Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Say It Aint So... I Worshiped Him.

Having grown up smack dab in the middle of Muscle Car Era one of my idols was Mickey Thompson. How could I have not idolized him? Now, all of you out there should know who Mickey Thompson is... right? After all he was involved in almost every aspect of racing known to man. He was a hot rodder, speed parts designer builder and salesman, off road racer, tire manufacturer, drag racer, multiple land speed record holder and builder and racer of very innovative Indy cars and his picture was on the cover of anything auto related. If I had a nickle for every thumb tack that held up all the Mickey Thompson pictures on my bedroom wall when I was 15 years old I could have retired a long time ago.

Here's a very cool photo of Mickey Thompson (left) and Carroll Shelby (right) competing against each other in a 1953 road race.

He even founded SCORE, (Which became The Baja 1000) brought motocross into stadiums, and even two of his cars were involved in the worst crash of the 60s at The Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
I remember the first time I met him in person like it was yesterday. I was pitted in the gravel parking lot at Fremont Drag Strip right between him and Don Garlits of all people. Like Garlits, Mickey wore a t-shirt had a flat top haircut and was all about the racing. Mickey Thompson was the quintessential guy down at the machine shop who also raced on the weekends and made it big. I remember him giving me an old worn out slick off his sling shot exactly like the one in the photo below which I kept for many years. I loved that old tire and for me it was as if he had given me a brand new car.

Every once in a while when surfing the Internet looking for LCP articles I run across a photo of Mickey Thompson's 1954 LCP Ford. Anyone who has read much about the history of famous LCP drivers has seen Mickey Thompson's name as one of the greats who took part. But when I began researching how he did and what years he ran and so on I found it difficult to find accurate information all of which seemed to be non-existent for the most part. I couldn't help but wonder since Mickey was such a bigger than life racing icon why his involvement in LCP seemed to be swept under the rug. But after a lot of digging I was able to piece it all together.

Like so many other famous racers of that era, Mickey Thompson's involvement in the 1953 running of the La Carrera Panamericana in Mexico gained him lots of notoriety in fact helping set off his career. Unfortunately, according to International Motorsports Hall of Fame it was this first attempt that got him a lot of bad publicity. According to Johnny Tipler's "La Carerra Panamericana, The Worlds Greatest Road Race", "Another hammer blow to the race's long term future was what happened on the bridge over the Tehuantepec river, where a sudden curve followed an hour-long passage of full throttle straights. Christie's Ford botched a turn and plunged ov er the bank, landing on the muddy shore. Spectators and officials rushed to see how they could help as moments later Mickey Thompson, in another Ford, approached the spot. In a terrible moment of coincidence a little girl ran across the road. Thompson swerved, braked and deliberately aimed at the bank to avoid her and his car rolled and landed in the midst of the gathering around Christie below, killing a soldier, a policeman, a town official and three local residents." For obvious reasons a friend who worked for Ford Motor Company whisked him away from the scene.

Mickey Thompson and Rodger Flores ran the 1953 LCP in this 1953 Ford with a 6-banger.

In 1954 Mickey once again built a car to run La Carrera Panamericana. Here is Mickey Thompson posing in front of his 1954 Ford that he drove during his second LCP attempt. This car was running Ford's new OHV V8 but Mickey's luck once again left him when a tie rod end broke and he crashed into a stone wall.

Mickey's involvement in La Carrera Panamericana was short lived even though he was accredited with so many patents and designs of safety equipment including water barriers. I was saddened to learn that Mickey Thompson's crashes were credited with being partially responsible for the cancellation of the La Carrera Panamericana.... Thus the reason so little is written about his LCP involvement.

Due to safety concerns La Carrera Panamericana was cancelled after the 1955 Le Mans disaster that took place during the 24 Hours of Le Mans when a car involved in an accident flew into the crowd, killing the driver and 80 spectators. Adolfo Ruiz Cortines then President of Mexico announced that the race's original task of publicizing the highway was complete and the cancellation was unavoidable given that cars of the period were of a high-speed, low-safety design, and drivers of a win-at-all-costs mentality. Only a third of entrants typically finished the race, and unlike more compact circuits, the long stage sections were impossible to secure entirely, making it possible for crashes to linger for several hours before being noticed. 27 people had died during the five years of the Panamericana, giving it one of the highest mortality rates per race in the history of motorsport, primarily because during the years the race was held, automobile racing had undergone an amazing technical transformation to emerge as an advanced science. The speeds had almost doubled as a result, but safety controls remained static and competitors, spectators and safety control personnel alike became casualties.

Isn't it ironic that I grew up idolizing such an amazing man who not only lived to talk about some of the most amazing crashes in race history and competed and lived through two of the most dangerous decades in car racing only to be gunned down by masked, machine gun wielding assailants in 1988. He deserved so much more. God's Speed Mickey.

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