Mickey Thompson; the man and his machines

The story behind the motor sport legend, entrepreneur and innovator whose sticky end perversely reflected a high-octane life spent on the edge

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It wasn’t the way he was meant to go out. Mickey Thompson had cheated death time and again in a racing car, only to have his life extinguished by two hooded gunmen on March 16, 1988. Worst still, he had first been made to witness the execution of his wife Trudy.

This bloody episode marked an unfitting end for a man who achieved more in his action-packed life than seemed feasible. Rumours abounded as to whom was responsible. Fingers were pointed, and TV documentaries followed, but a further 18 years would elapse before the man who orchestrated the killings was finally brought to justice.

The pity is, Marion Lee ‘Mickey’ Thompson is remembered more for his violent end than for what he did in his lifetime – and he was nothing if not an overachiever. He was variously a star wheelman, innovator, ace promoter and record-breaker with a gift for the gab that could tease open corporate purses with ease.

This hot-rodding pioneer broke just about every bone in his body in his bid to go faster than the next guy, whether it was on land or sea, and straddled the line between what was possible and what was permissible time and again. In doing so, he became a media star and a millionaire several times over.

Born on December 7, 1928 in San Fernando, California, Thompson earned the ‘Mickey’ moniker thanks to his flame-red hair and Irish ancestry. He preferred to it to Marion – not least because it meant he didn’t get into quite so many scraps with his contemporaries over him having ‘a girl’s name’.

His mechanical nous was apparent from an early age. As a pre-teen, he built soapbox racers with his father, Marion Snr, and equipped them with old car batteries so that they could be ‘driven’ uphill after a race. He also took apart the family washing machine because he needed its motor for a go-kart he was constructing.

Scroll forward a few years in the narrative, and Thompson followed though by acquiring his first car – a 1927 Chevrolet – for $7.50. The 15-year-old then rebuilt the Chevy and, despite not being old enough to legally drive on the road, put it through its paces on the California dry lakes before selling it for $125. The die was cast.

Once of legal age, Thompson soon began tearing up the neighbourhood in his next car, a highly tuned Ford Model A. With an air of predictability, this led to brushes with Johnny Law. This was doubly hard on the youngster, as his father was a captain of the Alhambra police force…

Racing from stop light to stop light soon lost its appeal, so Thompson concentrated instead on running his fast Ford at venues such as El Mirage, while also conjuring ever more elaborate dragsters for quarter-mile action. Not only that, he gradually began taking over promotional duties for race meetings while also offering speed parts under his own name.

But that wasn’t enough to satiate such a restless spirit. Although he married his first wife Judy while barely out of his teens, settling down to a life of domesticity and the nine-to-five wasn’t for him. Instead, he turned his attention to the gruelling Carrera Panamericana road race, and entered the 1953 running aboard a Ford Fordor that he’d managed to prise out of a prominent local car dealer.

Despite his inexperience at competing at this level, he and co-driver Roger Flores were going well until Thompson crashed on the approach to Tehuantepec with terrible consequences. Swerving to avoid a woman holding a baby, Thompson lost control and tagged a policeman before rolling repeatedly. The Ford’s occupants escaped without injury, but the car crushed five spectators in its wake. They had been milling around another entrant’s car that had crashed at the same spot only moments earlier.

Fearing retribution from angry relatives, Thompson and Flores fled town under the cover of darkness. A subsequent article in Life magazine, which included a sequence of photos of the accident taken from the air, clearly showed that Thompson had done his utmost to avoid hitting anyone. It was just the morale boost he needed to return south of the border and take class honours in 1954.

He was only just getting started. By the end of the decade, Thompson had taken to circuit racing a Cadillac-engined Kurtis 500X. According to his often-fanciful autobiography Challenger, he also invented the world’s first low-profile tyre and created a template-setting slingshot dragster.

At the dawn of the 1960s, he went for broke and announced his intention to establish a new Land Speed Record. Having sweet talked Pontiac chief Semon ‘Bunkie’ Knudsen into providing four V8 engines for his bid, he fashioned the super-streamlined Challenger 1, which took to the salt at Bonneville in September 1960.

Laying with his knees almost at shoulder height, and his head virtually touching the roll-over bar, the abnormally brave Thompson also had to contend with the small matter of making four simultaneous gearshifts while keeping the car pointing straight. That was no mean task given that a single pedal operated four clutches.

Despite adverse weather conditions, Thompson steered his quad-engined machine to 406mph. However, he was unable to make the mandatory second run in the allotted time, so his efforts were never officially recognised. While renderings of jet-propelled machines would appear in the specialist press during the 1960s, none ever reached fruition. Instead, Thompson left it to the likes of Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove to duke it for LSR honours.

Besides, he had bigger fish to fry. Thompson set his sights on winning the Indianapolis 500, and wasn’t above upsetting the establishment with increasingly leftfield designs. With sponsorship from Harvey Aluminum, and armed with General Motors’ new alloy-block V8, the first Thompson Champ Car arrived at ‘The Brickyard’ in 1962 and caused a furore.

Designed in part by Englishman John Crosthwaite (who later created the chassis for the Reliant Scimitar GTE), this rear-engined monster was the antithesis of the traditional Indy Roadster. Fresh from winning the French Grand Prix, Dan Gurney flew back to the US and qualified one of the Thompson cars in eighth place, only to retire the machine from the race after a seal failed on the rear transaxle.

Unbowed, Thompson retuned a year later with five more models, each powered by a fuel-injected Chevy V8 and equipped with tiny 15in wheels. Each car connected with the walls during practice. One driver, Billy Krause, refused to venture trackside again, while star signing Graham Hill also did a bunk. It was left to veteran Al Miller to bravely attempt to qualify his ‘funny car’, the Croatian-American lining up ninth on the grid, which is the position he would finish after 500 miles of racing.

In 1964 Thompson persuaded Ford to provide a batch of its later 32-valve, overhead-cam V8s, and hired sports car star Dave MacDonald to steer the loopy-looking Sears-Allstate Special, which featured side-saddle fuel tanks and go-kart-sized rubber. MacDonald crashed out on lap two and perished in the ensuing inferno, which also claimed Eddie Sachs.

Thompson’s name was now mud at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but he returned a year later with a front-engined, front-wheel-drive machine that didn’t make the field. In 1967, he produced another front-engined car, the Wynn’s Spit-Fire Special, which stretched to four-wheel steering via a pair of steering boxes. In theory, the front wheels followed the angle of a bend, while the rear wheels turned towards the outside.

Thompson outlined the ‘advantages’ of this design in the Los Angeles Times in period: ‘This reduces the slip angle. It’s the slip angle that makes the car spin. In a hard turn, it increases to the point where the car will break away. If the rear wheels turn, the car eventually follows around in a circle. That will mean faster speeds down the straights, too. If you come out of a turn 5mph faster, then it stands to reason it’s going to help you speed down the straight.’ It didn’t. Driver Sam Sessions was never in any danger of qualifying. One last tilt in 1968 with rookie Bill Puterbaugh also came to naught.

While his Indy bids ended in ignominy, Thompson continued to win big in drag racing. Long before multi-car teams became the norm, Mickey Thompson Enterprises fielded a raft of vehicles for the likes of future F1 occasional Danny Ongais. The team principal, meanwhile, continued to rack up hundreds of records at Bonneville, most memorably with Ford Mustangs.

But still this wasn’t enough. By the dawn of the 1970s, Thompson had long side outgrown the buzz cut and white T-shirt image to become a wealthy entrepreneur with a new wife and a big house in a gated community. He also became increasingly enraptured by the Baja 1000 off-road race, and sensed an opportunity: he would bring this style of competition into big inner-city arenas. It was at this juncture that it all began to unravel.

In 1984, Thompson threw in his lot with motocross promoter Mike Goodwin. It wasn’t a happy relationship. Thompson accused his business partner of embezzlement, and successfully sued him. Nevertheless, he never received a cent of his $514,000 settlement. Instead, Goodwin amped up the antagonism by placing ads that made out Thompson’s events had been cancelled. Then the speed king and his young wife were ambushed in their driveway and slaughtered.

The police investigation soon stalled, but Thompson’s sister, Collene Campbell, refused to allow the murders to be forgotten. On January 4, 2007, Goodwin received consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, having already been found guilty of 13 charges of making false statements on a bank loan to buy a yacht. He refused to plea bargain and maintained his innocence, as his conviction rested largely on testimony of new witnesses who heard him make threats. The gunmen have to yet be identified.

Even in death, Thompson remains larger than life. His name is writ large in motor sport lore, which is how he deserves to be remembered. In the words of that other great free-thinking racer Henry ‘Smokey’ Yunick: ‘He had the balls of a dinosaur and the persistence of a hungry tiger. That man didn’t know what “it can’t be done” meant.’ That’s quite an epitaph.

Images courtesy of Rota Archive

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