Looking back on it now—from the relative safety of a New York office building—I can see that it must have been a form of insanity. Maybe a touch of the dread Utah Salt Flats Madness (Saltus crazicus), which makes men think they can climb into powerful cars and break world speed records. Lord knows, there had been plenty of warning from friends. "Going to drive a car at top speed for 24 hours?" they said. "You are out of your gourd." And two old buddies from The Sail Lake Tribune: "You've been out there on the flats before and seen people drive," they said. "They crash a lot."
There were other auguries that any clown could have seen. I had to sign a paper that said Ford Motor Co. would pay me $50,000 in case I was killed, up to $5,000 in case I bent anything, and there was a blank to fill in that said, in effect, "Where should we send the dough?"
Then there was the moment when they rolled out this brutish-looking 1969 Mustang Mach I with three names neatly painted on the door. Anyone who understands hoodoo would have quit right then. It said: DRIVERS MICKEY THOMPSON, RAY BROCK, BOB OTTOM. Swell. Except that my name was spelled wrong.
"Jeez, I'm really sorry about that," Mickey said. "Lissen. Blame my secretary. Blame me. The sign painter. We can fix that up with a little tape and a Magic Marker." Then he got right down to business. "I think at first you ought to hold her at, ummm, say, 65," he said. "Just until you get used to driving on the salt. It's tricky."
Sixty-five? You mean six-five, right? My mother can drive 65. I walked over to the car and peeked in. The in-sides had been ripped out; all that was left were bare metal ribs, two bucket seats and the dashboard. No speedometer. Just a tachometer. That is when this sort of hard, small knot first began to form inside my stomach. On a speedometer 65 is one thing; on a tach 65 is something else. Like 6,500 rpm. I yanked my head around toward Mickey. "What exactly is 65 on this thing?" I said.
He consulted his dream wheel, a handy pocket calculator which calibrates a 10-mile track and various gear ratios. "Let me see here," he said. "Umm, it's about 160 miles an hour with that gear in it. We're going to have to average a little better than that to get the records."
I nodded thoughtfully and bared all my teeth, doing my A. J. Foyt imitation. "Yeah," I said. "Oh, yeah, well, of course we'll have to run somewhere around that. Hundred sixty miles an hour, right?"
"You can do it."
"I can do it. Hundred...uhh, sixty, you said?"
Mickey looked over at me. "Maybe we should have started you on Cortinas," he said. "Well, go ahead. Take it around a few times."