No. 11: Mickey Thompson
In terms of energy and innovation, no other hot rodder contributed more to the sport than Mickey Thompson. Not only was he one of the all-time greats in drag racing lore, but he also made his mark at the Indianapolis 500, Bonneville, off-road competition, and a wide variety of motorsports competition venues.
As a pioneer, Thompson had few equals. In addition to being credited for designing and building the first slingshot dragster, Thompson also set the first records with a two- and four-engine vehicles. His four-engine Challenger achieved Land Speed Record history with a 406.60-mph blast in 1960, and at one time, he held nearly 200 FIA international and USAC national speed records. His Danny Ongais-driven Mustang Mach I Funny Car dominated the class in 1969 with a chassis design that revolutionized the breed. Thompson was also the first to promote and stage off-road races in a stadium venue - a move that exposed the sport to thousands of new fans.
Thompson's career in speed began when attending the first legal drag races in Santa Ana, Calif., in 1950, and one of his breakthrough designs was created in 1954.
Said Thompson, "The biggest obstacle was keeping the driver between the engine and the rear axle, which required a driveshaft that pushed the engine forward. If you could place the driver behind the rear axle, it could be coupled directly with the engine-transmission assembly, and all the vehicle's weight focused on the driving wheels.
"Some of the drivers called my car 'the Monster' or 'the Tractor,' but a Santa Ana hot rodder, LeRoy Neumayer, said it reminded him of a slingshot, and the name not only stuck, but the design was quickly adapted by everyone else."
While on his way the 1958 Nationals in Oklahoma, Thompson made an unscheduled stop at the Bonneville Nationals to test his new twin-Chrysler dragster that his longtime associate, Fritz Voigt, had built for him, but the car ran so fast that they stayed for the duration of the event and smashed the Bonneville Nationals speed record by nearly 25 mph with a 294-mph clocking.
This inspired Thompson to build a four-engine car to break Englishman John Cob's 394.196-mph record for the flying mile and 393.82 for the kilometer. Because of their narrower external dimensions and strong bottom end, Pontiac engines were chosen to replace the Chrysler Hemis, and Thompson received valuable backing from Mobil Oil, Ed Iskenderian, Grant Piston Rings, Joe Hunt Magnetos, Stu Hilborn, and Goodyear for the development of the tires.
Thompson, who at that time was working the graveyard shift in the pressroom of the L.A. Times and managing Lions Drag Strip on the weekends, constructed the car with the assistance of Voigt, his neighbors, Cecil Schremp and Roger Flores, and aluminum fabricator Don Borth.
A number of problems, including a spinout at 200 mph, parachute-braking difficulties, and the disconnection of the oxygen-supply system, thwarted Thompson's efforts in 1959, but he still managed to break his 294-mph record by an American with a 362.31-mph clocking. He came back in 1960 to hit 406.60 mph and break Cobb's one-way record of 403, but a broken driveshaft prevented him from making the required backup run within the allotted time of one hour, and the record was not officially certified.
Thompson, now a worldwide-known motorsports celebrity, decided to concentrate on FIA acceleration records, so he went to March Air Force Base in July with four different Pontiac cars: the Assault and Attempt streamliners, a Class F Dragmaster chassis sans body, and a 348-horsepower 389-cid Pontiac Catalina.
In one day, Thompson broke all eight international records and six of 10 American national records. The October 1961 issue of Car Life magazine reported: "The new records, plus the 28 world, international, and national records [Thompson] had established in 1959 and 1960 at March AFB and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, gave him more [records] than any man has ever held at a given time."
Thompson still had hopes of establishing a Land Speed Record in excess of 400 mph, but the deteriorating salt conditions at Bonneville in 1961 and 1962 had reduced the usable course from14 miles to nine miles, and he was forced to retire the Challenger. The car is currently on display at the NHRA Motorsports Museum.
Thompson's drag racing efforts flourished in the 1960s, when Jack Chrisman drove Thompson's 432-cid, aluminum Pontiac-equipped Dragmaster car to an 8.76, 171.75-mph win over Don Garlits in the Top Eliminator final at the 1962 NHRA Nationals. Thompson was runner-up to Danny Ongais in Top Gas at the 1964 Winternationals with his Hemi-head Ford dragster, and he also founded the Mickey Thompson Tire Co., an aftermarket producer of racing slicks and drag racing front tires that still thrives today.
On the national scene, Thompson made an even bigger impact at the 1962 Indianapolis 500 when he designed and built the first competitive rear-engine car to use a stock-block Buick engine for power. With Dan Gurney at the wheel, Thompson's radical machine qualified in the middle of the third row in a field dominated by Offenhausers and Novis with an average speed of 147.886 mph. Despite the failure of a transaxle grease seal that knocked the car out of competition midway through the race, Thompson won 59 out of a possible 67 votes for the D-A Lubricant annual award for Mechanical Achievement.
After again joining forces with Ford and Ongais to establish a number of speed records with Ford Mustangs in late 1968, Thompson used the combination to revolutionize the Funny Car ranks in 1969. Up until then, Funny Car chassis were built along the configurations that were first established by the Logghe Bros. in 1966 with wide frame rails and roll-cage arrangements very similar to those used in production-type vehicles.
Thompson worked with chassis builder Pat Foster to come up with a new design that featured narrower frame-rail dimensions, a dragster-style roll cage, zoomie headers, and solid rear suspension. Ongais and Foster easily dominated Funny Car competition in early 1969 with the two Mickey Thompson Mustang Mach 1s, and Ongais went on to win the NHRA Springnationals and Nationals.
One of Thompson's most significant innovations was the introduction of off-road competition to major stadiums.
Said Thompson, "I took part in a lot of off-road races and always wondered how we could get more fans to come out and watch. When I couldn't come up with a good idea, I just decided to bring the racing to them."
His idea led to the establishment of the popular series at venues such as Major League Baseball stadiums.
Thompson was in the midst of planning many more exciting projects when he and his wife, Trudy, were murdered outside their Bradbury, Calif., home in 1988. To this date, the case remains unsolved.
Thompson's heritage has continued to grow over the years, and to his delight, he achieved all of his significant accomplishments as a hot rodder .
When he was honored by the Southern California section of the Society of Automotive Engineers following his 406-mph run in 1960, Thompson relished in needling his audience.
"I rubbed it in that a good hot rodder could solve a design problem and have the new structure in operation in a smaller fraction of time than what it takes a trained engineer to make his calculations and drawings," he said. "If I need a special part for a car, I'll go into the shop, grab a torch or put a piece of metal in a lathe, and create it as I go along. While an engineer is just preparing to cope with the problem, I can make the piece, have it on the car, and find out whether it works or not." - John Jodauga
Comments from the panel
“Versatile driver; innovator; sponsor magnet.” - Steve Collison
“Thompson had the key to Detroit's back door, and he showed up with an amazing variety of treasures, from four-cylinder Tempest dragsters and streamliners to monocoque Funny Cars.” - Rick Voegelin
“Quintessential, Southern California hot rod kid spent his off-time creating some of the more bizarre, homemade creations into winning efforts.” - Don Gillespie
“Mickey Thompson was the consummate racer. … Mickey loved to go fast in anything he could hang a set of wheels on.” - Jim Hill
“The worst insult to MT was to tell him something couldn’t be done. I made the mistake one morning while I was working with him on a new project, and he had me eating a double order of humble pie before the end of the day. The man’s strength of will and record of accomplishments may never be equaled in racing. Probably the best-known of Thompson’s innovations in drag racing was the first successful campaigning of a chassis that put the driver behind the rear axle, but that was really only a blip on the racing screen that he filled in a life that was tragically cut short.” - John Raffa