In the history of American racing, few stories match that of Mickey Thompson. Throughout his life, he pushed the limits of what was possible with internal combustion, changed the face of multiple forms of racing, and started his own highly successful tire and wheel company. Unfortunately, his life was cut tragically short – but his legacy will live on forever.
Before he could even drive, Mickey was involved with hot rodding, restoring old Chevrolets and Fords. This passion soon led to his involvement with week drag racing. Drag racing became his racing center, and he would continue to pursue it. Throughout the late 1950s, Mickey set several quarter-mile records, eventually hitting 194 mph in 1958. From then on, Mickey was known as “the Fastest American on Four Wheels.”
Thompson also started road racing as well, entering the La Carrera Panamericana road race in Mexico in 1953. That race ended tragically for Mickey, when he swerved his Ford away from a young girl who had wandered onto the course. He lost control and rolled the car into a group of people who had gathered to watch the aftermath of an earlier crash, killing six. Thompson returned to the race the next year, where he led the field after the first day, but unfortunately crashed into a wall and was eliminated.
Mickey’s love of drag racing naturally transitioned into speed record attempts, and in 1950, the 21-year-old started tearing it up at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He quickly started going after speed records, setting a total of 295 records over the course of his time on the flats. In 1959 alone, Thompson set four international speed records.
Mickey’s ultimate Bonneville record car was the home-built Challenger 1, built in 1959. The Challenger 1 was over 20 feet long, just 39 inches tall, and was powered by four supercharged Pontiac engines that sent power to all four wheels. In 1960, Thompson managed to hit 406.6 mph in one direction, making him the first American to exceed 400 mph. Unfortunately, the Challenger 1 broke a driveshaft and was unable to complete a second run, preventing Mickey from officially securing the record.
After his days at Bonneville, Thompson set his sights on the Indianapolis 500. From 1962 to 1968, his cars pushed the envelope of design, with rear engines and a lightweight chassis. While Mickey’s teams never finished better than ninth place, he still introduced innovative concepts that carried on to today. In particular, Thompson started Mickey Thompson Performance Tires, which grew from an Indy tire provider to a highly respected street tire manufacturer. He also started Mickey Thompson Enterprises, which built and sold aftermarket car parts.
In 1968, Thompson returned to drag racing, where he redesigned the funny car before winning the 1969 NHRA Spring Nationals and Nationals. He then turned to other forms of racing, including stock car and off-road racing. Off-road racing struck his fancy, and he started SCORE International, which organized off-road racing events throughout North America. He and his wife Trudy also formed the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group, or MTEG, which put on indoor motocross and off-road racing events throughout the country.
In 1988, Mickey Thompson’s life was tragically cut short. One morning as he and his wife were leaving their house in Southern California, two hooded gunmen approached the couple. Thompson was shot and wounded before the men went after his wife. After killing her, they returned to Mickey and finished him off. The men then escaped on bicycles.
The murders of Mickey and Trudy Thompson went unsolved for years, as police searched for a motive. Finally, Mickey’s former business partner Michael Goodwin was identified as a suspect, and was charged in 2001 for the murders. In 2007, Goodwin was found guilty by a jury, and was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without parole.
Despite his tragic death, Thompson’s legacy lives on. During his career, he created a variety of crucial innovations that are still used today, including signal lighting and foul lighting for drag strips, nitrogen-filled shocks, and the wide oval tire. He also invented the Hydro-Barricade, a water safety barricade that is still used on highways and racetracks today. Mickey and Trudy’s MTEG stadium off-road racing events inspired today’s Stadium Super Trucks and Global Rallycross, which are some of the most entertaining racing events out there.
Finally, Mickey’s name continues to grace tires and wheels to this day, and they are still considered some of the best in the industry for specialty racing. In 2003, Mickey Thompson Performance Tires was bought by Cooper Tire, and the company continues to make specialty tires for off-road and drag racing. They’re still developing tires and helping Mickey’s legacy continue into the 21st Century.