Over the years, the hot rod industry has spawned numerous innovators, icons, entrepreneurs and heroes, but perhaps none more prolific than the late Mickey Thompson. Murdered, along with his wife Trudi in their Bradbury, California, driveway in the spring of 1988, Mickey was larger than life and his life is the subject of a stunning exhibit, Mickey Thompson: First American to 400 MPH presented by Banks Power at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum at Fairplex Pomona.
According to Tracy Powell writing in Automobile Quarterly in 2007, Mickey participated in over 10,000 races, drove over one million race miles and set nearly 500 speed and endurance records, including 295 records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He competed everywhere from the dry lakes of El Mirage to the brickyard at Indy and even the Baja 1000, and everywhere he made an indelible mark.
Born Marion Lee Thompson Jr. on Dec. 7, 1928, in San Fernando, California, Mickey undoubtedly had two major issues to deal with growing up: his first name and having a strict police captain for a father. As a Sagittarius he had no choice but to be driven. A family road trip in 1937 that took in those famed salt flats at Bonneville sealed his fate, and by the time he was a teenager, he was already building hot rods in his Alhambra backyard. By the time he was 15, he was running a Model A Ford at El Mirage and got close to a class record with a speed of 79 mph.
Mickey’s second passion was his first wife Judy. They married when Mickey was 19. At the time, he was working at the Los Angeles Times and racing the dry lakes and drag strips of Southern California.
Notoriety came in 1952 when Mickey raced a chopped and extended Austin Bantam at Bonneville. With two flathead Ford V-8 engines it went 196 mph. That same year Mickey became enamored with the Carrera Panamericana, or Mexican Road Race, as it was better known. In 1953, Mickey and friend Rodger Flores entered a ’53 Ford coupe. Unfortunately, although they were doing well, they crashed and five spectators were killed, resulting in lurid headlines in Life magazine. From Mexico, Thompson headed to Bonneville, where he used the coupe as a push car for the Bantam, which now sported a Chrysler Hemi in place of one of the Ford V-8s. Sadly, a motor exploded.
The following year, Mickey and Rodger returned to Mexico with a Ford V-8 and won their class. The event would be fortuitous when Mickey hooked up with Gene McManus of Goodyear tires and cemented a relationship that would last until Thompson’s death and put the tire maker in the record books. Meanwhile, Mickey had been impacting the world of drag racing first with the first slingshot dragster, where the driver sat low behind the rear axle, and with new wide, slick tires that increased traction. The fact that the slingshot first appeared with a cardboard body was no deterrent; speed mattered more than aesthetics.
With too many ideas to sleep, Mickey continued to race by day and work nights at the LA Times, and yet in April 1955 he also took on the task of building and managing Lions Associated Drag Strip for the Lions Club. Where did the man get the energy? While manager, Thompson invented the staging lights that were eventually adopted throughout the sport. Mickey also invented energy-absorbing, water-filled barrels that are still used as a highway safety device today. Mickey’s brain never seemed to tire of thinking up and developing new stuff.
Mickey was particularly prolific during the late-‘50s. Still working nights at the Times, running Lions, racing and record setting, he also began developing his growing manufacturing business, Mickey Thompson Enterprises. He got into road racing at this time, too, competing with his Cadillac-powered Kurtis in road races from Pomona to Palm Springs. However, a side trip to Bonneville on his way to race in the 1958 NHRA Nationals at Oklahoma City resulted in his becoming the fastest American ever when he ran 294 mph.
The drags were all but forgotten as MT began to focus on a major land speed project combining four Pontiac motors in an attempt to go 400 mph. Few took him seriously—heck, the car had no suspension and used archaic 1937 La Salle transmissions—but Thompson was not deterred and assembled the “Challenger I” in his El Monte garage in just nine months.
On Aug. 22, 1959, Challenger I blistered across the Bonneville salt going 362 mph. It was not enough to break John Cobb’s land speed record. Thompson returned the following year with GMC truck superchargers adapted to the top of each Pontiac. They gave the necessary oomph to boost Thompson’s Challenger I to a one-way Best Of 406.6 mph. Unfortunately, a broken driveshaft curtailed the attempt and Thompson never did ratify his attempt. Instead, he turned his attention to America’s other Mecca of speed—Indianapolis.
Here again Thompson’s innovations upset the establishment when he entered a rear-engine, stock-block speedway car and designed and first used the extremely wide, low profile tires that are now commonplace even on road cars. Unfortunately, despite his innovations success at the Brickyard was elusive, and Mickey returned to drag racing and the hugely popular Funny Car class.
Once again, Mickey flourished and during the late-‘60s and early-‘70s fielded a number of cars that continually pushed the engineering envelope. For example, in 1970 he fielded a Mach I Mustang that had no tubular steel frame. Instead, it used Indy car-type monocoque construction. The car ran a Best Of 196 mph at 7.40 seconds.
Meanwhile, Mickey was back racing in Mexico competing in the grueling off-road race the Baja 1000 for Parnelli Jones. He won the event outright in 1982. In 1973 Mickey founded SCORE International to oversee off-road racing. SCORE became the largest off-road racing sanctioning body in the U.S. and soon took an extreme outdoor participant sport and packaged it as an indoor stadium race that could be watched in person by thousands of fans and on millions of TVs.
When Mickey and his second wife Trudi were murdered he was, as always, full speed in every direction, much as he had been all his life. Fascinated by motorsports from an early age, he was an innovator, a racer and promoter, and Gale Banks Engineering and the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum is proud to honor this icon of American motorsports.
Mickey Thompson: First American to 400 MPH presented by Gale Banks Engineering opens at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, Pomona, California, and runs through 2010.