fumes will tease his nostrils, and he will hold on to the steering wheel for dear life.

Seventy seconds; that's all it will take. Spectators who cluster at the three-mile mark — about two miles from the finish line — will spot a tiny dot and a rooster tail of salt in the distance. Then, because light travels faster than sound, a few seconds later, they'll hear what sounds like a hive of angry bees.

In his mind, there can be just one outcome: Danny Thompson will hold the land speed record — driving faster than 439 mph, maybe 450, maybe even 500 to hold on to the record for good. He'll be the master of a tiny universe, one of just a dozen men to top 400 mph in a piston-engine car.

His father, Mickey, was one of racing's early giants, an innovator who tasted both success and failure. He became the first American to top 400 mph, back in 1960, but a technicality kept him out of the record books. Mickey was 32 then. Danny will be twice that age, and he doubts more than a few people will notice his feat, no matter how fast he goes.

Danny first seriously thought about restoring his father's race car, Challenger 2, four years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Mickey's record-breaking run. It had been on his mind for a while, and he wasn't getting any younger.

That was about $2 million ago. His retirement savings are gone, the 401(k) shot all to hell. He's flat broke, not sure where his next dime will come from. He prays for a sponsor to magically appear. But the truth is, he's never been happier. He can't wait to get up in the morning and go to work. No 64-year-old should feel this frisky.

RACING IS IN Danny Thompson's blood. He idolized his hot-rodder father, an icon of Southern California's car culture whose motto was "stand on the gas."

As he grew up, all Danny wanted to do was race cars. By the time he was 9, he was entering events in the quarter-midget class at Lions, a drag strip his father managed outside Long Beach, Calif. Kids drove race cars a quarter the size of adult cars around a track Mickey built behind the grandstand.

When Danny won his first heat, he was pumped with pride and hoped Mickey would be, too. But that's not the reaction he got. Mickey sprinted from the other side of the track, leaping over the bales of hay lining the course. He yanked Danny out of the car. "That's the last time you'll race, ever," he told his son.

Someone had given Mickey bad information, told him Danny had flipped the car and was hurt. Mickey's reaction was purely visceral. He knew one thing: He didn't want his boy to die in a race car.

Mickey had lost eight friends racing and was haunted by two tragedies from early in his own career. He veered off course into the crowd at a sharp curve during the 321-mile mountain leg of the Mexican Road Race in 1953, killing five spectators. A decade later, Dave MacDonald, a rookie driver who was under contract with Mickey, slammed into the wall coming out of the fourth turn at the 1964 Indianapolis 500. He was incinerated in the crash, which also killed driver Eddie Sachs.

Mickey Thompson held more speed records than anyone else. He brought off-road racing out of the deserts and into the arenas of big cities across America. It made him a millionaire. But he never got over those deadly crashes, especially the one at Indy.

Like most fathers, Mickey wanted more for his son: a better education, bigger opportunities, a step up from the working class. And so he did everything he could to thwart Danny's racing dream.

Eventually Mickey's refusal to let Danny race came between them. Danny pleaded his case almost every day, but Mickey didn't budge. Danny rebelled. They fought about everything. At 18, when Danny decided to pursue his dream and race motorcycles, he quietly moved out of the house. Mickey would call and ask how he was doing, and he'd just say he was working hard.

He won his first 18 races. Mickey eventually found out about the racing from someone else and showed up unannounced at an event. Danny couldn't tell whether his father was angry or proud. He won the first race, and then, distracted, crashed in the second. After that, Mickey begrudgingly accepted that he couldn't stop his son. But Danny's career never really took off. He sensed that his father was working against him, behind the scenes. His mother, who was by then divorced from Mickey, later confirmed his suspicions.

But by the end of 1987, Mickey was starting to come around to the idea of seeing his son behind the wheel of a race car. He came to Danny with an offer he couldn't refuse: Let's take the Challenger to Bonneville and go for that land speed record. He asked Danny to drive.

Mickey went 406.6 mph at Bonneville in 1960, but because Challenger 1 broke down on the return lap, he never made it into the official record books. At Bonneville, a driver has to go out and back within an hour and average the speed of both trips. Otherwise, it doesn't count.

Today, racers drive jet-powered cars much faster — the current land speed record stands at 763 mph — and jets are where the glory is. But purists still see the beauty in doing it the old-fashioned way, with a piston engine. "The same way you drive to work," as Danny puts it.

THE YEAR 1988 was the end of a huge impasse between father and son. It was going to be the Thompsons' year. "I get goose bumps when I talk about it, because that was a real coming together," said Danny.

Several years earlier, Mickey had found a partner to help him run his thriving racing companies, which made high-performance parts and racing tires. Michael Frank Goodwin, a charismatic former rock promoter who'd put on tours for Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, had popularized Motocross, arena spectator exhibitions at which drivers race motorcycles over obstacle courses.

But no partnership can survive two alpha dogs, and the merger was doomed from the start. Mickey accused Goodwin of failing to hold up his end of the deal. So began a four-year court battle that became known in racing circles as the Feud.

Mickey prevailed in court. But he was never one to just beat an opponent; he had to crush him. He was relentless in his efforts to collect from Goodwin, who was equally determined not to pay Mickey a dime. When Mickey persuaded a judge to seize Goodwin's Mercedes, he drove the car to the courthouse the next day just to rub Goodwin's nose in it.

Goodwin appealed the case all the way to California's Supreme Court. He lost. To avoid paying, Goodwin filed for bankruptcy and put everything in his wife's name.

Mickey started telling people he was getting death threats. If anything happened to him or his second wife, Trudy, Mickey would say, Mike Goodwin was behind it.

Danny was on his way to work early on March 16, 1988, when he heard the news on his car radio. Mickey and his wife had been gunned down, execution style. From Day One, Goodwin wasn't talking to the cops. It took nearly 19 years for authorities to build and prove the case against him. Murder charges were filed in June 2004; Goodwin was convicted in January 2007.

To this day, Goodwin maintains he is innocent, the target of a vast, corrupt conspiracy. Because the evidence against him was circumstantial, some people still doubt his guilt. Danny Thompson is not one of them.

"It was a sad deal," he said about his father's murder and the long journey to the trial. By the time the verdict came, Danny had retired from racing, thrown everything into storage, and moved to Colorado. "People say, 'Ah, well, you have closure now that Goodwin's in jail.' You don't have any of that. There is no closure. Closure is my dad standing here."

His father's murder knocked him down flat. He had grown up in the shadow of a larger-than-life personality, been denied his dream and finally gotten the validation he'd been waiting for, only to have his dream of a father-son racing team snatched away. "I didn't do anything for a long time," he said. "My dad's been gone 26 years. I didn't feel right doing it without him."

THE FLATS OCCUPY about 30,000 acres in western Utah, stretching from the Great Salt Lake nearly to the Nevada border. They're the remnants of a salt lake that dried up during the Pleistocene Era. Drivers fondly refer to the flats as the Great White Dyno, a play on "dynamometer," a device used to measure engine power. "The place is just magic," Danny said.

The Great White Dyno and the 50th anniversary of Mickey's claim to fame got Danny thinking about their unfinished business. He's ready to stake his own claim. "I'll be 65 soon, and I've still got the passion to drive," he said. "There's not many things you can still go and do as a race car driver, and Bonneville is one of them. I want to be the baddest man there."

Right now, George Poteet is the baddest man, at least in Danny's class. Poteet set the current land speed record for a piston-engine car — 439 mph during last year's Speed Week. It's a tough needle to move if you consider that Mickey Thompson went just 33 mph slower half a century ago.

To clinch the record for the Thompson family name, Danny thinks he'll have to top 450 mph. He'd like to hit 500 mph, and he thinks Challenger 2 is up to the task. The first Bonneville record he's going for, 392.5 mph for Challenger 2's vehicle class, is within sight. Then comes Poteet's world record.

But Poteet probably isn't Danny's biggest competition. It's the guy he says he's doing this for: Mickey Thompson. This time, the son is meeting the father on his own terms, as an equal.

From CNN.com, August © 2014 Cable News Network, Inc. All rights reserved.

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