Remembering Mickey Thompson

Aug 26, 2010

Editor’s note: The “Mickey Thompson: First American to 400 mph” exhibit presented by Gale Banks Engineering at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, Calif., runs through October, 2010. This article takes a brief look at some of Thompson’s accomplishments in the world of drag, land-speed, Indy car and off-road racing. For more information about the exhibit, visit www.museum.nhra.com.

Marion Lee Thompson Jr. was born Dec. 7, 1928, a son of an Alhambra, Calif., policeman, of Irish ancestry. With his long red hair, one of his dad’s friends, a big Irishman, saw the baby boy’s locks and proclaimed: “There’s a little Mick if I ever saw one!”

“Mick” was a friendly term used between Irish family and friends and said in a playful way, the term originating because of the common “Mc” used in many Irish names. And from that moment on, this boy would be known as “Mickey” Thompson, a name that would be made famous in racing circles all across the globe.

When he was 14 he bought his first car on his allowance, an old Chevrolet that had been junked, for $7.50. Young Thompson had to drive the pistons out with a sledgehammer. It took a year and a half but he finally did get it running and he sold the car for $125, all before he was old enough to drive it. A Ford Model A roadster was next, then on to a V-8.

Years later in a conversation with Ed Iskenderian, Thompson talked a little about his early days racing on the streets: “Well, there were no drag strips, you know. So we would go out, at the time there were quite a few country roads, and we would go out in the country and block the roads off and have a drag race. As a matter of fact, I’ve been to lots of drag races which were illegal at the time, at which the police actually sat off and watched as long as they were conducted safely and were off used roads and everything. The police used to actually go off in a corner and watch us race!”

While it was not legal to run high speeds on the streets, there were the dry lakebeds nearby to go to, and a bit farther, up to Utah for runs on the Bonneville salt. Even though he didn’t have much money back then, Thompson made regular trips there with cars he built himself.

In 1954, Thompson felt the secret to success in building a dragster chassis was to place the driver behind the rear axle, and to couple the engine and transmission directly to the differential, which would get the weight to the rear. He is credited as being the first ever to design and build a “slingshot” type of dragster (where the driver is positioned like a rock in a slingshot).

A big part of the success of this design was when Thompson narrowed the rear track, which vastly improved the directional stability, allowing the driver to run at full speed without losing control or swaying off the track at high speeds. Many laughed and poked fun at the unusual looking car, calling it a tractor and a monster!

On to Indy

In 1962, Thompson had his eyes set on competing at the famed Indianapolis 500 race and ran a Buick V-8-powered rear-engine car with four-wheel independent suspension (an innovative car that really went against the establishment), actually one of three cars he entered at the Brickyard, that year.

In ’63, he abandoned Buick power and went with aluminum Chevy engines, and added some outrageous “roller-skate” wheels that were just 12-inches in diameter. These didn’t go over well with Indy traditionalists, and were soon banned.

Ford Motor Co. provided engines (new DOHC racing versions) for M/T’s 1964 Indy run and Indy rookie Dave MacDonald was given the job as driver. At the start of the race MacDonald was driving very aggressively and the car was loose. He crashed into the guard rail and was caught in a horrendous fire that claimed his life and that of another driver, Eddie Sachs. The terrible crash haunted Thompson for years.

In his last Indy effort in 1967, Thompson had developed a special three-valve Chevy engine for use at Indy and obtained financial support from Wynn’s Friction Proofing for his two-car team. However, neither car qualified, and that was the last year that M/T campaigned cars at the Indy oval.

Through his association with Gene McMannis during the Challenger I days. Thompson got involved in the tire business starting in 1963, making wide-tread “Indy Profile” tires available to the general public, the first tire company to make “50, 60 and 70 Series” tires.

Then 1964 saw M/T get back involved with “door slammer” super stock drag racing, with a Ford Thunderbolt entry driven by Butch Leal. Also, that same year he released his book “Challenger: Mickey Thompson’s Own Story of His Life of Speed,” where he tells all the details of his racing life up to that point.

Over the next few years, Thompson campaigned Ford racecars in drag racing and at the Salt Flats. Ever since running the Challenger I on the salt at Bonneville, Thompson wanted to get back into the land speed record business.

With the help of Ford, a new car was constructed featuring two powerful Ford 427 SOHC engines (stroked to 470-ci each) that combined put out some 2,000 horsepower.

The car, called the “Autolite Special” was 29-feet, 7-inches long and Thompson sat between the two power plants. During testing, a terminal speed of 411 mph was recorded, but when it came time to make the official runs under the eyes of the USAC officials, poor salt conditions prevented any further attempts.

By the following year, Ford was out of racing and the car was never run.

Designs on Safety

M/T was still heavily entrenched in drag racing, and with speeds ever-increasing in the funny car division, Thompson felt there was a need for improved safety in the design.

He unveiled a new car for 1970 racing season-a Mustang Mach I funny car with a completely new “monocoque” chassis design. Noted builder Nye Frank was called in to create the radical new machine, one that did not have a tubular chassis as commonly used but rather a design similar in style to aircraft.

A supercharged Boss 429 Ford engine was used, and, naturally, equipped with Mickey Thompson aluminum rods and Mickey Thompson racing pistons. 1970 was a very ambitious year for Thompson, as he actually ran five different drag cars, including two other traditional tube-chassis Mustang funny cars, a Maverick F/C built by John Buttera (with independent front suspension) and a Butch Leal-driven Boss 429 super stocker.

In 1971, Thompson won the prestigious Car Craft magazine “Ollie” award for “the man who contributed the most to drag racing.” He campaigned a Ford funny car team that used an exotic chassis built by chassis ace Woody Gilmore, constructed from titanium material, at an outrageous cost of $6,300 just for the raw tubing. (All that just to save 38 pounds in weight over a regular chrome-moly steel counterpart.)

With support coming from Purolator Filters, Monroe, Gulf Oil, RAC Instruments and Peter Paul Candies (he would often throw candy samples into the crowds at major events), Thompson had a knack for attracting new and prestigious sponsors. His cars were well-funded, and also served as rolling advertisements for his Mickey Thompson Rods and Pistons equipment business.

When the 1972 racing season started, Ford Motor Co. had quit racing, so Thompson’s drag race team employed a totally fresh and unique approach, where both a Ford and a Chevrolet were raced in the popular funny car class. The use of a Ford Pinto body continued (still driven by Dale Pulde) and the new entry was a Chevy Vega, with Henry Harrison at the controls.

The Pinto incorporated an updated titanium chassis and both vehicles now relied on Chrysler Hemi power. Besides campaigning these state-of-the-art mounts all across the U.S., the M/T drag team also traveled to Magdalena Mixhuca (6.5 miles from downtown Mexico City) where the Vega won the south-of-the-border Dragster Grand Prix of Mexico event.

In 1977, Bob Pickett drove the Mickey Thompson U.S. Marines-backed Oldsmobile Starfire GT-bodied funny car to victory at the NHRA Springnationals in Columbus, Ohio, beating Don Prudhomme 6.22 to 6.26.

Afterward, Thompson retired from drag racing as a car owner. When the NHRA made its Top 50 driver’s list, Thompson was ranked number 11.

Off-Road Success

Off-road racing was where Thompson began spending more of his time. He had built a Chevy pickup for off-road competition, earning a victory at the 1972 Parker Dam 500 in Arizona.

“When Ford backed out of racing, I decided to see what this off-road racing stuff was all about,” he told Gray Baskerville in 1980. “Hell, the best part of the show was out there in the desert and it was being put on for rattlesnakes and lizards. I decided right there to promote closed-course versions of off-road racing and founded the Short-Course Off-Road Enterprises (SCORE) and began building my own versions of off-road sprint cars.”

Thompson also created the SCORE Off Road Equipment Show, a trade event for the off-road and 4×4 industry, which was run by friend Alex Xydias.

The idea Thompson had was to take all the excitement of off-road racing and offer it to large groups of fans, starting at Riverside International Raceway, located about 60 miles outside of the Los Angeles area, and then later, with his Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group (MTEG)-operated with wife Trudy-bringing the excitement directly to stadiums in heavily populated metropolitan areas.

The MTEG series saw intense racing from champion drivers, competing in the Grand National Sport Truck class, including Roger Mears, Al Unser, Ivan Stewart, Walker Evans and Ricky Johnson, along with young up-and-coming newcomers like Jimmie Johnson and Robby Gordon.

Early on there was an agreement between Thompson’s off-road series and Michael Goodwin’s Supercross events, where they worked together on scheduling and sharing the expenses of hauling in the tremendous amount of dirt required to set up the track on the infield, which had lots of high-rise jumps and numerous moguls.

The initial arrangement seemed to work out, and as time went by, Thompson offered a portion of MTEG to Goodwin in a trial merger agreement, where the Thompsons would eventually retire from the stadium promotion business.

While it looked good on paper, the deal ultimately deteriorated into lawsuits and counter-lawsuits. Eventually the courts found Thompson was entitled to a judgment award of more than $700,000.

A Tragic Ending

At 6 a.m. on March 16, 1988, Mickey Thompson and his wife Trudy were murdered in their driveway by two men.

After a long investigation, in January 2007 a jury in L.A. County found Goodwin guilty of murder in arranging the deaths of Mickey and Trudy, and sentenced him to two consecutive life-without-parole sentences. The judge denied Goodwin’s motion for a new trial. The two gunmen on bicycles are still at large.

In 2009, plans for an exhibit on Thompson’s life and times began taking shape at the NHRA Wally Parks Motorsports Museum in Pomona, Calif. Because several M/T racecars were still around-some of which were recently restored to museum-quality-there was ample material to present a proper exhibit.

Besides the cars, a great effort was put forth to display some of his racing engines that had also survived over the years, plus loads of racing memorabilia including a scale model of his 1968 Ford-powered land speed record car. In addition, numerous photographs were obtained from his son Danny, plus racing historians and the NHRA archives.

At the opening night of the exhibit, friends and family of Mickey and Trudy Thompson gathered for a night of remembrance, a tribute and an evening to talk about the good times, and the racing accomplishments of a motorsports legend.