Mickey Thompson offers a now-impossible first-person telling of the legendary racer and motorsport impresario’s high-speed life, from his earliest days through the height of his competition exploits on drag strips, at Bonneville, the Indy 500, Baja, and more—c omplemented by some 100 rare images culled from family archives, the NHRA museum, and the collections of friends and fellow racers. Four decades after his tragic death, Mickey Thompson’s name and accomplishments remain legendary among motorsports and automotive enthusiasts. Thompson did it all on four wheels: land-speed racing, drag racing, off-road, NASCAR, Indianapolis…anything involving speed. Armed with a restless mind and a keen business sense, Thompson moved from success to success. In the early 1970s, motorsports writer (and former drag racer) Tom Madigan and Thompson embarked on a project to write the latter’s autobiography. After two years, extensive interviews, and a near-finished manuscript the whole enterprise fell apart for a number of reasons. Type-written sheets, neatly stacked, were boxed, stored, and mostly forgotten. Mickey Thompson: The Lost Story of the Original Speed King in His Own Words is that never-published work—an amazing biographical artifact from what many consider the golden age of automotive racing.
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About the Author
Tom Madigan has been part of the California car culture since the end of World War II. As a journalist, he has covered all kinds of motorsports, but his first love has always been the sport in which he participated: Top Fuel drag racing. Madigan is the author of several books, including Motorbooks' 2019 critically acclaimed Fuel and Guts: The Birth of Top Fuel Drag Racing; Edelbrock: Made in the USA; and Hurricane: The Bob Hannah Story. He resides in Sonora, California, with his extremely patient wife, Darlene.
Read an Excerpt
THE QUEST FOR SPEED BEGINS
It took nearly an hour to locate the house. Hazy directions combined with little knowledge of the area accounted for the time lapse. I couldn't help wondering about the scene set before me; the neighborhood was modest, and the homes seemed a bit dowdy at best. A long driveway led from the street to the front door of a small but well-manicured home. A twinge of uncertainty filled my mind as I approached the door, tape recorder and notebook in hand. The breeze of uneasiness blew a little harder as I thought about the project at hand. First, I had picked a subject that had already been done to death, the life of a race car driver. Second, the life of this particular racing personality had appeared in print a few years back. So, was the world ready for an instant replay?
Buzzing the doorbell relieved some of my pent-up emotions. The door swung open and a small, gray-haired woman stood before me. Her body was bent slightly, and I noticed a few tiny brown age spots on her hands as we clasped in greeting.
Although age had notched the years on her body, the woman's voice, crisp and clear, somehow imbued the feeling that beneath her senescent exterior, a mind that was filled with awareness and an alert wit functioned near the point of flawlessness.
After the usual introductions we sat at a tiny kitchen table and I proceeded to explain my purpose for rekindling an interest in the life of her only son, at one time the fastest man on wheels in the world. My reasons were simple enough. I wanted to explore the inner workings of such a man and find out what makes him function. I wanted to separate fact from fiction, truth from rumors. I felt sure that in this controversial character beats the heart of an average, believable human being. It was some type of superior driving force, maybe a force that is instilled in everyone only to surface on a rare occasion, that produced his type of flamboyant personality and the strange ability to do anything to which he set his mind, no matter how farfetched or physically impossible. I wanted to explore these deep-rooted reasons, for only then would my own quest be fulfilled.
With a certain subtleness, Mrs. Geneva Thompson assured me that with her French and Dutch ancestral background and the few years left for her in this life cycle, the truth was foremost in her mind.
Geneva sat down at the informally set dining room table. She suggested coffee and remarked that she couldn't see as well as she used to. Thick eyeglasses covered her sky-blue eyes and clouds dimmed their vision, one completely. "That's the only thing I regret," she said. "These cataracts prevent me from painting." She motioned toward a buffet that housed a complete set of very exquisite hand-painted china. Ringed with wild roses, the cups and saucers were as daintily sketched as any found in the finest shops. She motioned with a rather sad roll of her head and remarked that her project had recently concluded. I knew I was in the presence of a truly talented person.
Undaunted by stage fright, Mrs. Thompson picked up the microphone fitted to my tape recorder and began to speak. Her tone was soft and reassuring, as if the role of mother was still warm in her heart.
"Mickey was born in December of 1928, my Christmas present. It was about the only thing I could expect. Those were the Depression years and things were hard for everyone. People actually stood in bread lines. And there were many families near starvation. Mickey's dad was a construction worker in the San Fernando area and work, although not too steady, brought in some money. It didn't go far, but at least we had food on the table most of the time. My husband was a proud man; he looked for no handouts and refused to work on the WPA, a work project set up for those less fortunate than us. He struggled, but for him having a son was the one thing that made him a rich man. I remember how tall he seemed to walk after Mickey was born. Those terrible gray times seemed to brighten somehow.
"Mickey's dad's name was Marion, as Irish as the Blarney stone. He named Mickey Marion too, Marion Lee to be exact, only changes were to begin early in life for Marion Junior." With a slight parting of her lips, she continued. "A friend of my husband's, his name avoids me now, saw Marion Lee in the hospital and spying his long red hair laughed uproariously, saying, 'There's a Mick Irishman if I ever saw one.'
From that day till now Mickey was Mickey.
"When Mickey and I came home from the hospital our old house became overcrowded. It was small to begin with — houses in that area of San Fernando were extremely humble — and to compound our situation we shared the three-bedroom dwelling with my husband's mother and father. Times grew even more difficult for the first eighteen months and it seemed as if we would never see good times again. Three years later, Mickey's sister Collene was born. This forced Marion's parents to find other accommodations, but we still felt cramped; it didn't really matter, though, because we loved each other and that has a tendency to make the most disintegrative state of affairs easier to bear.
"Because times were so arduous, we didn't have much money to entertain ourselves and it seemed that my husband and I directed our attention toward Mickey. We exploited him and continually made his behavior the center of attraction." As the old woman talked it seemed that she fell into a spell of regression. Age relinquished its dulling, tight-fisted grip on her and slowly the relaxed atmosphere of recalling her role as a mother rejuvenated her spirit. She continued, and as the words came forth her once-beautiful eyes seemed to clear ever so faintly. "I suppose our spoiling him as a child is one of the reasons that he is so cocky now. But he had such unusual abilities that you just couldn't help treating him like an adult. I remember that for one reason or another we checked Mickey's IQ when he was about five years old and the doctor that conducted the tests couldn't believe that a child so young could have a score so high. I can't recall the exact digit, but I think the figure was about 149 points, or however they compound those figures. Anyway, it was substantially above average.
"Mickey was a toddler, talking much faster than he walked, when we moved to Alhambra, California, and his father left his construction job and joined the police department in Alhambra. It was a much more secure job considering the times and how hard it was for a man to gain a respectable position. To us at the time the police department seemed a salvation.
"For Mickey, the first years in our new location were happy times because with his father gone an appreciable part of the day and many instances long into the night, he could spend his time outside in the backyard building and experimenting. This is one of the strangest facets of my son's life." Just for a moment a bewildered glance crossed the face of Mrs. Thompson and I think, for the first time since we met, both of us knew we were dealing with someone whose inner fervor and capacity to drive the soul would remain aloof and evasive to all who grew too near. "He never played with toys like other children; I mean with store-bought things like games and guns, soldiers and those tiny cars that boys always seemed to carry everywhere they went. He had walked and talked by the time he was ten months old and from that point on he never stopped.
"Instead of toys, as I said, he would spend hours and hours disassembling old radios. He was absolutely fascinated by their inner workings. Wires — common, old, used household wires — held a particular engrossment for Mickey. His father once had a load of beach sand dumped into the backyard and Mickey immediately took position. After days of strenuous work, he had tunneled catacombs throughout the pile of sand and inside each tunnel he had strung hundreds of feet of wire. To him the project was real, and each wire had a meaning. Sometimes I would sit and watch in wonderment at my deep-thinking child working as if trained by some spirit for accomplishments far beyond his years.
"As Mickey grew in size, so did his projects. From wires and old radios, he moved on to building his own washing machine motor–powered wooden cars." For a moment Mrs. Thompson stopped and seemed to collect some faraway image, then she began again. "This was the first time I saw Mickey's undaunting determination against overwhelming odds, this building the little electric cars." Sensing some relative importance, something that would play a part later on in the story, I let her continue. "You know there were some rich little buggers that lived in the neighborhood and they had everything their spoiled hearts wanted, including miniaturized, gasoline-powered toy cars. Well, needless to say, they didn't like the poor kid from down the street bringing in a homemade car built from orange-crate wood powered by an old washing machine motor."
The old woman came to life again; she straightened in her chair, disregarding a cup of coffee that rested near her hand, and she began to defend her son as if the story she was telling happened in the present. "You know, there was an old abandoned house, called the Alhambra Castle by the kids. Every neighborhood has one, I'm sure. Well, the kids would tow their midget cars to the top of the driveway that wound down to the street from the entrance. Then they would race just as fast as they could to the bottom. Mickey began to drag his hand-built vehicles to the Castle and at first the other boys would laugh at Mickey's contraptions in a most contemptuous way." Quickly, as if I had forgotten, Mrs. Thompson reiterated, "He was only a small child of seven or eight and I'm sure you know that children of that age can be exceptionally cruel when they have the advantage over someone."
She continued, "Mickey looked so helpless trudging up that hill just about every day, only to come home bewildered and filled with abandonment. He even cried on occasion. But his tenacity soon began to show itself. With the salt from his tears still drying on his cheeks he set out to beat those other boys. I was engrossed just watching him, and I even went as far as to slip him a few dollars. If his father would have found out I had given Mickey money to build a midget car when there was barely enough money to make ends meet and to keep food on the table there would have been hell to pay. Guided by some inner direction, Mickey began to plan and build. He quickly learned that the washing machine motors were the cause of the problem, so they were traded for automobile starter motors and two or three junk batteries hooked in a series. He then rebuilt his wobbling, discarded wagon wheels with rubber hose. Soon the moment of truth came and with his chin in the air and an almost desperate look in his eyes, he headed for Alhambra Castle. There were no more tears."
Time, as a governing factor, disappeared as my frail hostess continued relating events that must have revolved over and over in her mind. Her voice grew a tiny bit weary and I suggested that we could extend our interview at a future date. She snapped back with an air of perpetuality in her manner that she wanted to go on. I couldn't help but admire her as a person and wonder, with a second chance at life, what she could accomplish.
"The second most important incident in Mickey's childhood began to manifest itself when his father decided to take the family to Yellowstone National Park for a summer vacation. The trip included a stop at Bonneville, the salt flats where all of the land speed record runs had been made. The year was 1937 and Mickey was nine years old.
"For the longest time Mickey and his father stood on that vast expansive piece of no-man's-land and talked about things to come and about happenings of times gone by. They talked of Sir Malcolm Campbell and the famed Bluebird Special the car with which he had broken the land speed record. Mickey also talked about Frank Lockhart, one of his idols, and about his own urge to become the fastest man on wheels."
It was here that I broke into her train of thought with a few questions. "I can't believe that a child of nine has the ability to commit his life to a specific goal and then direct his energies toward that goal. Not at nine years of age."
With a finger of reprimand pointed in my direction, a woman filled with a mother's pride set the record straight. "Oh, I'm afraid you're wrong. Not only did Mickey predict that he would be the fastest man on wheels, but also that he would become a millionaire before he was forty. I believed him then and I believed him throughout all of his projects, including the Challenger. I never for one instant lost faith in his predictions. I guess it was a mother's intuition. Anyway, Mickey will be able to tell you more about the way he felt as a child when you begin talking to him; I'm only telling you what I experienced and my particular feelings as I saw my son growing up to become a man." Our discordancy ended abruptly and Geneva, as she now insisted I call her, continued. "After we had stopped at the Salt Flats, we continued on our way to Yellowstone. Within hours, the very object of Mickey's entire life, namely the automobile, would nearly end his life before it had reached the fullness of spring.
"It was a beautiful sunshiny day and Mickey's dad and I were sitting in the front seat of our car enjoying the first real vacation we had experienced in many years. Mickey was kneeling on the backseat cushion with one hand out the window slightly, holding a small paper windmill, the type mounted on a wooden stick. They were a very popular, inexpensive toy at that time. Anyway, we were all watching nature, with her mountains and rich green meadows flashing by the open windows. Suddenly, without warning, a car coming head-on swerved into us. It wasn't a grinding crash as you might think it would be, but rather a loud thud. Still, there was the sound of broken glass and I was thrown about with a violent jarring motion. In an instant everything was silent. My first thought was of Mickey; I could see that my husband was without anything more serious than a few bruises, he had already kicked his way out of the car. The man who had hit us was drunk and had continued down the road stunned into a stupor by the deed he had just completed. Now that I think back it was eerie because for a split second my mind relaxed; I heard no screaming, therefore my mental processes concluded that my fears were without justification. As I reached for Mickey the shock of what I saw actually flashed before my eyes like a gunshot, streaks of yellow and blinding white erased the vision before me. In the blinking of an eye reality returned and I viewed my frail, loving son, his arm shattered by a compound fracture, blood oozing from the puffed and distorted limb. Shock filled his eyes, but he didn't cry. It was all I could do to keep from breaking down myself, he looked so pitiful, his arm was so torn.
"I pulled myself together, I guess it was my years of training as a registered nurse that triggered my reflex action. Grabbing Mickey, I laid him down on the soft grass next to the road and covered him with the thin cotton sweater that I was wearing. My poor child just lay there; he didn't cry, he just kept repeating over and over, 'Don't worry, Mom, let's pray.' He was the bravest child I had ever seen, not because he was mine, but because he was really trying to be a man. Mickey's father, in a fit of rage, had given chase to the man who had caused the accident. When he was angry, Mickey's dad was a most fearsome individual. He was a large, hulking man to start with and once that Irish temper was fired, he could punish any man alive. In a few minutes he had returned filled with concern for Mickey. He never said what had transpired while he was gone, and I never asked; he took that secret to his grave.
"By that time Mickey's arm had swollen to three times its normal size and I knew he needed medical attention without delay. We drove to a small town, located a few miles from the site of the accident. We found a local doctor and asked for immediate aid. He was an impish little man with a slender mustache and cold, piercing blue eyes. There was a tone of sarcasm in his voice. His tone was almost jeering as he inspected the damaged limb. I knew that if I had ever hated anyone at first sight, this was the man. Mickey's fingers were smashed and because of the swelling the nails had to be removed. Without the comfort of any type of anesthetic the doctor began to simply bend the fingernails straight back and clip them off with a pair of scissors. I became nauseated just watching. When I objected, the doctor said, 'He's a big boy and he'll just have to take it like a man.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mickey Thompson"
Copyright © 2020 Tom Madigan.
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by ALEX XYDIAS, 7,
SID COLLINS Remembers Mickey Thompson, 9,
Introduction: THE STORY WITHIN THE STORY, 13,
1 THE QUEST FOR SPEED BEGINS, 16,
2 GROWING UP TOUGH IN A HARD WORLD, 30,
3 QUARTER-MILE MAYHEM, 42,
4 BENDING RULES AND PUSHING LIMITS, 72,
5 FAST TIMES AT BONNEVILLE, 94,
6 THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES, 136,
7 THE DRIVER AND THE DRIVEN, 154,
8 ¡VIVA MÉXICO!, 174,
9 THE BUSINESS OF MICKEY, 194,
10 ALWAYS INNOVATING, 212,
EPILOGUE: Challenger II Redux, 228,
About the Author, 238,