A life less ordinary

There was nothing conventional about the way American racer and Land Speed Record chaser Mickey Thompson lived – or died
By Richard Heseltine

In life, it was all too tricky to distinguish between the actual and the apocryphal. Mickey Thompson was manifestly a fame-chasing self-publicist, an egoist and a glory hound. He was able to pull the wool over the eyes of a credulous media and prise open corporate kitties with consummate ease. On the flipside, he was an abnormally brave driver, a prolific record-breaker and a self-made motor sport mogul.

As Smokey Yunick – that other free-thinking US racing idol – brilliantly puts it: “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.”

Despite all Thompson’s achievements – and there were hundreds – the hyperbole that followed in his wake still makes it difficult to see past the spin. In his autobiography Challenger, he’s painted as “a legend in his own time”, who “by virtue of his own unorthodox ideas, created a massive revolution in the engineering of the classic oval-track racing machine”. Really?

And so it was in death. On March 16, 1988, his life was extinguished by two hooded gunmen outside his home in exclusive Bradbury, California, in the San Gabriel foothills. But not before Thompson had been forced to witness the execution of his wife, Trudy. This was brutal. This was personal.

This was a mystery that appeared likely to remain unsolved. Sure, everyone in America’s West Coast racing community had more than an inkling of who might have been behind it all, and fingers were pointed, but there was no proof. Speculation was rampant in the wider world as stalled police investigations left behind a fact vacuum. TV ‘specials’ followed, as did oceans of ink, hypotheses being mulled over and embroidered with each airing. Most were fanciful, others merely insulting: a stash of gold in Thompson’s house supposedly went missing after the slayings: theft was the real motive behind the gangland-style slaughter; Thompson was involved with Mexican drug peddlers and was silenced before he could give testimony.

The truth is, few theories were rooted in anything like reality. Thompson was a hard-nosed businessman who’d trodden on plenty of toes in his 59 years but the investigation into his murder failed to uncover any shady dealings. Marion Lee ‘Mickey’ Thompson Jr had crashed at colossal speeds on land and sea, broken just about every bone in his body – been hospitalised 27 times – and had always come back for more. This wasn’t how he was meant to go out.

Having entered this world on December 7, 1928 in San Fernando, California, young Mickey was soon taught to be self-sufficient and, in 1943, he bought his first car – a 1927 Chevy – for seven-and-a-half dollars. After reviving the car, he then sold it for $125. But, as he explained in his hagiography, “there was no challenge in putting a machine together as well as a factory had done”. Enter Thompson the speed merchant.

In the late 1940s, the term ‘hot-rodder’ was an all-encompassing sobriquet for any young kid who got into trouble driving too fast in an old car. Except Thompson wasn’t interested in street racing: pilgrimages to the dry lakes of El Mirage or Rosamond became his life as the teenager gunned his next car, a hotted-up Model A Ford, faster than it had any right to go. And, as drag racing became a legitimate(ish) sport, Thompson split his time between record attempts on the wide-open desert flats and tearing up the asphalt on the quarter-mile strips. Displaying typical disdain for convention, he soon divined that if one engine was good, two – or more – was better, ever more elaborate contraptions beating rivals hollow as long as they held together.

Married to his first wife at 20, Thompson was never one for whom domestic bliss and the nine-to-five were ever going to suffice. Wildly ambitious and utterly fearless, he turned his need for speed into a business, the meticulously honed gift of the gab landing him a Ford Fordor sedan from prominent California car dealer Jesse Ellico for an attack on the 1953 Carrera Panamerica road race.

Having hitherto raced only in a straight line, Thompson’s efforts were admired – according to Challenger – by Italian ace Piero Taruffi, presumably before the young American crashed on the approach to Tehuantepec with tragic consequences. Entering a turn at 60mph, he swerved to avoid a woman carrying a baby and tagged a policeman before flipping over repeatedly. As the dust settled, Thompson and his wingman Roger Flores walked away with little more than torn clothes. Only a few minutes earlier, Bob Christie had overcooked it at the same corner and thrown his car sideways to scrub off speed before coming to a rest in a ditch. The policeman had been trying to usher rubberneckers away from the scene as Thompson arrived. His Ford crushed five spectators who had been milling around Christie’s stricken car.

The fallout was devastating. Fearing retribution from angry relatives, Thompson and Flores skipped town under cover of darkness in the back of a fish truck. Just to heap on the misery, Thompson’s wife Judy had been informed of his untimely passing.

Unbeknown to Thompson, a photographer from Life magazine had captured the crash sequence from the air and, in a subsequent article, it was clear to all that Thompson had valiantly tried to avoid injuring anyone. Just the morale boost he needed for a return bid a year on, but this time with race and recce cars, a supply of spares and cash. The result was a class win. Suitably bolstered, Thompson went for broke. By the end of the 1950s, he was mixing it with So Cal’s finest road racers in a fearsome Kurtis-Cadillac, inventing the influential slingshot dragster, creating the first low-profile tyre (apparently) and trying to emulate childhood hero Frank Lockhart with a Land Speed Record bid.

Widely espousing the belief that he was somehow channelling the charismatic Indy 500 winner and speed junkie, Thompson similarly aimed to be the fastest man on earth. After he had persuaded Pontiac chief Semon ‘Bunkie’ Knudsen to cough up four V8s, his super-streamlined Challenger 1 cracked 400mph at Bonneville in September 1960. Unfortunately, its stressed-out quartet of supercharged engines weren’t up for the mandatory second run so his efforts were never ‘official’. Appalled by the jet-powered vehicles that ended piston-power’s reign, he was done with chasing ‘the big one’.

No matter. Mickey Thompson Enterprises was up, running and booming. And besides, he had bigger fish to fry. He’d set his sights on winning the Indy 500, a decision that would bring with it disaster and infamy in equal measure.

Having separated the Harvey Aluminum manufacturing firm from a six-figure sum to back his 1962 bid for Brickyard glory, Thompson then tapped Knudsen for GM’s new aluminium-block V8. Designed largely by ex-pat Englishman John Crosthwaite, Thompson’s new baby trumpeted the rear-engined approach, with Dan Gurney driving the only qualifier.

“Mickey got a hard time at Indy, largely because of what happened later, but that car was pretty good,” recalls the effortlessly friendly Californian. “He was full of ideas – probably too many for his own good – and was always looking for the next innovation but I will stand up for that 1962 car. It’s just that, with him being a drag racer, he never could build an engine that lasted more than a quarter of a mile!”

A little playful, perhaps, as the car survived until half-distance before the diff broke. The following May, Thompson was back with five cars, all powered by fuel-injected Chevy V8s and riding on tiny 15in wheels. Each got intimate with the wall within the first six days of practice. A spooked Billy Krause did a runner, as did star signing Graham Hill. It was left to Second World War fly-boy and concentration camp survivor Al Miller (born Albert Krulock) to display real heroics. Having badgered Thompson into letting him have a drive, he spent the night before final qualifying drinking himself brave: the Croatian-American lined-up a wide-eyed ninth, which is where he would finish.

For 1964, Thompson sweet-talked Ford into letting him have a batch of its latest 32-valve overhead-cam V8s and lured Davey MacDonald to drive his mad-looking Sears-Allstate Special with its go-kart-sized rubber and side-saddle tanks fuelled to go the full distance. He only made it to lap two: not even MacDonald’s famously exuberant driving style could tame this one. The road-racing ace was vapourised in an inferno that also claimed Eddy Sachs and took out a fifth of the field.

Unbowed and unwilling to concede that his cars were too ‘out there’ for Indy, Thompson returned a year on with the Challenger Special, with front-mounted Chevy power and front-wheel drive! It failed to qualify. In 1967, he outdid himself with the Wynn’s Spit-Fire Special. Knocked-up by Joe Huffaker, it too was a front-dragger but this time with four-wheel steering via two steering boxes… It didn’t make the cut.

With ego only slightly bruised, Thompson continued to win big in drag racing (not least with driver Danny Ongais) and in off-roading. By the dawn of the 1970s, he’d left behind the white T-shirts and grubby fingernails and started living the life of a middle-aged millionaire. He took a new, younger wife in ’71, purchased a swanky pile in a gated community and bought Baja 1000-style competition from the desert peninsula to inner-city arenas with huge success.

Then it started heading south. In 1984, Thompson joined forces with stadium motocross impresario Mike Goodwin. Within months, they were at each other’s throats with the latter being accused of embezzlement. Thompson successfully sued but Goodwin refused to pay a dollar towards the $514,000 judgement. Thompson took further legal action after Goodwin placed ads stating that his former partner’s events had been cancelled. Then blood was spilled.

Fast-forward to the present and largely through the tenacity of Thompson’s sister, Collene Campbell, the murders weren’t left to gather dust in a cold-case file. After five years awaiting trial, Goodwin was convicted in January of orchestrating both murders and sentenced to life imprisonment. He refused plea bargains and continues to maintain his innocence, citing the lack of physical or forensic evidence to tie him to the crimes. His conviction rested largely on testimony from new witnesses who’d heard him make threats. The gunmen have yet to be found. If nothing else, the outcome means that Mickey Thompson can now – possibly, hopefully – be remembered as much for his extraordinary life as for the notoriety of his death. Considering the ‘based on a true story’ movies rumoured to be in the offing, this may be wishful thinking.