Was it blind faith or curmudgeonly stubbornness that sparked Mickey Thompson’s desperate attempts to conquer the brickyard? Joe Scalzo tells a tale of false hopes, mad cars and fatal consequences
History is a joke the living play on the dead, someone once said -probably about Mickey Thompson. Poor, murdered Mickey is consigned to awful limbo now, but in his big and controversial era of almost 40 years ago, he was ‘the greatest creative and competitive figure in the world of speed’, ‘one of the most fantastic men of our age’, and inevitably ‘a legend in his own time’. Those were the days.
Among dozens of contenders, he was the most rabid’ cast member of those astonishing self-appointed geniuses, rags-to-riches dreamers, and out-and-out jokers and frauds all jostling one another to reinvent the wheel and design the craziest Indianapolis car of the 1960s, the Indy 500’s nutcase decade. Mickey won. Yet he also lost: he and his unsettling inventions ended up giving ‘crazy’ a bad name.
The terrifying Indycars of Mickey Thompson! Possibly the only remotely flattering words anybody uttered about them was that they were classic examples of ‘mega-engineering’. The average Mickey car could be counted on to have at least 10 new and exciting ideas incorporated into its design, and at least half of the ideas might be pretty good. Unhappily, however, one of the remaining ideas would be so ludicrously and hilariously bad that it would nullify everything else.
Mickey never saw it that way; he believed himself incapable of failure and possessed of only inspired thoughts. After the Speedway at last got scared of him and tried giving him the bum’s rush by putting his dangerous equipment in quarantine, Mickey hung tough. Even in bitter 1964, when his infamous Seam-Allstate Special with its deadly side-saddle fuel tanks brought on the unforgivable wreck that ploughed under two lives and burned out or wrecked one fifth of the starting field, Mickey survived all the hits. Three 500s later, he defiantly returned with a more alarming car still.
Every time some piece of his got banned, he turned it into victory proof of how the behind-the-times Hoosier rule-makers were persecuting his pioneering ingenuity. Way before anybody else, Mickey understood spin, attitude and making the gullible media work for him. Accordingly, he was the featured subject of an endless number of fawning write-ups, topped by his own hagiographic autobiography Challenger, which quotes Mickey thus: “I came to think of the year of my birth (1928) as having a special meaning. It was the year of the triumph and death of the idol of my youth, a man who will always be my greatest hero. His name was Frank Lockhart.”
Naturally. Arguably the most brilliant racing mind America has ever unleashed, the unguided missile Lockhart was the prototype of everything Mickey wanted to become. Lockhart was so brainy that in 1920 he almost got a scholarship to the vaunted California Institute of Technology to become a scientist. He had mechanical ingenuity, wild ambition, utter fearlessness and exactly like Mickey not nearly enough money to back up such hyperkinetic traits with hardware. It was the Roaring ’20s and Lockhart had two Holy Grails: to win at Indy and set the Land Speed Record.
Sure enough, Frank won the 500-miler of 1926 with ease. But in addition to being a great and natural racing driver, he also possessed the same shining qualities of conmen and cult leaders: charm, arrogance and the ability to inspire loyalty.
Shopping his LSR plans around, Frank scored big. And by 1928, the year of Mickey’s birth, Lockhart was ready to go for the LSR. But his ‘Stutz Blackhawk’ was so flyweight it was feared the little streamliner might sail out of control and sail it did, two times. The second one, on April 25, was the end of Frank.
That was the potent mythology of Frank Lockhart and it well and truly fired Mickey’s brains. In fact, in his most alarming moments Mickey seemed to imagine himself Frank Lockhart reincarnated. And maybe he wasn’t so far wrong.
Lockhart had won the Brickyard and spread across Daytona? Well, by his 34th birthday, in 1962, Mickey had patrolled the Bonneville Salt Flats, had crash-and-burned and massacred in the old Mexican Road Race, had match-raced top-fuel diggers against Swamp Rat Don Garlits, had had sportscar duels with Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby and had established 180— yep, 180! — different straight-line speed records.
Lockhart had had the smarts and push to create his Stutz Blackhawk. Mickey (among numerous inventions he credited to himself) had constructed the first slingshot dragster, the original low-profile racing tyre, and he and his first LSR sled, a four-engine Pontiac, had been the first to crack 400mph.
Lockhart had orchestrated and survived stupendous crackups and wrecks; yet had had the high pain threshold and intestinal fortitude to beg for more. ‘Body cast’ Mickey had busted his ass in every way and every setting imaginable, including on the salt, in the water, and even on the snow of wilderness New Mexico, where he got half-killed after baiting elements of the proud Unser clan into a snowmobile duel at the family stronghold of Chalma.
Lockhart was practically penniless and had to con in order to amass the scratch to create his speed toys? Mickey was a walking, talking, egomaniac/hustler/spellbinder. With distinguished, sympathetic CEO buddies everywhere, he was unparalleled at getting inside the deep pockets of zillionaire corporations.
Playing Frank Lockhart, Thompson went for the glory of the LSR. And succeeded in becoming the first LSR player to cream 400 (across Bonneville in 1960). It was a first-rate accomplishment, but a sadism of the LSR is that to set the record, the hopeful also has to make a return run. And Mickey had so wounded his quartet of stressed-out Pontiacs making the first pass that he couldn’t come back in the required time. Just about then, as an added dose of misery, the LSR tournament began being visited by jet propulsion jobs making vastly more firepower than Thompson’s Pontiacs ever could. An ardent internal combustion diehard who couldn’t stomach jets, he got out of the LSR business and, fatefully, turned his guns on the Indy 500.
General Motors had this neat little aluminum-block V8; Mickey knew some of the honchos of the Buick division so, easy as pie, he got them to cough up some product and bucks. He also scammed big dollars from an aluminum foundry that he sucked into his scheme with a sob story about Indianapolis discriminating against him because he was only a poor-boy hot rodder.
The very first Mickey Thompson rear-engine Indycar of 1962 was conventional, and it was about the only one Mickey ever built with no bad ideas. Not surprisingly, it also was one of the few Thompsons in be halfway successful: its rookie driver, Gurney, Mickey’s old sportscar playmate, was moving up steadily through the top 10 with 250 miles worth of passing opportunities still to come when the rear end lunched.
The following year, Mickey went to town. He quadrupled his efforts. On May 1 he hit Indy with five new dervishes, all rear-engines, all with honking fuel-injected Chevrolet stock-block go. Their chauffeurs ranged from the reigning world champion of Formula One to a hotshot road-racer off the Pacific Coast.
All automobiles of the Thompson Scuderia got into wrecks or developed mechanical emergencies in the opening six days. The world champ (Graham Hill) and the road-race ace (Billy Krause) both bailed out and headed home. Oddly enough, this worked to Mickey’s advantage. With the prima donnas gone, and with hardly anyone of respectable record willing to go near the Thompson go-karts, the path was clear for edgy characters with do-or-die attitudes like chrome-dome cruncher `Mr Clean’.
Mr Clean was Al Miller (not his real name either), a fly-boy battle hero of WWII who’d been in the process of bombing the Continent flat until getting shot down and made to serve hard time in a German concentration camp. The epic story of Mr Clean’s wild qualification time trial in a Mickey car gets bigger and better every year, but basically he tracked down Mickey and hit him with the memorable pitch: “If you let me drive one of your cars, Ill put it into the show or into the wall!” Qualifying time was running out; Mickey so far had only one of his five dervishes in the 500; he was desperate. So he told Mr Clean, okay.
Preparing for the assignment, Mr Clean travelled down the street from the Speedway to the White Front bar to spend the night and early morning getting beer-couraged up. Legend says he still had some beer in him the following Sunday afternoon while hammering the pedal, cocking the steering wheel and recording the fastest time of all Mickey’s cars to go ninth-quickest
Mr Clean subsequently came in ninth in the 500, the only top-10 finish fora Mickey car. In the aftermath, Indy officials decided there was something hinky about Thompson cars and their go-kart-size tyres; legislation was drafted to put them out of business.
Mickey let go a prolonged wail: “This decision puts a quarter of a million dollars of race cars and 15 years of my life down the drain! I’ll fight this thing Wit takes me down to my last cent!” Behind the bluster, he was regrouping and creating for posterity yet another Mickey yam, as well as laying the groundwork for a fresh assault on the 500. This one, as ever, involved connections in high places, huge deals and fast and tricky footwork.
First he talked himself into a consignment of Ford’s latest and hottest overhead-cam, 32-valve V8s ; then he lured rookie phenomenon Davey MacDonald from under the noses of Carroll Shelby, Ford and Lincoln-Mercury. Come race morning of the 1964 500, when Davey was strapping down inside his gasoline-laden Mickey car with its ominous side-saddle fuel tanks, he went on record as saying that of all the iron he’d ever manhandled, this beauty was the spookiest Sure enough, on the second lap he went into the wall, blowing himself and Eddie Sachs sky high.
“That’s it, this is too much, from now on Mickey Thompson is out of here” — such was the outraged Indianapolis reaction. Mickey’s cars got wiped out in a flurry of fresh legislation. He lost all his engines too.
Still he refused to roll over. As proof of the safety of the sidesaddles, he had one of the tanks filled up and then dropped from a great height Its failure to burst open was supposed to prove the second-lap holocaust had never happened. Mickey even promised he’d race his next car himself (a promise later retracted).
Another 500(1967) and another crazy, home-cooked Mickey vehicle. This little charmer didn’t have four-wheel-drive, it had four-wheel steering! Go into a corner and all its tyres took off pointing in opposite directions. The assigned driver quit at the press conference, and no replacement could be found.
The butt of bad jokes now, Thompson was all done as an actor at Indy. Mickey would not have said that, of course. He would have said that during the 1970s he was no longer at the Speedway because he was too busy campaigning Funny Cars on drag strips or going desert off-roading across Baja California. And by the 1980s, he was all through playing Frank Lockhart Reinventing himself as the unstoppable money-making impresario of stadium biker motocross and four-wheel off-roading, Mickey took up a comfy millionaire’s lifestyle in one of LA’s most exclusive and high-rent walled compounds.
But there was an epilogue. Gunned down in 1988 at the age of just 60, Mickey died a Mafia capo’s death, the identity of whomever took out himself and his wife unknown to this day despite the long-standing offer of a million-dollar reward.
Today he remains trapped to the murk of deep history, caught in a no-win situation. Had he not gone and made himself notorious by getting whacked, he’d apparently be little remembered at all. Yet when he is remembered, it’s for the infamy of bringing on the worst disaster in the Indianapolis 500’s history.
Sad deal. Bad deal.