SI Vault
Bob Ottum
August 19, 1968
'You can do it, easy,' lead-foot Mickey Thompson promised. But his dizzy co-driver got lost on the Salt Flats trying to set world speed records, and all he got was his name on the car door
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August 19, 1968

Old Marshmallow Foot

'You can do it, easy,' lead-foot Mickey Thompson promised. But his dizzy co-driver got lost on the Salt Flats trying to set world speed records, and all he got was his name on the car door

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"Oh, we'll make it," Ray said.

Brock and I practiced jumping in and out of the car, adjusting the harnesses. We got it down to 24 seconds.

In addition to the yellow Mustang there was a blue one, which Mickey had set up for straightaway record runs, and another one the color of a good Beaujolais. All were production models, and everyone associated with the test runs had to sign a paper saying he wouldn't release any of the design details.

All right, no details. But this much I can say: one of the new Mustangs could sneak right under your arm if you happened to be standing on the street trying to hail a cab. Their noses turn down and their tails turn up. There is an air-scoop arrangement in front that could swallow anything up to the size of a medium spaniel. Best way, without giving away any secrets, is to tell you to squint your eyes and look at a Ferrari Berlinetta. Thank you, Ford Styling. And remember, you read it here.

The cars sat there and shook with horsepower. The yellow one carried a 302 cu. in. engine, about 450 horses; the red and blue models were jammed full of 427 engines—Ford likes to call them Cobra-jets—with about 575 hp. When one started up you could hear it roar in pain all the way past the horizon, and for days the people in nearby Wendover, Utah walked around shaking their heads and blinking their eyes.

Mickey fished around in a pile of boxes and got me a crash helmet; when I tugged it on, the sides pinched my upper teeth, where I have a great deal of bridgework, until my eyes watered. "Just about right," he said. No wonder race drivers go so fast. So they can finish and take those helmets off. The flameproof coveralls had not arrived for the team, so Mickey worked his way into an extra pair owned by Danny, who has a 28-inch waist. Mickey has a 44-inch waist. Just before driving each time, he stood on tiptoe and turned purple while his chief mechanic zipped him up. Rest of the time he walked around with the uniform unzipped, his fuzzy belly comfortably out, a slight heat rash starting to form in the open V. "I used to could wear this size," he said.

The Bonneville Salt Flats are savagely hot and so murderously white that a few minutes spent without dark glasses makes everything go all soft, like a Renoir oil. In the Miocene Epoch the flats were the bottom of a 1,000-foot-deep, 200-mile-long, 100-mile-wide lake. There are now 3,000 square miles of hard-packed salt beds left—the place is 35% bigger than Delaware, but then, what isn't?—and the horizon plays crazy tricks. The mountains off to one side seem to float in the middle of the day and mirages keep popping in and out. "Beware of the sun bouncing off that white salt," warned Eric Rickman, Hot Rod's chief photographer. "You get a surprise sunburn from bouncing rays. Look," he tilted his head back to show us, "only place in the world where you can sunburn the inside of your nose."

To set up the record runs-, survey crews had laid out a 10-mile oval somewhere out toward the middle of the desert. "There are a pair of two-mile straightaways," Mickey explained, "joined by three-mile curves at each end. A pure 10-mile circle would be easier to drive, but the salt's not in good enough shape for that this early in the season. So you'll have to be careful on those curves; just throw the car into them and bend her on around. Let the rear end drift out a little. It'll do it anyway at high speed."

He had parked his big MICKEY THOMPSON ENTERPRISES trailer out along the south straightaway, slightly inside the course. Ford had wheeled out a 60-foot house trailer to use as headquarters; United States Auto Club had its own portable timing-shack trailer parked farther down the line, with clocks and electric-eye speed traps set up. The crew of mechanics threw down huge flats of plywood on the salt, laid out their tools on them and—presto! Instant pits. Everyone walked around goggle-eyed from the heat and at times seemed to be moving slowly, dreamily, as men under water.

Then, suddenly, Mickey was ready. Co-driver Ongais was ready. Brock, with his giant arms and mountainous calm, was ready. Not me. I was still thinking about that 65 business on the tachometer, and occasionally I would wander over to the yellow car and look at it, trying to imagine it belly-up on the salt beds. But the assault on world speed and endurance records was under way.

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