He risked everything to go 400 mph
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He risked everything to go 400 mph 03:26

The taste of salt, the smell of nitro: Going for broke at Bonneville

Updated 11:54 AM ET, Mon August 22, 2016

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Bonneville Speedway, Utah (CNN)"Wanna go for a ride?" The Speed King's son poses the question as the early dawn paints pastels along the horizon and sends light dancing on the vast shimmering flatness that hot rod racers call the Great White Dyno.

His moment has arrived, at last. It took all of his 66 years and every penny he had to resurrect his father's old streamliner and race here at Speed Week. The annual event -- weather permitting -- sends some 500 hot rods, roadsters, motorcycles and their drivers ripping down a dried-up lake bed encrusted in salt. All in hot pursuit of national speed records.
And that is why, while most eyes were on the Olympic Games and the feats of Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles, I followed Danny Thompson to the salt flats of Utah to witness his day of reckoning.
It's not the Indianapolis 500 or NASCAR, but Bonneville has found its niche among purists who recall the day when cars ran on grease and testosterone. Each year a few thousand spectators and participants drive campers and trailers onto the salt and set up tents, tarps and lawn chairs.
Most come every year. Flush regulars book digs in the casino hotels in two nearby towns along the Nevada state line.
The beverage of choice is bottled water, which a person can chug all day long without needing a portable john. That's what salt, triple-digit temperatures, relentless sun and 14% humidity does to the human body.
Nothing can survive long in the salt. A lone grasshopper spotted in a trash can clearly wasn't from around here and likely wouldn't make it. Cell phone service? Internet? Forget about it.
The salt sucks the life out of everything. It gets in your eyes, under your nails, up your nostrils and on the back of your tongue. It coats your skin and stings. A small blister can blow up in a matter of minutes.
The harsh environment is part of the draw. It's like going to a beach without a shoreline. Regulars line key sections of the course, even though the view from the sidelines offers little more than sound. Up close, high performance engines set your ears ringing but from a distance tend to hum like a hive of angry bees.
By the time you hear the bees, a car going 400 mph has already passed. But if you anticipate the whine, use binoculars and look far down the course, you might see a blip -- followed by a plume of salt spun out by the back tires. Racers call it the rooster tail.
And so, when Thompson invited me into the pit and asked if I wanted to come along as he drove the course, scouting the salt conditions a couple of hours before his run, it was a no-brainer.
Wanna go for a ride? Yes, please.
Danny Thompson has been waiting for decades to finish what his father started.
Thompson, as it turns out, is the man to watch at the 68th running of Speed Week. Other drivers have a chance to go 400+ mph, but he's the one fans and other racers are cheering for. He's going for the record in memory of his dad, Mickey Thompson, the Speed King.
Mickey is long gone, murdered by a hit man hired by a business partner enraged over something that no longer matters. But here they are, father and son, together again at Bonneville.
And they are together. On the headrest behind the driver's seat of Challenger 2, Danny Thompson's speeding bullet of a car, the letters are carefully stitched: "Drivers: Mickey * Danny."
Mickey may no longer be in the driver's seat, but he still gets top billing.
    The names of all the Thompsons -- Mickey; his dad, Marion, a cop; Danny; his mom, Judy; his wife, Valerie, and their son Travis -- are painted on the side of Challenger 2, proof that finishing the job Mickey started is, indeed, a family affair. Even 86-year-old Judy pitched in at the pit.
    Early this Saturday morning, Thompson sports the red cap given members of Bonneville's 200 mph club. He's hoping by Sunday afternoon to replace it with the black cap that designates an even more elite group -- the 400 mph club. How elite? Only 11 men have gone that fast at Bonneville.
    Thompson aims to become The Twelfth Man.
    Not everyone can go home with a land speed record, of course, but he is determined to settle some unfinished family business. He's here to go faster than anyone has gone before in a piston-engine car.
    That includes his father, who went 406.6 mph in 1960, the first American to top 400 mph. That feat brought Mickey Thompson fame, which he used to amass a fortune making high performance racing tires and putting on motocross shows.
    Challenger 2 is built on the chassis of the car Mickey Thompson assembled in 1968 but never got to race.
    At Bonneville you have to make the trip twice to enter the record books. You go straight out, foot to the floor, for 5 miles or more on the first day -- the down run. Then you do the same thing again on the next day: the return run. Your official time is the average of both speeds at the 5-mile mark.
    Mickey Thompson was never able to accomplish that. His car broke down on the return leg. He tried in 1968, but rain stopped him. He was going to try a third time in 1988, this time teaming up with Danny, when a bullet stopped him forever.
    Danny couldn't bear the thought of continuing the project alone, and so he put Challenger in storage. Half a century after his dad broke 400, he decided to go for the official recognition that comes with two successful runs. He spent nearly seven years working on the car, getting it just right.
    And so, on a clear, hot weekend in mid-August, Thompson and a team of two-dozen people -- many working for free because the money's run out -- descend on Bonneville to finish the job. It has become a labor of love -- and the hardest thing they've ever done.

    The Great White Dyno

    As the morning sun sends long shadows scooting across the salt, we climb into my rented SUV and set out along the 8-mile course. I wonder what the car rental people would think if they knew a second-generation hot-rodder was behind the wheel.
    Thompson doesn't just feel the need for speed; he feeds on it. In a couple of hours he will slide his wiry frame between two 2,500 horsepower engines crammed inside a blue aluminum tube -- one in front, one in back -- and hurtle across the flats, his backside just inches above the salt. He jokes that when he's driving the streamliner, he's the baloney in "a 5,000-horsepower sandwich."
    Challenger 2 was engineered and built by Thompson and his friends on the chassis of the hot rod his dad built in 1968 but never got the chance to race. This time, they built a Challenger so powerful they decided to add winglets.
    When he talks about what it's like to taste salt with a side of nitro fumes, Thompson goes to his happy place. "That's good stuff!" he exclaims, punctuating his speech with growls that mimic the sound made by a revving engine. He is prone to pump his fist and give up throaty "hoo-yahs!"
    Why do they call it the Great White Dyno? The Internet offers several explanations, but I like Thompson's:
      "Well, the great white is the whiteness of the salt, and a dynamometer is what you test engines on to see how much horsepower they have," he says. "You can test your engines all you want on a machine, but when you get to the Great White Dyno and test it on the surface, you're in the real deal now. This is the greatest testing facility in the world."
      Like the light at Bonneville, Mickey Thompson's legacy has cast a long shadow over his son's career.
      As he gives me a short version of Bonneville racing 101, the sun bounces off the white expanse, creating a mirror-like mirage that seems to lift the mountains off the Earth's surface. They say the course at Bonneville rises just 6 inches from start to finish; it's so flat drivers say they can see a slight curve in the Earth.
      Thompson didn't hotdog it as we made our way up the course. He drove slowly, deliberately, like a beat cop on patrol.
      He found the salt softer and wetter than he'd hoped. When it's in good shape, the salt casts a bluish shimmer. But this year, there was brown mixed in, a sign that mud lurked just under the surface -- particularly at the end of the course, where the salty crust appeared to be just an inch thick in spots.
      During the day, the hot sun draws the water to the surface, turning the salt to mush. When the surface hardens overnight, it becomes bumpy. The drivers call it "popcorn." The texture is similar to the "corn" snow skiers encounter in the spring.
      It was going to be hard to break any records under such "marginal" conditions, Thompson thought. He scouted out the spot where he'd veer ever so slightly off the course as his streamliner slowed so he could avoid the rough spots. He hoped he'd be able to get off the starting line early, while the salt was still cool and at its slickest.
      He was ready, more ready than he had ever been. But, he said with a shake of his head, "You can't control Mother Nature."

      A rivalry is born

      I met Danny Thompson in 2014, on the weekend he started both of Challenger 2's engines for the first time. Classic rock blasted on the speakers as I strolled into a warehouse in Huntington Beach, California, and found his office.
      I met the regulars -- crew chief Lou Anderson and fabricator Frank Hanrahan, who both stuck by Thompson even when he couldn't make payroll. (Mickey Thompson once fell short on payroll and made up the difference gambling at a hotel casino near Bonneville.)
      And I encountered photographer Holly Martin, a racer herself. She was in constant motion -- and she'd brought cookies. I didn't know it then, but she'd be our guide at Speed Week 2016, helping us zip from one end of the course to the other during Thompson's runs.
      Back then, at the beginning, none of us knew that Thompson's date with destiny would take so long. As I sat down with him for the first time in his office, I couldn't miss a unique, handmade, in-your-face paperweight. It was the F-word, carved into a polished block of wood. I laughed out loud, a reaction that met with his approval.
      I told him I was just happy not to see girlie calendars hanging on the walls.
      Thompson was still recovering from a mishap: He'd spent the previous night and about $1,300 at the emergency room after accidentally drinking from a water bottle filled with nitro, the fuel that powers Challenger 2. It's highly toxic; he'd heaved most of it into the bushes. But it burned, and it can blind.
      Thompson, pushing 64 at the time, is one tough bird. He thinks he's probably broken every bone in his body, so he didn't let a little poison spoil his big moment: He jumped into Challenger 2 wearing a gas mask, ready to start those engines.
      Two dozen people,  many working for free because the money's run out, are helping Thompson finish the job.
        Of all the racers at his level at Bonneville, Thompson has probably made the fewest passes on the course, according to racing officials. But in Challenger 2, each run has flirted with the 400 mark. The car is a beast.
        Challenger 2 went 419 mph at Bonneville that summer but broke down on the return run. The following year, the rain came and the salt was in no condition for racing. Thompson packed up and hauled Challenger 2 home to Colorado. He continued to work out to stay in shape, getting up each morning at 3:30 and going to bed with the chickens. It's a schedule that softens the early mornings at the speedway.
        And so, as Speed Week 2016 began, Thompson was working on his car at the pit long before the sun came up. The desert air is sweet and cool at that hour, the salt in the best condition it will be all day.
        After our cruise of the course, he was ready for the starting line. Thompson didn't get the early time he'd hoped for. He'd be the last driver down the long course. The current overall record holder, George Poteet, would go first in his new, state-of-the-art, computerized Speed Demon II.
        Speed Demon II competes in a different class than Challenger 2 at Speed Week. Thompson's car is an AA fuel streamliner, while Poteet's is a blown fuel streamliner. It includes a supercharger that blows air into the engine when it burns fuel, giving it more horsepower. Speed Demon II and a handful of other blown fuel streamliners have topped 400 mph, and Poteet holds the fastest record at Bonneville for all piston-engine classes: 437.183 set in 2013.
        Poteet crashed the first Speed Demon at 370 mph in 2014. He thought about retiring. But, like Thompson, he found the pull of the salt too hard to resist.
        Thompson says he wouldn't mind having a supercharger, but there's no room for one. Challenger 2 is already packed tight, every millimeter spoken for. He compensates with two engines and four-wheel drive.
        It didn't take long to see that while Poteet had everybody's respect, Thompson was the sentimental favorite.
        While they race in different engine classes, Thompson and Poteet are both after the same thing. Each wants to be the fastest man on the salt.

        At the starting line

        The wait can be long as the cars move up to the starting line, a streak of orange liquid sprayed into the salt. Since it can be 140 degrees in the car, Thompson donned his fireproof racer's suit at the last minute. Wife Valerie applied tape over the earbuds that would connect him to his radio communications system.
        Crew members stood over Thompson, holding umbrellas and making last-minute tweaks to the car. Anderson, the crew chief, snapped Thompson's helmet on and strapped him in. The Challenger's hatch closed. There was no turning back.
        Go time.
        Final adjustments are made as Thompson prepares to take on the course.
        When I first wrote about Thompson and Bonneville, a colleague recommended I check out Rachel Kushner's "The Flamethrowers." The novel, which won the National Book Award, includes some great scenes of salt flat racing.
        One passage in particular resonates deeply, where she describes seeing the cars leave the starting line and take off down the salt:
        "One after another I watched the scream, the careen, the rooster tail, the float, and then the shimmer and wink off the edge of horizon, gone.
        "Careen, rooster tail, float, gone.
        "Careen, float, gone."
        Thompson is pushed to the line. The engine roars, and then he is gone. "Godspeed, DT," a crew member shouts.
        "Run! Go, go, go," photographer Martin yells as we scramble to our SUV and race along the course in pursuit of Thompson. She steers far to the outside of the salt, away from the track and the crowd, and opens it up.
        We carry CB radios and fire extinguishers, and our floor mats are wrapped in trash bags to keep out the salt. We are still barreling along when the radio crackles: Thompson was going 411 mph at the official 5-mile mark and 416 out the back door as he exited the course.
        With a speed faster than 392.5 -- the record set for his class in 2009 -- Thompson qualified for the return run. Even better, Challenger 2 was still in one piece.
        Thompson told us he'd had a good run but that the salt was not in great shape. And, in the two years since he'd first run Challenger 2 here, he'd forgotten about a quirk in the steering. He almost ran off course before moving his hands slightly to compensate.
        But he'd get to go again -- a first for him -- and he hoped to do better the next day.
        Challenger 2 headed off to impound with the other qualifying vehicles, where crews have four hours to get their cars in shape for the return run under the watchful eyes of racing officials.
        The down run had stressed the streamliner, and at impound the crew virtually took it apart and put it back together. They washed the salt and expended fuel off the aluminum body panels, tires, wheels -- even the engines -- with Windex and water.
        It made for a long day, but it meant they would get another chance to hit the salt before dawn and do it all again.
        Bonneville comes to life at first light, when the salt is at its slickest.
        As the sun comes up on Sunday, Thompson and Poteet's cars stand side by side as they're prepped. Again, Speed Demon II would go first and Challenger 2 would go last.
        Speed Demon II, a color somewhere between rust and brown, is tight, aerodynamic and even looks fast in the same mean way a wasp looks fast. It is a thing of beauty. The crew works on the car quietly and efficiency. They wear black T-shirts, projecting a tough image. There is a corporate air about them.
        Poteet, who operates out of Memphis, Tennessee, is nowhere to be seen, arriving to hop into Speed Demon II just before it is towed to the starting line.
        Thompson, on the other hand, is everywhere -- working on Challenger 2 himself in the pit, even pushing a broom to sweep the salt off the tarp that covers the ground. His car is a friendly royal blue, and his crew wears white T-shirts.
        Hollywood scriptwriters could have a field day with this scene, pitting the ragtag band of underdogs in white against the highly efficient men in black. They could shape it as a classic battle: old school, handcrafted racing from the heart vs. the best technology money can buy.

        Some kind of luck

        Thompson is the crowd pleaser. A circle of spectators form around him while the Speed Demon team has their space pretty much to themselves.
        Sniffs one spectator, "George Poteet is a checkbook racer. Danny Thompson's the real racer. He's over there, working on his car, getting greasy. Where's George Poteet?"
        As Thompson's run time draws near, liquid can be seen dripping under the rear right side of Challenger 2. A crew member says it is likely just overflow, and Thompson decides to go anyway. He is out of time and out of money. This is his shot.
        Martin and I position ourselves at the 5-mile mark this time. We see a speck approach, then flash by. We can't see much of a rooster tail. By the time we hear the zoom, Thompson's already gone.
        Even the race officials in the timing tower are cheering him on. A video posted by an observer in the tower shows their reaction:
        "He's hauling ass," one official exclaims as the times are called out, mile by mile: 341.560 at the quarter mile, 356.170 at the two-mile mark, 385.963 at the three-mile mark.
        "Oh, baby, look at that rooster! C'mon, 400 baby, 400, 400, 400, 400."
        "Woo hoo!" The cheer erupts in the tower as the 5-mile time is called out: 402.348.
        "Good boy."
        Averaged with his official down run mark of 411.191, Thompson's speed is 406.767. He beat Mickey's time by a tenth of a second. And it's official. He set a national record for fuel streamliners.
        The record sheet tells the tale: Thompson's return speed broke 400 mph.
        Sitting with Martin, my neutral reporter's stance is toast. My throat tightens and my eyes tear up as we head to the finish line, and I don't know why.
        Perhaps I've become too invested in this mad dash and the people involved in it. But I needed them more than they needed me.
        Perhaps we all needed Danny Thompson -- and Michael Phelps and Simone Biles and all the others -- to remind us what it means to be an American during this ugly, violent, divisive summer of 2016. We needed to see what it means to work on cars and spend hours in gyms and pools and on tracks to push the envelope just a little further.
        We raced to the finish line, where we found Thompson already out of Challenger 2. Fire extinguishers were strewn around the salt, but they hadn't been needed. That liquid dripping under the rear right side? A fuel line had ruptured, and he'd been spewing a mist of fuel as he raced down the course.
        Thompson said he lost power in the rear engine at about the 4-mile mark.
        He recalled sending up a prayer: "Please God, just one more mile to go."
        The front engine pulled him across the finish line on its own. It was enough for the record.
        Poteet's run on Sunday also topped 400 mph, but a slow first run meant his average two-day speed didn't break 400. For 24 hours of Speed Week 2016, at least, Thompson was King of the Salt. As he packed up on Monday, though, Poteet raged down the course again, setting another record at 429 mph.
        But that was fine. Thompson may not have broken Poteet's overall record, but he'd accomplished what he'd come to do. He'd won his class and wrote the Thompson name into racing's record books. And, he joined Bonneville's elite 400 mph club. He's being called "The Twelfth Man" now.
        At the Indy 500, drivers kiss the bricks. In Bonneville, Thompson fell to his knees and kissed the salt.
        Thompson gives thanks to the salt flats of Bonneville.
        Back at the pit, he proudly donned the black "400" cap and sat down to sign a few autographs.
        He'd set things right for Mickey after all those years. His dad, he says, was probably talking in his ear the whole time he was flooring it, "standing on the gas," as Mickey used to say. Thompson joked that he's sure he wasn't listening, just as he didn't listen as a kid.
        "We got lucky," he said.
        It's Danny Thompson's kind of luck -- the kind that saves you time and again. It might not bring riches. But it delivers just enough.
        A couple of years ago, when I first wrote about his quest, the headline raised this question: What drives Danny Thompson?
        On August 14, 2016, national record in hand, he finally had the answer:
        "What drives Danny Thompson? Insanity, I don't know," he said with a big laugh. "It's just being passionate about finishing the job. What drives me is getting that record, bringing that record to the Thompson family, finishing a legacy for my dad, and a legacy for Danny Thompson."
        The end of a long journey --  and the beginning of another challenge.
        He'll be back at Bonneville, salt permitting, for next month's Cook's Shootout, where world records are set. He knows Challenger 2 has the potential to go even faster, maybe 450 or even 470 mph.
        "It will be a shootout between Speed Demon and us," he says. "I can't quit. We call it salt fever. You just want to come back to Bonneville. You want to go faster."
        This time he'll be racing for his own legacy.