If you were a hot rodder, Southern California was the place to be in the 1950s. Gasoline was cheap, the junkyards were flush with all the basics (pre-war Fords were a particular favorite), and the roads that connected the scattered towns were flat, open and straight—perfect for drag racing. Kids with pluck and imagination were turning scrap metal into hot rods, sports cars, and lakebed roadsters that competed on the Bonneville salt flats. And Detroit auto makers were paying attention.
Enter Marian Lee “Mickey” Thompson. While Thompson was very much a part of the scene, he was not just another hot rodder. He was a natural born promoter and entrepreneur. While he lacked a degree in engineering, he had a knack for innovation that enabled him to see the possibilities that others missed.
About the time drag racing moved from public roads to purpose-built quarter-mile drag strips, Thompson was putting the finishing touches on the world’s first slingshot dragster. It was the first of many innovations he would bring to the world of motorsports. Soon, he was hitting speeds of 150 m.p.h. in the standing quarter mile—unheard of at the time. No one could beat him. Promoters labeled him, “The Fastest Man on Wheels.”
Having conquered drag racing, Thompson turned his attention to the Bonneville salt flats in Utah, and built a variety of lakebed machines that all told set 295 international speed records. The most ambitious was a super-charged four-engine streamliner he called “Challenger I”. It was built with one idea in mind—to break the world land speed record, at the time a tick under 400 mph.
Enter Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, president of the Pontiac Division of General Motors. Like Thompson, Knudsen had been a hot rodder–before he earned an engineering degree from MIT. After college, he joined General Motors and, like his contemporary at Ford—another engineer, named Lee Iacocca—switched to sales, because that’s where the opportunities were. He moved up the ranks rapidly and in 1956 was appointed head of the ailing Pontiac Division, which was making stodgy “old-man” cars and losing money. Knudsen sized up the problem. “I can get old men to buy a young man’s car, but I can’t get young men to buy an old-man’s car.” How to reach the youth market? With a face-lift that included clean lines, and high-performance options to stir the imaginations of hot rodders everywhere. In two years, he turned the Pontiac Division around. Sales skyrocketed and Pontiac joined Chevrolet as GM’s sexiest and fastest-selling cars.
When Knudsen got wind of Thompson’s plan to break the world land speed record, he saw an opportunity to further bolster Pontiac’s high-performance image. He supplied Thompson with four Pontiac V8 engines to power Challenger I, plus funding. Thompson also struck a deal with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to build special tires to withstand speeds of 400-plus mph, and with the Mobil Oil Company. With Pontiac, Goodyear, and Mobil as sponsors, Thompson built his innovative machine. Compared with the competition, Thompson’s car was relatively small and low, and therefore less resistant to the wind, a decided aerodynamic advantage.
In 1960, Thompson delivered with a record run across the Bonneville salt flats of 406 m.p.h. To make the record official, he had to make a return run at similar speed. The run was never completed, due to a broken drive-shaft. Or so it was reported at the time. In fact, one of the Pontiac engines had thrown a rod. But Thompson wasn’t about to tell reporters that one of the engines of his biggest sponsor had failed. Thompson replaced the engine and made another attempt but could not match his earlier speed. No matter. The big news from Bonneville was Thompson’s one-way record run, which further enhanced his reputation as “The Fastest Man On Wheels.” Pontiac shared in the glory, with the newly-minted Pontiac Bonneville.
THE 1962 INDIANAPOLIS 500
Having conquered Bonneville, Thompson set his eyes on America’s biggest race—the Indianapolis 500. Surely, with his gift for innovation, he would triumph there too. Unlike European Formula I cars, which were high-tech, agile, and rear-engined, the average Indy car at the time hadn’t changed much since the Great Depression. It was refined, of course, but comparatively low tech, front-engined and, at 1600 pounds, heavy. Thompson reasoned that a car built along the lines of Formula I, and powered by the same highly-tweaked American V8 he used in his dragsters and land speed machine, coupled with a 400-pound weight reduction, would make him a serious contender at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What he didn’t consider was that at heart he was a hot-rodder, with a great deal of experience with racing machines that accelerated in a straight line. That he was attempting something at which he lacked experience did not faze him in the slightest.
THE HARVEY ALUMINUM SPECIAL
Thompson was in trouble from the start. He started late and was without his two biggest sponsors. Bunkie Knudsen had been reassigned to the Chevrolet Division, and was not yet in a position to help him, and Goodyear opted out because it wasn’t ready to challenge Firestone’s dominance at the Speedway. Thompson turned to the Harvey Aluminum Company for sponsorship, a Southern California manufacturing firm that produced Thompson’s line-up of speed equipment: intake manifolds, forged pistons and connecting rods, mag wheels, and the like. Thompson’s car would be dubbed, “The Harvey Aluminum Special.”
A mere 120 days was all the time Thompson and his team of loyal mechanics had to fabricate a completely new racing machine that resembled a rear-engine Formula 1. The car looked intriguing, but it wasn’t completely finished when it arrived at the Speedway on May 1. When the car took to the track at last, it suffered a myriad of small problems as all new race cars do, all easily remedied. One problem persisted, however, and it stumped everyone. The car simply wouldn’t handle.
Had Mickey Thompson been praying for an angel to intervene, it arrived in the form of Dan Gurney. Gurney was tall, blonde, and gifted as a driver and mechanic. Being a Formula I driver, he saw the logic of Thompson’s car immediately. When Thompson asked him to give the car a try, Gurney jumped at the chance. After a few laps, he knew exactly what was wrong. He made a number of adjustments to the suspension, and posted lap times that caught everyone’s attention. In the right hands, the Harvey Aluminum Special was impressively fast. Gurney qualified ninth fastest (in a field of 33 cars). On race day, he stayed within sight of the leaders until sidelined by a failed transmission seal. Thompson was ecstatic. In four months he’d created an Indy car from scratch that had shaken up the Indy establishment and, with a little luck, might have won the race. Imagine what he could do given an entire year?
Thompson let his imagination run wild, and dreamed up a low squat car on four 12-inch wide-treaded tires that reminded everyone of a roller skate. Now president of the Chevrolet Division, Bunkie Knudsen was back on board, supplying Thompson with special aluminum Chevrolet V8 engines. While Goodyear still had cold feet, Firestone warmed up to Thompson’s latest creation and agreed to custom-make the small, wide-tread tires his design called for.
The only fly in the ointment was Dan Gurney. He would be back, but not driving for Mickey Thompson. He liked Thompson’s idea so much that he arranged a big-buck deal with Formula I builder Colin Chapman of Lotus to build a rear-engine Indy car, and with the Ford Motor Company to supply an engine.
SHOWDOWN—THE 1963 INDIANAPOLIS 500
The race had all the earmarks of a showdown, not just between rear-engine cars and front-engine cars, but between Chevrolet and Ford, with Thompson in the thick of it.
Thompson arrived at the Speedway loaded for bear, with five cars: two 1962 machines, and three of the new low-profile “roller skates” with the super-wide 12-inch tires. Heading up his stable of five cars was 1962 world champion Graham Hill. The handling of the roller-skate cars was diabolical, however, and after one near crash Hill booked passage on the next flight back to his home in London. The handling improved as the month progressed, but by the first weekend of qualifying, not one of the original drivers was still around.
The Lotus-Fords of Gurney and teammate Jim Clark, meanwhile, were lapping at near-record speed. On Pole Day, the Lotus Fords qualified easily, in a position to win, while only two of Thompson’s five cars qualified, well back in the field. On race day, Jim Clark finished second after leading at one point, while Gurney finished seventh, slowed by a botched pit stop. Only one of Thompson’s car finished the race, two laps down.
The 1963 Indy 500 had indeed been a showdown, but without Thompson figuring in the outcome. His radical car missed the mark completely. Going forward, Colin Chapman of Lotus—not Mickey Thompson—would be the trendsetter, and Lotus-Ford the car to beat.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Indy 1963 was a disaster for Thompson, in more ways than one. He had failed to deliver at the Speedway and his reputation as a visionary had taken a severe hit, so much so that Chevrolet, Firestone, and Harvey Aluminum would not be back as sponsors. On top of that, the rules committee outlawed Thompson’s radical 12-inch tires as unsafe. In the future, all cars would race on 15-inch tires, or not at all. Thompson would return to the Speedway in the coming years, but never again be a factor.
What went wrong? For one, Thompson badly underestimated the Indy establishment. Thompson had triumphed on drag strips and on salt flats competing against enthusiastic amateurs. The Indy regulars, on the other hand, were hardened pros, with their livelihood at stake. Thompson was a hot-rodder at heart. While General Motors had supplied special aluminum Chevrolet V8s, Thompson had the task of race-developing the engines himself. Ford, on the other hand, developed their engines in-house, spending a great deal of time and money. Both Ford and Chevy Indy engines produced about the same horsepower, but the difference was in reliability. The Ford Indy engine never missed a beat, while Thompson’s Chevies suffered repeated blow-ups in practice, and one in the race.
The Indy establishment was resentful of Thompson and Lotus for upsetting the status quo, but in the end had no choice but to accept the new technology imposed on them. The car they copied would not be Mickey Thompson’s roller skate, but Colin Chapman’s Lotus. The engine of choice would be Ford.
Thompson’s Indy effort did make one lasting contribution, however. The low and wide 12-inch tires he employed had performance advantages that Firestone carried forward to their next-generation 15-inch Indy tires—tires with a lower profile and wider tread that resulted in longer wear and significantly better grip. The design even carried over to Firestone passenger car tires, in the form of their trademark Wide Ovals. Today, virtually all passenger tires feature a low profile and wide tread.
In the seventies, Thompson began promoting indoor motocross and off-road vehicle racing events. In 1988, while leaving for work, he and his wife were gunned down on their driveway. It wasn’t until 2001 that a former business associate was charged with their murders. He was found guilty in a court of law and sentenced to life in prison.
Two companies Thompson started, Mickey Thompson Enterprises (an aftermarket parts supplier) and Mickey Thompson Performance Tires, are still in business.