It has been more than 12 years since Mickey Thompson's Great Bonneville Go-Round. That's when Challenger III went spinning out of control at 441 mph on Utah's salt fiats, teetering crazily, its mighty engines roaring, the instrument needles bouncing on their pegs. The two brake parachutes were sent blossoming out behind, and still the car spun. And then, in mid-swoop, everything inside the cockpit went dark. Peering out, Thompson decided that it must be raining out there; how odd, as if the car had somehow been twirled into a weird new world. "Hoo boy," he said. And then he turned to prayer: "Uhh, Lord? Yes, I know it's me again. But listen, this time I'm really serious. I promise, if you'll just let me out of this here car alive, I swear I'll never, ever get back into it."
Well, fair enough. Thompson did get out unscathed, and to this day he hasn't gotten back into that car since it miraculously swirled to a safe stop in a rain squall on that autumn morning in 1968. Thompson has been in and out of a lot of other race cars, but not that one. That's his style: one crisis at a time; never promise what you don't think you can deliver. And now, on a raw wintry day in the California outback, he sits inside the tubular cocoon of his new monster desert car and flashes that familiar old grin.
"This is my last year," he says. "No, really. I mean: if I win the championship this time, I promise I'll quit racing and go on to something else."
He looks contentedly at the gauges and dials and switches in the cockpit. It's an old routine he's going through, one of the most familiar in racing, and perhaps it's the desert light but one can almost see the years falling away as he does it. Thompson is 52 years old. There's a telltale touch of gray bristling at the lower edges of his sideburns, and the rest of his hair has a suspicious reddish cast that was never there before. He shifts his weight painfully in the bucket seat; he's tightly corseted to protect his bad back. One elbow is a bit crooked and his left knee rasps when he bends it. It wasn't this way in the old days, of course, but he's not indestructible anymore. Then he smiles and a flash of familiar hellion appears: his jowls seem to retract and a touch of oldtime cockiness returns.
March 2, 1981
It seems hard to believe that Thompson might actually need an introduction. After all, as he puts it, "I've been through three generations of racers." But, well, hot-rodding and off-road racing are admittedly pretty exotic activities these days, and because Thompson got out of the Indy car business more than a decade ago, it's entirely possible that his name isn't on everybody's lips anymore. So all right: this comfortably roundish gentleman, 5'11" and 200-plus pounds, is Marion Lee Thompson Jr. He's something of a prototype. He might be called the basic pattern figure, the template, of America's hot-rod generation. To every guy who has ever peeled out of a White Castle parking lot, Thompson is Our Founder. He goes back to Deuce Coupes, ducktail haircuts and Sh-boom, sh-boom, ya-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da.... The Mick was the kid who wasn't very good at school-work, especially all that English, but who could speak to engines. He could rest his fingertips on the hood of any car and detect its illnesses. Thompson is a born engineer, if there is such a thing, a slow learner who later proved to have an IQ of 143.
Thompson has given the world a lot of marvelous stuff it didn't know it needed. For better or worse, he came up with low-profile tires and the slingshot dragster, becoming the first man to hit 150 mph in a quarter-mile. In 1946 he gunned a 1929 Ford Model A roadster to a class record of 115.26 mph. and in 1958 he built the world's fastest hot rod, a supercharged Chrysler-powered streamliner that hit a stunning 294 mph. On various drag strips and dry lake beds and salt flats, he set more than 400 world and national speed records.
Thompson's most memorable creation was Challenger I, the first car he designed specifically for going after the land-speed record. It was powered by not one but four Pontiac engines, and the first time he lit it off, the thing turned out something like 2,000 horsepower. It was awesome: the shiftpoint from low to second gear in that monster was 210 mph, and then it was popped into high at 315. And, glory be, Thompson actually drove the beast a sizzling 406.6 mph through the measured mile in 1960, surpassing Sir John Cobb's then-world record of 394.196. However, the rules insist that a car must be driven two ways through the timing trap for a mark to be official, and Challenger I balked on the return leg. But with all that, Thompson had set the world speed standard for driving a car. Remember that those guys who recently have gone as much as twice as fast in their rocket cars didn't actually drive, not in the honored piston-engine sense of the word. They were strapped in, the rockets were touched off—and they rode along as passengers. Stan Barrett actually reached the sound barrier this way, going 739.666 in 1979.
By the time Thompson got to Challenger III in 1968—the one that spun out so dramatically—the insurance companies had him figured. They agreed to insure the car for $100,000. That is, as long as it was standing still. Soon as it started moving: nothing. Which is what Thompson got after he promised the Lord that he'd never, ever get back into it.
But all that was many years and many crashes ago, and here we are back in the California desert, in the bleak hills just outside Barstow, and Thompson is at it again. Officially, his desert car is called Challenger Mark V, and it's full of trick stuff, like a lot of his race cars. The concepts behind this gadgetry may be O.K., but that's not to say the hardware intended to execute these ideas is up to the job. Still, every time the crew rolls this thing off the back of its transporter, crowds seem to materialize from nowhere to stand around and stare at it in bewildered awe.
Challenger V has been five years in the planning, and Thompson has lavished an easy quarter million on it. It weighs 2,600 pounds (without Mickey) and can hit 150 mph on a level stretch of desert, while cranking 550 horses out of its mid-mounted aluminum V-8. But with all of those wonders, it's the shock absorbers that create the sensation.
Off-road racing is all that the name implies: into the desert, through gulleys and washes and arroyos, over rocks and ridges and sand dunes. The cars, partially flying and partially just bouncing, advance amid explosions of dirt, like troops running a minefield in a movie.
To make this kind of motoring a bit less jarring, Thompson has installed these shocks, which are about the niftiest things anybody has ever seen. He designed and built them in his shop. They're sturdy cylindrical tubes, a combination of hydraulics and springing. Each cylinder is stuffed with 250 pounds of nitrogen under pressure. "It's an airspring principle," Thompson says. But look at it another way: at 57 inches, the shocks stand taller than, say, a Lincoln Continental.
Off-road racing of the let's-pile-into-our-pickups-and-run-to-Baja genre is 13 or so years old. But nine years ago Thompson organized a thing called SCORE, which now sanctions most off-road racing, to bring some order into the game. And while he's faithfully raced and raced, he's won only one event and, definitely, never the title. In fact, most of the time something breaks and Thompson lands belly-up in a gulch with broken parts falling all around him like metallic rain.
"In this kind of competition, a crash usually means that you got to walk home," he says. After his Chevy race truck was busted up in the Arizona badlands on a cold February day in 1972, Thompson and co-driver Troy Marler slogged 45 miles to the highway. Thompson was wearing a driving suit and light jacket and dainty driving shoes and carrying water in a plastic bottle. "Along about sundown we came across some empty 50-gallon oil drums," he says. "And, man, it was starting to get cold. I chased the snakes out of my barrel and then I pulled up some big clumps of sagebrush and I crawled inside that old drum and I pulled the sagebrush in after me until it pretty much blocked the opening. And then I got all curled up into, you know, this fetal position and put my head on the plastic bottle for a pillow and went to sleep. When I woke up in the morning, the water was froze solid and the bottle was stuck to my head."
This season SCORE will stage seven races in this country and Mexico, and Thompson and Challenger V will make another run at the title. It would, indeed, be a comfort to race fans everywhere if he'd win this season, because chances are he's going to keep at it until he does—that's the Thompson way. And he is getting a bit long in the tooth to be walking out of deserts with a bottle of water frozen to the side of his head.
For another thing, Thompson creaks a bit now. In 40 years of racing—and crashing—he has been hospitalized 27 times. He has broken his back four times and his often-busted arms and elbows are now awash with floating bone chips and fragments. But, "It's something about me," he says with that wicked grin. "I don't know what it is. I always seem to heal real easy." A look at his teeth, still white, even and unbroken, tells what it is about him: he's one great big calcium deposit, that's what it is about him.
Race drivers tend to collect crash stories the way other people collect ivory chess sets or jade snuffboxes. Thompson has some memorable ones, slightly romanticized over the years, as good crash stories are, but most of them are backed up by newspaper clippings and other documentation.
A sample crash story:
"I shouldn't be allowed on motorcycles," Thompson says. "I own seven of them, but right now I got a pact with my chief mechanic, John House: he hides them all from me and I swear I don't know where they are. Listen, I'm good at racing cars; you'd think I ought to be able to handle a cycle—but no. I'm always in over my head, going too hard, and sometimes I get the feeling that I'm going to fall before it happens. Listen: the last time I broke my back. It was in 1972 and I was joyriding on the Bob Petersen ranch near Pearblossom, Calif. It was a poker race; you know, where you pick up a playing card at each checkpoint until you got yourself a poker hand. And I had this growing feeling that I was going to crash. I was just going too hard and I jumped this small gulley at about 80 mph and hit the far side all cater-wompus and—splat!—the motorcycle took off straight into the air. And I went into this rolling, tumbling fall, which wasn't really too bad because I was wearing leathers. Still, I could hear little bones snapping here and there. But then this crazy thought leaped into my head: listen, I'm going to make it; I'm going to be all right; I fooled you this time. And so I finally stopped tumbling and I lay there, face down and hurting but sort of grinning to myself, and then—kapow!—the motorcycle fell right out of the sky on top of me."
Which leads directly to that corset. Thompson says an orthopedic specialist designed it for him, but it also seems entirely possible that it's a prop left over from a Marquis de Sade movie. For one thing, it's made of black leather. The corset has vertical ribbing and 14 buckles up the front. A label sewed on one side reads MICKEY THOMPSON, IF FOUND, CALL 213-435-2651. If the girdle is found? Or the girdle with a man in it? It doesn't explain. And then comes the really bizarre touch: in addition to all the other springing and suspension systems on his new desert car, Thompson has rigged up two S-hooks and rubber bungee cords on the ceiling. Last thing he does before he takes off is to attach the hooks to the shoulder straps on his corset: in effect, hanging himself from the roof of his car like an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. The idea is to reduce the strain on his back. "There are times," he says, "when I look positively sexy undulatin' along."
Well, any guy who would go through such agonies really ought to win, and there are times when perfect strangers will approach Thompson when he's dangling from the ceiling of his car, and say, "Listen, fella, I just want to say that, you know, I've got to hand it to you for going through all of this." And it would be fine indeed if Thompson could win the unlimited class in this year's series.
Then Thompson could get on with the business of leading a more gentle life with Trudy, the second Mrs. Thompson, in whose presence he turns into a 200-pound marshmallow. "I'll tell ya, I'm really in love," he says. He's also very well-heeled: hot-rodding led to associated enterprises—auto-equipment parts and what-all—that have made Thompson wealthy.
The former Trudy Feller, who at 34 is just three years older than Mickey's son, Danny, and five years older than his daughter, Lyndy, might have come tripping offstage from the cast of Guys and Dolls. A Bronx-born Jewish girl who came to California to seek her fortune, she landed a job as secretary to the publisher of Hot Rod magazine, where her initial instructions went something like this: "Here are the files, here's your typewriter and, whatever you do, don't date Mickey Thompson." Well, "We dated just once," she says, "and Mickey has never been out with another girl since." Her Bronx accent and depth of devotion are both perfect, and Trudy goes where Mickey goes—even unto the desert. For practicing, Thompson has rigged up a two-seater "prerunner," and he takes Trudy on forays into the wilderness. Occasionally, he gets to driving too hard—Mickey is prone to do that—and they crash.
"Once we did an endo [an end-over-end flip] and landed upside down," Trudy says, with a sort of wide-eyed, isn't-this-keen enthusiasm. "I mean we rolled over and over. And, like, we were upside down in this gulley, and the car was tilted so that Mickey's side was on the bottom—you know, like sort of underneath me. And the first thing he said to me was, 'Hold everything! Don't unhook your seat belt or you'll drop on me and break my back again.' "
Trudy is this sort of wife: when they're trailering the race car back from the desert, Thompson will often fall into a sort of reverie, thinking purely mechanical thoughts, going over mental checklists of what might have gone wrong with the car. An hour or so of silence might go by. Then he'll suddenly turn to her and say, "Rear-end pressure." It's to Trudy's credit that she'll merely nod and jot it down in a notebook instead of raising her eyebrows and saying, "I beg your pardon." That's devotion.
The lovey-dovey Thompsons live in a modern, multilevel home burrowed into a hilltop overlooking Pasadena. The racing garages are on the lower level, below the mirrored bedroom with the black-lacquered rosewood furnishings and the headboard that has their names spelled out in inlaid mother-of-pearl. The whole shebang—house, garages and race cars, historic and otherwise—nearly went up in flames when devastating brush fires swept the area last November. When the conflagration burst over the ridge at 3:45 a.m., most of the neighbors fled down the hill in their nightclothes, but Thompson stayed to fight. He saved two trucks and several cars by pushing and rolling them into the blackened areas through which the fire had just roared. Still, six cars were burned to cinders and the garage was starting to crackle. Earlier, Trudy had dashed from the house with an armload of personal papers, and now she was back to help. But suddenly stacks of racing tires began exploding and Mickey yelled for her to run to safety, adding, "Take something valuable." So Trudy dashed out of the house clutching four favorite pairs of jeans—"Listen," she says, "it's like, I mean, it's so hard to find jeans that fit just right, awreddy."
Challenger V survived the fire, suffering little more than singed elbows. It's now got a glossy new outer skin of metal-flake blue, with vibrant swatches of yellow and red and orange. The engine has been tweaked right up to the limit, as ever with Thompson's cars.
But you know those rascally race cars. "I have led the Parker race for the last four years in a row," Thompson says. "Three hundred miles, both sides of the Colorado River. I mean, I've been flat leading, way out in front, and then something goes blooey. Listen, in October of 1978, I led up to the last 200 feet. Then I threw a piston rod. I jumped out and pushed the car across and still beat everybody else." Nice try, but Thompson was disqualified; the rule says you must finish under power. Engines have blown, parts have sailed into the skies; last year, Thompson was again ahead of the field when his car threw a fan belt.
Which is not to say that Challenger V comes with any guarantee all that will change. As a trial run last year, it was entered in a race in Mexico and, rats, there went the steering. And a few weeks ago, Thompson rolled it into combat in the Barstow Off-Road Race. He had worked on the car until the last minute, arrived late and was relegated to start dead last in the unlimited class. Each of the eight laps was 53 miles through sandy sloughs and ridges.
The new car has a thunderously distinctive sound. It's a hammering dragster among mostly Volkswagen-powered buggies, and merely standing next to it makes your kidneys slosh. The 20 other unlimited entries rolled away toward the sandcolored hills. At the end of the line, Thompson hooked up his shoulder suspenders and started after them. What happened next seemed at first to be a desert mirage; when one squinted off into the low cloud of dust, there it was, the shining glint of those towering shock absorbers on Challenger V as it moved up. The car looked like some George Lucas creation for the next Star Wars sequel, the Imperial Water Bug, as it skimmed over the washboard ridges—its body reasonably steady and tranquil—while the wheels thrashed and bounded high with every bump. "And where most of them guys had to back off a whole lot," Thompson says, "I was able to stand on it all the way."
Well, not all the way. It was more like 30 miles. Thirty miles into the first lap and Thompson had leaped from the back of the pack into the lead. Challenger V simply ate them up—and then began pulling away, flying easily off the ridges and blasting by the rocks. It was at that point, naturally, that the car threw the traditional fan belt.
Thompson nursed his creation back to his truck, unhooked his crash helmet and painfully tugged it off. His jowls slowly fell back into place. Trudy was hovering nearby with a paper cup of Gatorade. "Poor baby," she murmured.
Some poor baby. Thompson licked the salt and sand from his lips and then grinned in a burst of white. "The thing's just not quite right yet," he said. He shrugged. "But then, I mean, what the hell, right? You can bet your butt that I'm not giving up." He unhooked the bungee cords from the shoulder straps and sank back into the bucket seat for a moment. And again, perhaps it was the light, possibly something more magical, but the years once more fell away.
Thompson has obviously got this thing all figured out: it ain't so much the winning or losing that counts. Well, winning would be better, the championship would be swell. But if you win it, it means you've got to move on to something else. And, you know, it's the racing that counts. Forever the hot-rodder. That's what counts. There lies eternal youth.