The World Series at Santa Pod in September 1980 saw the largest ever entry of nitro Funny Cars in one place outside the USA. Twenty teams from Sweden, Norway, America and the UK were there to qualify for a sixteen-car field including Don Prudhomme, Tom Hoover and Gene Snow, but when the smoke had cleared only one winner emerged: a little-known American racer called Harlan Thompson driving the Knut Söderqvist-owned “Tre Kronor” Plymouth Arrow. The fans certainly knew him now…
Harlan’s life changed quite dramatically when, at the tail end of the seventies, he had a chance meeting with Swedish racer Knut Soderqvist who was visiting the famed Central Jersey Speed & Machine in Fords NJ, one of the original east coast speed shops and Harlan’s local speed shop from his beginnings in Jersey. The pair visited a few races together, became friends and eventually Knut asked if Harlan would come to Europe and race a Top Fuel Dragster. The offer was declined, but when Knut later suggested the same deal with a Fuel Coupe, Harlan leapt at the chance.
Soon Knut had purchased a Plymouth Arrow previously campaigned by one of Harlan’s early heroes Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, they ran the car a couple of times in the US to check it out then had it painted at the fabled Circus Custom Paint shop prior to shipping to Sweden.
One year later Harlan was back at Santa Pod driving the “American Graffiti” Dodge Omni Funny Car in the 1981 World Finals. Could he win again? It didn’t look like it when he came up against favorite Tom Hoover in the “Showtime” Corvette in round two but despite a strong 6.32 from Hoover, Thompson tripped the win light with a fantastic 6.20/218 mph! This put him in the semis where he put out a cherry pulling “Houndog” and his luck held out in the final when Allan “Bootsie” Herridge broke the crank in “Gladiator” while Thompson nailed it for the win with a 6.30 blowing the roof off through the traps!
1982 saw Harlan in the “Protector” Dodge Omni. He qualified number two at the September World Finals but fell foul of the burndown rule receiving a red light in round one.
The following year Harlan had Budweiser sponsorship on his Omni and he entered the July 1983 Cannonball Run. Reaching the final he ran out of luck when the blower drive pulley sheared on the line and he had to sit and watch “Panic” take the win.
July 1984 saw Harlan back at the Cannonball in a beautiful new Budweiser-backed Trans Am Funny Car. Harlan reached the final again and this time faced Tony Boden beating him with a 6.49 to Tony’s 6.96 and the Cannonball trophy went to the Budweiser car. At the September World Finals Frank Hawley was driving Tony Boden’s car with Austin Coil as crew chief. Harlan met them in the first round and took the win before the rains came putting an end to the meeting.
The 1985 Cannonball saw Harlan back looking for another win and he blasted to a convincing 6.23 number one qualifier in another new Budweiser Trans Am. In the race he took the trophy again despite coming within inches of the centreline in round one and shutdown Gary Page in the final. Following his Cannonball win Harlan took Mantorp Park by storm with a thundering run of 6.06 before shaking the ground with the first European Funny Car Five at 5.94 seconds.
On to 1987 and once again Harlan was in top form at the Cannonball Meet with a dominating series of ETs. Fellow American Tom Hoover was hungry for the one trophy that had eluded him but Harlan had different ideas when he came up against him in the final. A 6.05/228 took the trophy over Hoover’s game 6.29/202. Then at the September World Finals Harlan shut down Hoover again in the Funny Car semis and went on to take another World Finals win.
The 1991 Cannonball was full of drama after Harlan in the Budweiser Dodge Daytona beat Norm Wilding in the semis but blew the motor in the process. He then pursuaded Rune Fjeld to loan him his car for the final which he did and Harlan took the win with a Funny Car ET best of 5.57/245 to John Spuffard’s 6.05/219. Harlan continued racing the Budweiser cars through the 1990s taking yet another Cannonball win in 1994.
October 2007 saw Harlan in one of Knut Söderqvist’s Top Fuel dragsters at Bahrain where he ran a 5.23/259 as part of an exhibition race. In 2009 Harlan was back behind the wheel of a Funny Car. It was Jonny Nilsson’s replica of the “Tre Kronor” Plymouth Arrow and he put on an exhibition run for the fans in Sweden.
Profile by Nick Pettitt, additional text by Mike Collins