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As during much of his life, motor sports personality Mickey Thompson was at the center of controversy again last week. Only this time the uproar had to do with his death. Thompson, 59, once known as "the fastest man on earth," and his wife Trudy, 41, were gunned down last Wednesday morning at their home in Bradbury, Calif., 20 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
Following an established routine, the couple was leaving the house just before 6:00 a.m. on the way to the offices of their racing-promotion business, Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group, at Anaheim Stadium, 25 miles away. According to police, two—possibly three—intruders surprised the Thompsons in their driveway. Mike DiFilippo, a neighbor, was awakened by the sound of gunshots, followed by Trudy's screams of "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" and a fusillade of what he estimated to be 10 shots. DiFilippo's daughter Michele said later, "It sounded like a million people."
When police arrived minutes later the Thompsons were both dead.
The murders shocked residents of the exclusive, security-gated enclave in which the Thompsons' walled, two-acre estate is located. In a legacy the flamboyant racer himself might have appreciated, the manner of his death has fueled speculation, confusion and rumors. Robbery was ruled out by police; there was no attempt to enter the house and the phone lines reportedly had been cut. According to Lieut. Ken Chausse, who is in charge of the investigation for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, "This was not a 'drive-by' killing.... It was a contract killing."
Within 24 hours the sheriff's department announced it was seeking information about a "male, 35 to 40 years old with medium-length golden-blond hair," who was seen shortly after the crime "riding a gray Columbia-brand 12-speed bicycle." The bike was found at the corner of nearby Irwindale Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, where the man had been seen "desperately trying to flag down passing motorists" near the freeway early that morning.
In three decades in racing, the iconoclastic Thompson had made some enemies, along with many highly placed friends. He first attracted attention in 1953, when the car he was driving in the Carrera Pan Americana, a 1,913-mile road race through Mexico, skidded to avoid some spectators and killed six other race watchers. That crash helped cancel the Carrera for all time. Thompson continued his career behind the wheel, mostly in hot rods.
In 1960, Thompson held the unofficial title of "fastest man on earth" after he drove to a land speed record of 406.6 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. He was, however, never recognized as the official record holder because mechanical troubles prevented his Challenger I from completing the required return run over the measured mile.
It was Thompson's charm, ability as a salesman and enthusiasm for his projects that provided him with sponsorship money and marquee-value stars to keep his name current in the motor sports press. But hard luck seemed to follow him. In 1964, he designed a tiny, low-slung car with small, wide tires—a precursor to Indy cars of the '70s—to race at the Speedway. Rookie driver Dave MacDonald lost control of the car on the second lap of the 500 and was killed in a fiery crash that also claimed the life of popular veteran Eddie Sachs. Thompson-designed cars never again raced at the Speedway, but his willingness to experiment continued to change the sport.
Over the last two decades he concentrated on off-road driving as a car builder and innovator—his use of gas-pressurized shock absorbers helped to popularize off-road vehicles—and organizing and promoting racing with manic intensity. In fact his high profile in the sport is basic to two main hypotheses formulated to explain his death.
Thompson, a millionaire, made a lot of money from racing, but he was also a big spender. For his marriage to Trudy in 1971 he flew 300 guests from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for a lavish ceremony at Caesars Palace. And in the boom-or-bust racing business, cash flow problems can leave a promoter dry when he most needs to be liquid. Last week, some of Thompson's former racing associates were wondering if his death might have been the result of too many missed loan payments to the free-lance bankers with whom he might have done business.