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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On Monday evening Mickey's crew began setting out flares, little red cannisters about the size of bowling balls, with wicks that burn like candles. The sun went down, leaving a cerise-and-mauve afterglow and, finally, it got so dark that to step away from the light security of the trailer was to become lost forever.

Mickey and Danny clambered into the red car and ripped away into the blackness. It was then that a Newport Beach, Calif. movieman named John Holstrom, who was filming this heady drama for Ford, saw the tight, dramatic shot he had been looking for.

As the car poured fluidly around the fourth turn and down the straightaway toward us, his crew raised the camera and flicked on a monster quartz spotlight—aimed right into Mickey's eyes.

"I went stone blind—poof!" Mickey said later. "I knew just roughly where the pits were, and I tried to keep the car from plowing into the trailer and wiping everybody right out."

The Mustang screamed by in a low, thin streak, then careened off the course, knocking out a couple of smoke pots and some more stakes. He finally got it controlled and rolled back in from the desert with a new series of dents and broken headlights from the stakes. The cars were starting to look lumpy. There was a spirited talk about the lights—with gestures—and John promised not to try for quite so much drama.

Mickey was clearly up tighter than ever about bringing home the world records for Ford. "You're going to have to practice in the blue straightaway car," he told me, while we're putting headlights on the other one. Here." He reached over and put something down beside me. "Put a damn fire extinguisher in it this time, and don't burn yourself to death, will ya?"

I nodded soberly and started it up. Then I roared clear of the pits, that comforting pool of light and, suddenly, everything went stark black. I began to blink sort of earnestly; I have driven on lonely country roads at night and seen more. But this time I was determined to do better. I looked around for the stakes and flares—the stakes were all shadowy and indistinct, and the flares finally showed up as little pinpricks of light. I got it going faster, listening to that building scream of power. There was no way to tell the course from the rest of the world. And it was, as promised, slippery.

The thing about racing is: a driver will do anything, anything to drive well past the pits where everybody can see him. Mechanics and crew chiefs can always tell if a driver is not stepping down on the gas; the car gives a special sort of whine. "Awww, old Balloon Foot is only just stroking it," they will growl, and turn away in disgust. Or, "Lissen to that," they will say; "old so and so ain't even got his foot in it." I came around the final turn and, seeing the lights of the trailer off on the horizon, knew that the time had come to get my foot into it. I did. I had not counted on the Mickey effect.

The USAC timing shack, followed by the big trailer, flashed past on my left in one quick burst or light, and then—like Mickey, like Ray and Danny—I went blind. The sudden change was too much. When my vision cleared—aside from a few spots of amber lights dancing around the edges—I spotted a flare on one side of the car and another flare on the other. Best thing to do, I figured, was to get the left wheels right up next to those flares and try that.

Crafty idea. After all, how was I to know that the crew had set the flares 10 feet inside the track so nobody would run over them? I discovered this little situation when I noticed some stakes whizzing by on my right, which meant that I had a seven-foot-wide car careening down a 10-foot corridor. Then one of the mileage markers loomed up dead ahead. I managed to skid past that one, nicking it with the car's tail, and settled down to look out for the others. Sure enough, they came flashing by, big and easy to read in the headlights.

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