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Gone Racin’...Mickey Thompson Panel Discussion at the Wally Parks NHRA

Gone Racin’...Mickey Thompson Panel Discussion at the Wally Parks NHRA

There is nothing like having a place to hang out if you are a hot rodder.  In the past, it would be the teenager who was fortunate enough to have a garage that his parents would let him use.  Many times the hangout was the malt shop or diner in one’s area.  Today the favorite hangout is the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Fairplex.  We are fortunate to have a place and we can thank the Fairplex for extending the contract to the museum board of directors, the Auto Club of Southern California for their financial support, the National Hot Rod Association for their backing and sponsors like Gail Banks Engineering.  The Museum staff welcomes the public from Wednesday through Sunday all year long and stays open late for special events.  One such special event was the Mickey Thompson Panel Discussion held at the museum on May 15, 2010.  Special guests and the public gathered to honor the late Mickey Thompson and to discuss his impact on motor racing.  The panel consisted of Judy Thompson Creach, Danny Thompson, Alex Xydias, Tom Jobe, Gail Banks, Bob Muravez and then the microphone was handed to others in the audience who wanted to add their memories to a man whom they admired.
It would be wrong to call Mickey Thompson a character.  That would be a miscalculation of a driven, innovative, hard-nosed, two-fisted, creative personality.  Yet sometimes the only way to characterize Thompson is by the stories we all have of him.  The stories mythologize the man, something that Mickey Thompson himself encouraged.  He wanted you to know that he wasn’t going to knuckle under and he was out to win.  If Mickey used a little philosophy on his side all the better and I’m never quite sure that he didn’t actually believe the hype.  He was born on December 7, 1928 in Alhambra, California and named Marion Lee Thompson.  His birth date is important, 13 years later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.  The “Day that will live in Infamy,” was also his birthday and Mickey was destined to live a life full of thrills, chills, fighting, and tragedy.  Alhambra was where the general hospital was located and I was born there too, some sixteen years later.  He didn’t like the name Marion, it sounded too feminine since Marion Davies was a well-known movie actress of the time.  She was also the consort of William Randolph Hearst and ensconced in Hearst’s famous Castle up in San Simeon.  Thompson wasn’t the only one to jettison the name Marion; John Wayne was also saddled with the first name Marion and got rid of it to be called The Duke.
In Mickey’s book, "Challenger"; Mickey Thompson’s own story of his life of Speed (by Mickey Thompson with Griffith Borgeson), he speaks of his rough childhood and how he protected his family, which meant everything to him.  He also adored his little sister Colleen.  That love and loyalty were strong; if you went after one Thompson then you would have to deal with them all.  He liked the name Mickey; that’s what he wanted to be called.  He was the Mick, the tough Irishman that you didn’t mess with.  I was always told that the Thompson’s were Irish and not English.  His father was a police chief somewhere along the foothill towns above Los Angeles.  Mickey could be loveable and he could be mean, depending on who he had to deal with.  He hung out with the local hot rodders, the poor, another side of the railroad track ruffians of the day, although he didn’t come from such a background at first.  It was rumored that he ran over a young man, but nothing came of it.  It could have been a story fabricated or it could have been true, regardless Mickey let others think what they might if it caused them to pause.  The Mick was a master psychologist and I never really knew if it was an innate quality or one that he learned.  The truth was that you rarely ever got the better of the man in a fair fight or foul.  If you challenged the Mick you lost; everyone knew that.  I personally saw my father meet with Mickey in some farmer’s field around San Diego once and it looked to me like it had been an arranged meeting.  Dad was very nervous that day, but the meeting went well and I never really knew what it was about.  
Mickey Thompson loved cars; it was his life-long passion.  He was a member of the Southern California Timing Association and was out at the dry lakes.  Like all young men of the day he loved any vehicle that moved fast and it didn’t matter if it was straight line racing or roundy round and sports car curvy courses.  He literally took over a group if you let him and even if you didn’t.  He was nearly 15 to 20 years younger than the Karl Orr’s, Wally Parks’ and Randy Shinn’s and yet he stood up to them all.  At the Hot Rod Exposition at the Armory in 1948, he was in a committee to build a hot rod to be given away as a door prize.  The parts were donated from a number of businesses and it was Mickey who strong-armed one speed shop owner after another.  He and other hot rodders built the car during the show.  It was a dominating performance and it set the stage for the rest of Thompson’s career.  He also couldn’t conceive of failure; if he could imagine doing something then there was no way that it couldn’t be done.  It also didn’t matter whether he had any money to fund a project or to pay salaries; somehow the job would get finished and people loved to help him whether there was money in it or not.
Mickey met Judy at the beach and instantly he knew she would become his wife.  The story goes that he raced her down the street.  I’m not sure who won; Judy was a match for him, the person he adored the most.  He got a job with the Los Angeles Times as a pressman, but he rarely worked on the presses.  I know because my mother’s cousin, George Fortville worked with him.  According to George the boss of the shop took a liking to the charismatic Thompson and assigned him to the machine shop where Mickey could work on parts for his race car and write reports for the Times on the weekly drag racing results.  He wasn’t cut out for working for others anyway.  Mickey always had to be the boss.  He knew that others were capable of leading, but Mickey knew what needed to be done and he was impatient to accomplish the task.  His mind just overflowed with ideas and projects.  He jotted down notes, designed cars and parts and thought up ways to organize activities.  He was restless and impulsive and you either loved him or you hated him.  It really didn’t matter to Mickey if you didn’t like him or not; that was your trouble, not his.
He rose early and he went to bed late and still there wasn’t enough time in the day to do all that he wanted to do.  Erik Arneson wrote a wonderful book called "Mickey Thompson": the fast life and tragic death of a racing legend.  It details the drive and dedication of a man headed for one outcome; glory and tragedy.  Mickey had left the land speed racers behind in the early 1950’s when the Santa Ana Airport drag races revolutionized straight line racing.  He was only 21 and already well-known for his dry lakes days.  His tinkering with the drag strip cars resulted in the slingshot dragster design with the driver over the rear wheels to add weight and better traction in 1954.  He was a fierce competitor and he hated to lose.  Everything he did was studied and copied by others.  In the mid 1950’s he became the promoter of the Lion’s Drag Strip in Long Beach, California, probably the most iconic and beloved drag strip ever created. Songs, movies and stories were written about that famous facility and Mickey and Judy Thompson ran it like their kingdom.  Judy handled the books and did the announcing while Mickey patrolled the starting line with the mien of a lion.  Ron Henderson recalls talking to Mickey once at Lion’s.  “He came walking over to me once and said that he had a run-in with a racer that threatened him with a knife,” said Ron.  “That was the only thing that could put a scare into him; cold steel,” Ron added.  “Thompson knew that I worked for a girlie magazine and he would ask me for the latest issue of the magazine.  We idolized Mickey,” Ron finished.
Thompson wasn’t finished with land speed racing. He was only 32 when he took the Challenger streamliner to Bonneville in 1960 and went over 406 mph.  There was some breakage or problems with the car and he couldn’t make a second run to back it up for a land speed record, but for a moment in time he had done what no man had done and he was the talk of all racing.  The first American man to go over 400 miles per hour in a wheel driven, piston engine powered car.  It was faster than John Cobb’s one-way unofficial record of 402 mph.  It didn’t matter that it wasn’t counted as a record by the sanctioning bodies (SCTA/BNI or the FIA); the public went nuts.  He had officially arrived in the minds of all America.  He’s one of ours and there is no one faster.  He could have gone back and officially set the mark.  He had the skill and the courage to do it, but he didn’t.  Why?  There wasn’t any need to; he had done it and now there were other projects in his mind pushing him on.  He never forgot the dry lakes or the Bonneville Salt Flats and years later he would work with his son Danny Thompson on another land speed project, one that his son would complete and succeed at after the Mick had died.  
He was now off to the “Greatest Race in the World,” the Indy 500.  He decided to use a stock Buick V8 engine in three of John Crosthwaite’s designed cars.  It was also a rear-engined design and though such a design had been done before, Mickey was ahead of his time.  Fritz Voigt was the crew chief and the young men worked long hours and built the entire car from design to completion in just four months.  Their driver was Dan Gurney who placed the car in the eighth spot for the race and 20th overall after a gearbox went out midway through the race.  They did manage to win the Mechanical Achievement Award for their engineering skills.  If he wasn’t an instant success at Indy he more than made up for it in garnering sponsorships and impressing business leaders.  In 1963 he was back at the Indy 500 with five entries, two of which made it into the race.  AJ Miller Jr placed a very credible 9th place and Duane Carter brought his car in at the 23rd spot.  After Indy Mickey took a dragster to England and appeared at the Brighton Speed Trials and in January of 1964 the car was displayed at the Racing Car Show in London.  Mickey was back at the Indy 500 in May of 1964 and qualified two cars.  Eddie Johnson finished 26th, but Dave McDonald crashed the #83 car in a horribly tragic accident that took his life.  That fiery crash had a crushing impact on Mickey and the Indy crowd, for McDonald was loved by the crowds.  He wrote and published his book CHALLENGER: MICKEY THOMPSON’S OWN STORY OF HIS LIFE OF SPEED in 1965 at the height of his racing fame.  He failed to place a car in the 1965 Indy 500, missed going in 1966 and failed to qualify in 1967 and ’68.
Open wheel racing was now out of his system and it was time to move on.  Starting in 1968 he conceived of a new design for his funny car and hired Danny Ongais to drive it.  Ongais won the ’69 National Hot Rod Association’s (NHRA) Spring Nationals and the NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis the same year.  He ran the Funny car through 1971 with all the promotional hype and charisma that he had.  When he wasn’t racing he was creating new ideas and designs.  Then he participated in every sort of racing that could be done, including stock car, drags, land speed, off-roading and sports cars.  Mickey saw opportunity in speed equipment and parts; in the early ‘60’s he founded Mickey Thompson Performance Tire Company to develop and sell racing tires.  In 1973 he created a company to oversee off-road racing called SCORE International.  Along the way he and Judy separated and divorced and Mickey married for a second time to Trudy.  I think he never really stopped loving Judy and their early days together, but time has a way of changing our priorities and Mickey and Judy had grown apart.  With Trudy he ran the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group (MTEG) and put on indoor motocross and off-road racing shows.  Off-roading was no longer a rural sport; Mickey brought it right into the urban centers and captured a new audience.  There were setbacks too; his nephew was killed by drug dealers and his sense of loyalty and family protection was fierce.  He expended his whole effort to seeing that Colleen’s son was avenged and the murderers sent to prison.
He didn’t make many mistakes, but one of them was going into partnership with Michael Goodwin in their motocross business.  Goodwin had a shaky background and a tough guy persona.  Whatever soured their partnership it left a bitter taste in both of their mouths.  Goodwin threatened to kill Mickey and their feud led to many court battles, which ended in a settlement in Thompson’s favor.  There isn’t really an ending to Mickey Thompson as his legend keeps on growing.  The facts state that two hired hit men rode bicycles past the guard gate, climbed the wall of Mickey’s home in Bradbury Estates early in the morning of March 16, 1988 and shot him as he was leaving for work.  Trudy heard a commotion and ran out to see what was happening.  Mickey was reported to have said to the gunman as he was mortally wounded, “Kill me but leave my wife alone.”  They brazenly killed Mickey and then shot Trudy to death.  Rumor has it that the men fled to Central America and were killed there to stop investigators from learning who had hired them.  News of the murders shocked the racing community.  Many racing notables armed themselves or refused to leave their residences, fearing some sort of terrorism against them.  Colleen Thompson Campbell wouldn’t leave the case for justice for her brother.  Even as the case went cold Mickey’s sister pressed for justice.  Eventually new evidence arose and Michael Goodwin was tried and convicted of arranging the murder of Mickey and Trudy.  At least three television shows used the Thompson murders as material.  Fame continued to come to Mickey Thompson long after his death.  He was elected to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the NHRA’s top list of Twentieth Century Drag Racers and the Automotive Hall of Fame.
The Mickey Thompson Panel Discussion at the Motorsports Museum was not concerned about his death; they were there to honor the man and the Thompson family racing heritage.  You can always tell how much a man is loved by the people who show up to honor him.  Here’s a partial list of names who came; Doug Stokes, Alex Xydias, Ron and Mable Henderson, Danny Thompson, Judy Thompson, Doug Dwyer, David Ramirez, Ron Osinga, Philippe Delespinay, George Klass, Bob Spar, Larry O’Connell, Jon Clark, Clifford Moore, Bob and Sharon Muravez, Dan Gonzalez, Tom Lee, Robin and Orah Mae Millar, Greg Sharp, Tony Thacker, Embo, Burke LeSage, Donna Crowther, Gordon and Betty Browning, Gale Banks, Dave McClelland, Danny Ongais, Stu Hilborn, David Parks, Louie Senter, Bob Leggio, Richard Parks, Pete Chapouris, Marion Deist, Bill Summers, Bob Dalton, Bud and Joyse Ann Evans, Ron Kellogg, Bert Middleton, Tom Jobe, Carol Halladay and many more.  Gale Banks Engineering sponsored the panel discussion and Dave McClelland emceed the event and passed the microphone around to the panel and to those in the crowd who wanted to speak.  The panelists were: Judy Thompson Creach, Danny Thompson, Alex Xydias, Tom Jobe and Gale Banks.
JUDY: “Mickey and I were married in 1949 and I didn’t see the success that we would have at the time.  It was a new adventure for both of us.  We had no plans and Mickey would do everything by the seat of his pants, figuring out what to do as the problem arose.  When I first went out to the dry lakes I asked Mickey, ‘Where are the bleachers?’  I was only 16 years old at the time and I would tell my mother, ‘That’s it; I am not going to the dry lakes again.’  Mickey would get an idea and he would charge right into it without any plans.  Once he told me, ‘I’m going to open a muffler shop.’  He also tried being a used car dealer.”
DANNY: “It was fun growing up with my Dad.  It was always an adventure.”
JUDY: “Mickey went racing every weekend and I was in charge of doing the valve jobs.  I remember that I had to get the valve job done before I could go into labor with my son Danny (laughs).”
DANNY: “I wanted to drive a race car so bad.  We lost Dave McDonald in a fiery crash at the Indy 500 and it weighed on my dad.  My father wouldn’t let me drive a racecar because of the danger.  So I went out and raced motorcycles and the word got back to Dad.  He asked me, ‘Are you riding any motorcycles.’  He didn’t want me to get hurt but I raced anyway.  I raced in off-road, in sprint cars and for Steve Davis in motorcycles.  Dad got me to change to off-road trucks which he felt were safer.”
ALEX: “I went into partnership with Mickey and Stu Hilborn in Off-Road trade shows.  It was great working with him and being his partner.  The first year we worked out of our house and my wife Helen was the secretary.  We went to Bonneville together.  Mickey was an entertainer.  He felt that it was very important to entertain the fans.  He was very good at that.”
TOM: “Mickey gave you the level of respect on how much you produced.  I remember a time in 1968 when his crew was working on his land speed car.  They wanted a proper lunch and took their time eating.  You could see how irritated Mickey was getting because he wanted them back working on the car.  The crew consisted of Pat Foster, who was the team manager, Quin Epperly, Frank Nye, John Butera, Hydraulic Herbie and me.”
GALE: “Mickey was thirteen years older than me.  We all looked up to him.  He caught me cheating at Lion’s once.  I opened my speed shop in 1967 and later on I sponsored a scholarship at a high school to honor Mickey’s name.  Mickey didn’t like to wait.  When he wanted something like cylinder heads he just made them himself.  Whatever he wanted he just make them.  Alan Welch told me a story about Mickey.  Alan said, ‘Mickey where do you want me to balance the car,’ right there and then.”
JUDY: “Mickey had all sorts of deals going on at the same time.  He always had 7 or 8 projects to work on continuously.  Opening Lion’s drag strip was a real challenge for us back in 1955.  We had to start from scratch and create a procedure for conducting a drag race.  We had raced at San Fernando and Santa Ana and so we had some idea what to expect.  The opening day at Lion’s was the most frightening day of our lives.  I told him, ‘What’ll we do,’ and he said, ‘Damned if I know, but whatever we do it’ll work out okay.’  He always had ideas and then he would tell people how he wanted it done.  He got a lion for our 15th wedding anniversary.  That lion gave him a tough time.”
DANNY: “Parnelli Jones and my Dad were off-road racing in Baja California and he was committed to keeping Parnelli from passing him.  Dad took that idea to Riverside.”
ALEX: “Mickey was boss oriented.  He always had to be the leader in a group, but he did learn to share his businesses with others.”
TOM:”I worked for Mickey and the pay wasn’t much, but he did give lots of opportunities to young racers and mechanics to get their start in racing.  Mickey worked long hours himself and asked no more than he would give himself.”
JUDY: “In the beginning it was just Mickey and myself.  We didn’t hire any staff until we opened the shop in Long Beach.”
DANNY: “Dad got a lot of publicity in his life and did his own PR long before it was popular for racers to make use of publicity.” 
At this point Dave McClelland opened up the discussion for those in the audience and passed the microphone around.
BURKE LeSage: “Mickey made sure that Don Ratican had a job even though Don had arm trouble.  Ratican told Mickey, ‘You try this with only one arm.’  Ted Frye told Ed Iskenderian, ‘Isky, Mickey is going to go 400 in the streamliner.’  Ed responded, ‘What’s it going to take,’ and when given an estimate said, ‘We can do that.  If the Queen can knight Campbell, then I can knight Sir Mickey Thompson,’ said Isky.  That’s where the ‘Sir Mickey Thompson’ comes from.”
BOB MURAVEZ (AKA Floyd J. Lippincott Jr): “They played a song at Lion’s called Bobbie’s Girl.  I knew how to talk to the Gals and I was always ready to race my car.  Mickey wanted a good show and to leave the crowds roaring.  I raced Mickey at Bakersfield in 1962 and again at Pomona in ’63 and he was unequaled as a racer.  He really wanted to win.  At Lion’s Judy saw the John Peters dragster that I drove and wrote a story about it.  She called the car ‘The Freight Train,’ because when it goes it looks just like a freight train roaring down the tracks.  She was also the announcer at Lions.”
PHILIPPE DELESPINAY: “Mickey Thompson designed and built four Indy cars with Fritz Voigt.  They were quite a team.”
CAROL HALLADAY: “I knew the Thompson’s at Lion’s.  My mother worked in the tower and my father helped out at the track too.  It was very much a family affair.”
RON HENDERSON: “I was selling brushes and knocked on the Thompson’s door.  Judy greeted me and we talked.  I saw photographs of the cars Mickey raced and Judy introduced me to him.  What a thrill.  I did some drawings for the streamliner that he incorporated into the final design and he took me to Bonneville with him.  There was no place for me to sit so they let me ride in the streamliner cockpit all the way to the Salt Flats.  I’ve told people I have more cockpit time in the car than anyone else.  On the way home we stopped at a gas station and I went in to buy something to eat as we were always hungry.  When I came out the truck and trailer were gone and I was stranded in the middle of Nevada.  They came back for me and they all had a big laugh.  I met Mickey at a car show one time and Mickey was with Dave McDonald just before he died at Indy.  Mickey could be polite one minute and ribald the next.  He was his own man and didn’t really worry about what people said.  He was the most forceful, dynamic and charismatic man I have ever known.”
Dave McClelland took the microphone and thanked the guests, panelists and all who worked to put on this event honoring Mickey, his family, Gale Banks Engineering and the Museum staff for putting on a great show.
Gone Racin’ is at [email protected].