The Fastest Man On Earth
A Story of passion, speed and murder
Mickey Thompson holds more land speed records than anyone on earth, he created many revolutionary designs for both NHRA and Indy racing, he was born a hot-rodder and died a hot-rodder, and left an important legacy on the world. So how did all of this happen? How did it all come to such a tragic end? Who is Mickey Thompson? Well I have all of your answers coming up now!
Born in Alhambra California on December 7th, 1928 Marion Lee "Mickey" Thompson had a strong father figure who gave him the resilient attitude he became famous for. His father who was of Irish decent and a police officer taught him from a young age to never give up on his dreams. He started racing at the young age of 14 right after he bought his first car, a 1927 Chevrolet for a modest price of $7.50. He was racing before he was even old enough to drive on the dry lake beds. At this point he knew that he wanted to dedicate his life to going fast! But in his early 20's he had to get a job as a pressman for the Los Angeles Times, but he was slowly gaining a reputation for his design prowess and genius ideas.
Mickey Thompson's first "Slingshot Dragster"
How he got into racing, and contributions to racing
In 1954 Mickey would invent the Slingshot Dragster, a revolutionary design that sat the driver behind the rear axle, this design would go on to be used for years until it was replaced by the design you now see today. He would start managing the new Lions Club associated dragstrip in Long Beach California, where he would implement another legendary design, the iconic "Christmas Tree" starting system (He didn't invent it, but his track was the first too use it.). As a manager he was very hands on, selling tickets and opening up the track after hours for "Grudge" races. He would manage the drag strip until 1964 along with a muffler shop that he owned. He would then focus more on racing and building cars...
The Challenger 1
Becoming the fastest man on earth
In 1958 Mickey and his friend/mechanic Fritz Voigt would build a twin-engined drag car in Oklahoma City, and on their way to back to California him and his wife Judy Thompson decided to take the car out on the Bonneville salt flats too see what it could do. Mickey would hit a top speed of 266.866 mph! This incredible speed he hit doing for no other reason than for fun put Mickey on a mission, that mission being to become the fastest man on earth! On the rest of the trip him and Judy both started throwing ideas out there for how they would do it. They ended up settling on a 4 engine design, but were left with many questions on how they would build such a thing, and even more worryingly how they could afford to build such a car.
You can see the insane set up that was used in order for it to work
The General Manager of Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen was a good friend of Mickeys and helped supply him with the powerplant of the car after Chrysler rejected him. Mickey was sent 4 stock, used Pontiac 389 engines. Voigt (the mechanic) said about this "They sent us four stock  test engines--they weren't even new," and. "Pontiac freighted them to Mickey's house in El Monte. We had a helluva time unloading them because we didn't have a forklift or anything like that." Mickey and Voigt didn't have any fancy equipment or a large shop to build this in, instead they built it in Mickey's garage behind his house, laying all four engines out on the floor and marking in chalk around them so they could get an idea of what the wheel-base will be. They planned to have the front engines facing backwards to drive the front wheels, and the rear engines driving the back wheels. He knew how to get multiple engines to work as he had experimented with multi-engine dragsters in the past, but the biggest challenge he was facing was linking all four LaSalle 3-speed transmissions together. He had to get all four to operate on one clutch pedal, and on the same transmission linkage. Another problem is that he would be driving while looking through a single 4-inch square piece of glass taken out of a welding helmet for a windshield. Can you imagine going 400+ miles per hour while only having a 4 inch piece of glass too lookout of!!! You'd have to be mad! He gained some financial support from Goodyear and a fully volunteered crew, and in August 1958 Mickey set his sights on the land speed record of 394.19 mph, set by British fur broker John Cobb in his airplane engine-powered Railton-Mobil Special, and..... he failed reaching a speed of only 362mph.
Here you can see the 4 Pontiac 389 in the process of being supercharged
After the run Mickey started talking to Captain George Eyston a British engineer who held multiple land speed records at the time. Mickey told him the horsepower figures and George did some measurements. In the end George told Mickey that in order to break the record he was going to need an extra 400hp. So Mickey on his way back to California decided that he was going to supercharge each engine to get the desired horsepower figures. In order help get publicity while rebuilding the Challenger he built several cars too break smaller less important records, this helped him get sponsors. On September 9th 1960 the Challenger was finished, and with 4 GMC 6-71 supercharged Pontiac 389s, it was ready to go out on the Salt flats! He broke the record on his first run at 406.6mph, but in order to officially take the record you have to make a return run and despite blowing up one of the four engines Mickey managed to go fast enough to officially break the record.
Mickey Thompson Sears Allstate Special
Now Mickey had been involved with Indy for a couple years entering 1964 so he decided to try something radical as usual in the pursuit of speed. He designed the very first mid-engined Indy-car, now that sounds like it would be quite the accomplishment but it just wasn't meant to be. Leading up to the 1964 Indianapolis 500 the Allstate Special went through months of rigorous testing, and each time it failed. It wanted to lift the front wheels at speed and handled like crap, they kept taking it back to the drawing board trying to figure it out but nothing was working. Two of the three drivers scheduled to race for Mickey that year would quit including Formula One legend Graham Hill but they still had promising young driver David Macdonald. When the race finally arrived on May 30th 1964 disaster struck on only the second lap coming out of turn four.
In this picture you can see the car violently turn to the left into the wall.
Macdonald swept low on the track and air picked up under the front of the car lifting it up. Macdonald lost control hitting a wall. The impact set the car ablaze, as this was happening fellow driver Eddie Sachs was coming full speed, looking for an opening but sadly he wouldn't find one and hit Macdonald's car killing them both. So Mickey's design was revolutionary yes but infamous as it would become known as "The Killer Car".
Hot Rodder at heart
When he wasn't breaking records or re-inventing racing, Mickey owned a business specializing in hot rod parts, it was called Mickey Thompson Equipment Co. He sold parts for all sorts of stuff and it helped him pay for some of his more ambitious projects. As Mickey found his love of cars through hot rods he built many wild and over the top dragsters. In 1968 Mickey was tasked with redesigning the traditional funny car chassis for better safety, and in 1969 built the Mach 1 pictured above and one the Spring Nationals and Nationals that year.
Mickey and his wife Judy
On the morning of March 16, 1988 Mickey and his wife Judy left there house as usual but there were too hooded assailants waiting for them outside armed with guns, they were then brutally gunned down. There were no signs of robbery as they where carrying thousands in cash at the time and it was still on them when the police arrived, so they figured it was a murder for hire scenario, and Michael Goodwin was they're prime suspect as he was a former business partner who had fled the country and transferred one hundred thousand dollars out of his bank account. It wasn't until 2001 however that they were able to catch him when he returned to California. In 2007 he would be convicted as 15 witnesses recalled that Goodwin had repeatedly threatened Thompson. For his crimes he was given two consecutive life sentences without parole.