It has been more than 12 years since Mickey Thompson's Great Bonneville Go-Round. That's when Challenger III went spinning out of control at 441 mph on Utah's salt fiats, teetering crazily, its mighty engines roaring, the instrument needles bouncing on their pegs. The two brake parachutes were sent blossoming out behind, and still the car spun. And then, in mid-swoop, everything inside the cockpit went dark. Peering out, Thompson decided that it must be raining out there; how odd, as if the car had somehow been twirled into a weird new world. "Hoo boy," he said. And then he turned to prayer: "Uhh, Lord? Yes, I know it's me again. But listen, this time I'm really serious. I promise, if you'll just let me out of this here car alive, I swear I'll never, ever get back into it."
Well, fair enough. Thompson did get out unscathed, and to this day he hasn't gotten back into that car since it miraculously swirled to a safe stop in a rain squall on that autumn morning in 1968. Thompson has been in and out of a lot of other race cars, but not that one. That's his style: one crisis at a time; never promise what you don't think you can deliver. And now, on a raw wintry day in the California outback, he sits inside the tubular cocoon of his new monster desert car and flashes that familiar old grin.
"This is my last year," he says. "No, really. I mean: if I win the championship this time, I promise I'll quit racing and go on to something else."
He looks contentedly at the gauges and dials and switches in the cockpit. It's an old routine he's going through, one of the most familiar in racing, and perhaps it's the desert light but one can almost see the years falling away as he does it. Thompson is 52 years old. There's a telltale touch of gray bristling at the lower edges of his sideburns, and the rest of his hair has a suspicious reddish cast that was never there before. He shifts his weight painfully in the bucket seat; he's tightly corseted to protect his bad back. One elbow is a bit crooked and his left knee rasps when he bends it. It wasn't this way in the old days, of course, but he's not indestructible anymore. Then he smiles and a flash of familiar hellion appears: his jowls seem to retract and a touch of oldtime cockiness returns.
It seems hard to believe that Thompson might actually need an introduction. After all, as he puts it, "I've been through three generations of racers." But, well, hot-rodding and off-road racing are admittedly pretty exotic activities these days, and because Thompson got out of the Indy car business more than a decade ago, it's entirely possible that his name isn't on everybody's lips anymore. So all right: this comfortably roundish gentleman, 5'11" and 200-plus pounds, is Marion Lee Thompson Jr. He's something of a prototype. He might be called the basic pattern figure, the template, of America's hot-rod generation. To every guy who has ever peeled out of a White Castle parking lot, Thompson is Our Founder. He goes back to Deuce Coupes, ducktail haircuts and Sh-boom, sh-boom, ya-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da.... The Mick was the kid who wasn't very good at school-work, especially all that English, but who could speak to engines. He could rest his fingertips on the hood of any car and detect its illnesses. Thompson is a born engineer, if there is such a thing, a slow learner who later proved to have an IQ of 143.
Thompson has given the world a lot of marvelous stuff it didn't know it needed. For better or worse, he came up with low-profile tires and the slingshot dragster, becoming the first man to hit 150 mph in a quarter-mile. In 1946 he gunned a 1929 Ford Model A roadster to a class record of 115.26 mph. and in 1958 he built the world's fastest hot rod, a supercharged Chrysler-powered streamliner that hit a stunning 294 mph. On various drag strips and dry lake beds and salt flats, he set more than 400 world and national speed records.
Thompson's most memorable creation was Challenger I, the first car he designed specifically for going after the land-speed record. It was powered by not one but four Pontiac engines, and the first time he lit it off, the thing turned out something like 2,000 horsepower. It was awesome: the shiftpoint from low to second gear in that monster was 210 mph, and then it was popped into high at 315. And, glory be, Thompson actually drove the beast a sizzling 406.6 mph through the measured mile in 1960, surpassing Sir John Cobb's then-world record of 394.196. However, the rules insist that a car must be driven two ways through the timing trap for a mark to be official, and Challenger I balked on the return leg. But with all that, Thompson had set the world speed standard for driving a car. Remember that those guys who recently have gone as much as twice as fast in their rocket cars didn't actually drive, not in the honored piston-engine sense of the word. They were strapped in, the rockets were touched off—and they rode along as passengers. Stan Barrett actually reached the sound barrier this way, going 739.666 in 1979.
By the time Thompson got to Challenger III in 1968—the one that spun out so dramatically—the insurance companies had him figured. They agreed to insure the car for $100,000. That is, as long as it was standing still. Soon as it started moving: nothing. Which is what Thompson got after he promised the Lord that he'd never, ever get back into it.
But all that was many years and many crashes ago, and here we are back in the California desert, in the bleak hills just outside Barstow, and Thompson is at it again. Officially, his desert car is called Challenger Mark V, and it's full of trick stuff, like a lot of his race cars. The concepts behind this gadgetry may be O.K., but that's not to say the hardware intended to execute these ideas is up to the job. Still, every time the crew rolls this thing off the back of its transporter, crowds seem to materialize from nowhere to stand around and stare at it in bewildered awe.
Challenger V has been five years in the planning, and Thompson has lavished an easy quarter million on it. It weighs 2,600 pounds (without Mickey) and can hit 150 mph on a level stretch of desert, while cranking 550 horses out of its mid-mounted aluminum V-8. But with all of those wonders, it's the shock absorbers that create the sensation.