Like many pre-pubescent Baby Boomers with nothing but cars on the brain, my first exposure to Mickey Thompson was at the local hobby shop.
There, amongst the vast stack of plastic scale-model kits was the Challenger 1. It was a bright blue streamliner that took on the land-speed record with four V8 engines. According to the blurb on the box, this wild-looking oddity, driven by a crew-cut fellow named Mickey Thompson, reached a top speed of more than 406 mph on the "salt flats" of Bonneville, Utah.
For some reason, I passed on buying that particular kit, but that Challenger 1 model fascinated me for years. Every time I saw one on display I tried to imagine how the guy with the buzzed hair (like mine) and the big toothy grin came to create such an incredible machine.
As it turns out, Marion Lee Thompson, better know as Mickey, was obsessed with Bonneville well before he had a driver's license. At about age 8, his father took him to the salt flats to watch Englishman John Cobb, then holder of numerous speed records, make a run in his Napier-Railton Special. From that moment, Mickey was hooked. Not just on Bonneville as it turned out, but on virtually every form of automotive competition.
His early obsession, however, was Bonneville. His quest for speed in the middle of nowhere began in earnest in his early 20s when he drove a specially modified Modified Ford Bantam coupe to a class record of 194 mph in 1952. The fact that the car sported two V8 engines seemed to point the way to Thompson's future.
Eventually, with the high-powered assistance of some executives at Pontiac, Thompson's Bonneville dream car began to take shape. The end result was the Challenger 1, an aluminum-skinned beauty that contained four gleaming 389-cubic-inch Pontiac V8 engines - positioned in two rows at the front of the car - with the driver's cocoon-like cockpit perched in the rear.
After more than a year of trial and error, The Challenger 1 finally reached the unofficial mark of 406.6 mph, breaking John Cobb's mark of 403 mph set in 1947.
Unfortunately, the top speed set by Thompson was not officially recognized by the sanctioning body for land-speed records.
Under the rules, a car must achieve a two-way average speed across a measured distance (the return trip must be completed within an hour of the first run) to be eligible for the record. Since the Challenger 1 failed to do this, the speed established by Thompson never made it into the record books. However, the hoopla generated by this relative unknown hot-rodder, not to mention the widely distributed model kit, turned him into a genuine racing legend.
Although robbed of the land-speed record, Thompson did manage to set more than 500 official national and international speed and endurance records at Bonneville and they will always be his enduring claim to fame. But his interests also extended to just about every type of motorsports imaginable. He competed in the six-cylinder class at the 1953 Carrera Panamericana endurance race in Mexico.
He also drove in a number of sports car races in California and competed in both sprint cars and midget-class racers. In drag racing, Thompson was the first person to exceed 100 mph on a quarter-mile track and he also invented the "slingshot" dragster, a tubular-framed affair where the driver was squeezed inside a roll cage located behind the rear axle. The oversized and treadless rear "slick" tires used by these cars were also a Mickey Thompson creation, and are still referred to as "sticky Mickeys" today.
Amazingly, Thompson's exploits didn't stop there. He shared the driving duties one year at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, France, but failed to finish. He also raced motorcycles on all sorts of tracks, including pavement, dirt and ice.
In the early 1960s, his attention turned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500.
For the event he developed a radical-looking rear-engined car that weighed less than 1,000 pounds and ran with short-but-wide 12-inch wheels. In 1963, the now-legendary Dan Gurney drove the car but failed to finish. The following year, Indy rookie Dave MacDonald spun out of control in a horrific first-lap crash into the side of veteran driver Eddie Sachs. The resulting fireball killed both drivers.
The press seemed to place blame for the incident squarely on Thompson and his strange-looking car. As Car and Driver magazine remarked in its race synopsis, "Hopefully, we have seen the last of Mickey Thompson at Indianapolis," and referred to his race car as "ill-conceived and ill-prepared."
Regardless of the criticism, many of Thompson's innovations in Indy Cars as well as in other forms of racing were quickly emulated by other teams and drivers, and led to the formation of a number of companies that continue to market numerous speed and racing accessories.
After one more attempt at the land speed record in 1968 (using Ford power this time to reach another unofficial speed of 425 mph), Thompson returned to drag racing as well as off-road events, capturing the grueling Baja 1000 in 1984 at age 55.
Tragically, Mickey Thompson, along with his wife, were gunned down outside their home one morning in 1988. It took nearly 20 more years to solve the case, which has been the subject of several high-profile TV shows. But in all that, it's important to remember what Thompson accomplished and the type of automotive pioneer he was.
With a clearer understanding of the man and his contributions to the sport, I still scan the store shelves for the Challenger 1 model I regret not buying when I had the chance so many years ago.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.shiftweekly.com by using the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.