A few minutes later I was out on a far corner of the Bonne-vile Salt Flats, off somewhere near the old Donner Trail, trying to wrestle the car out of a spin. I had been spinning crazily for about half a mile; I also had been looking at the tach. It wasn't anywhere near 65. The crash helmet had tilted down over my eyes, and my dark glasses were sitting out on the end of my nose. My palms were wet, but I didn't want to let go of the wheel to wipe them on my pants. All sorts of distractions like that. The car was on fire, for one thing.
But let us take it from the top, as Mickey always says.
Mickey Thompson is America's last great hot rodder, lone survivor of an age that historians will one day call the Vroom Vroom Era. It was a time when kids raced around California in fast cars that were Model A's in name only—all full of trick things under the hood. Thompson is a sort of guru of things that go; he is an innovator, an inventor, a souper-upper. He holds the world record for grinding an engine-block head so thin you could hold it up to the light and read
The New York Times
through it. It was Mickey who dreamed up, designed and built the first slingshot dragster, which, as everyone knows now, is just what America always needed.
He once built a world-land-speed-record car that had a different Pontiac engine to power each of its four wheels and it had so many gearshift levers, dials and gauges that there was hardly room for him in the cockpit. First time in the thing, with an anxious crowd watching, each of the engines drove off in a different direction. At 201 mph. Backward. "Still needs a little work," Mickey said.
But later he unloaded the monster on the Bonneville Salt Flats and drove an historic 406.6 mph, faster than any motor-driven car had ever gone before—or has since. Unfortunately, to qualify for an official mark a car must make the measured-mile run in both directions through the clocks; Mickey ran one way, then turned the car around. It wouldn't run back.
But with all this, Thompson is still the best on the salt flats. There is something about the place that strikes a beautiful chord within him. The late Ab Jenkins and Sir Malcolm Campbell could drive like wild across that crystalline desert; Andy Granatelli and Craig Breedlove drive beautifully on the flats. But nobody drives like Mickey. "There is this thing," he will say. "I can read the salt; I can see patterns and shadows in it and I seem to know exactly when a car will skid or hold on. I don't always hold on—but I can go to beat hell out there."
Mickey's full name is Marion Lee Thompson Jr. Imagine. Marion Lee. He is now 39 years old and wealthy, the dean of speed-equipment manufacturers. Years of nervous, compulsive candy eating and Cokes have changed his body lines from sports car to family sedan. Still, he crackles with nervous energy, and he continues to overpower problems because it is faster than solving them. He has a runaway crew cut and a smile that could disarm an angry water buffalo; it is the kind of Our Gang comedy, go-to-hell grin that makes women want to clutch him to their bosoms. Race Driver Mario Andretti has it; so does Skier Jean-Claude Killy. Paul Hornung used to try for it. Joe Namath, alas, has never come close.
Only Mickey would have the nerve to write the president of Ford Motor Co. and promise to make his new cars go fast. "How about some world speed records, you guys?" he said. And only Mickey could get them: Ford gave him three Mach I Mustangs right off the secret 1969 assembly line. Naturally it was all under cover.
"Lissen. I got this great new thing," Mickey said. He grinned, put one arm around me and pulled me into his confidence, his breath heavy with Coca-Cola. "I'm going to take these Mustangs out on the flats," he said, "and break a whole slew of records. And...," he jabbed a finger against my thorax, "...you get to drive with the team."
It is a well-known fact among my friends that I have never driven a car in anger. Old Marshmallow Foot, they call me around racetracks. But I was touched. "Jeez, Mick," I said, "I don't think I could..."