NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

The Thompson Files

01 Mar 2013
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Until his murder on March 16, 1988, Marion Lee “Mickey” Thompson was the multifaceted face of American auto racing. We all know him for his drag racing exploits, first as a driver then later as a team owner, track operator, and race promoter, but he also succeeded in other wheeled venues, including land-speed records, IndyCar, and off-road racing.

In 2001, he was named No. 11 on NHRA's Top 50 Drivers list. In Erik Arneson’s book, Mickey Thompson, The Fast Life and Tragic Death of a Racing Legend, Don Prudhomme was quoted on Thompson, “He did so much for drag racing, and the more the years go by, you realize even more just how special he was. Any time you competed against Mickey in anything, you knew you were up against it. He was the first guy I ever heard who would take his cars to the dragstrip during the week to test. None of us could afford to test, so when Mickey showed up on the weekend, his cars were ready to kick ass.”

As promised last week, here’s a peek into the thick National Dragster photo archive of Thompson. It’s not meant to be an encyclopedic look at his career but rather a collection of images that I found interesting.

This is a great photo of two of the sport’s most influential guys in the 1960s, Thompson and NHRA founder Wally Parks, shot at Lions Drag Strip in 1963.

In July 1961, Thompson trailered these four Pontiac-powered cars — a Class F Dragmaster chassis sans body, his Assault and Attempt streamlined dragsters, and a 348-horsepower, 389-cid Pontiac Catalina — to Southern California’s March Air Force Base and broke eight FIA international records and six of 10 American national records.

Although there’s some fuzziness on the issue, Thompson is widely credited with the slingshot dragster design with this 1954 car. Theorized Thompson, "The biggest obstacle was keeping the driver between the engine and the rear axle, which required a driveshaft that pushed the engine forward. If you could place the driver behind the rear axle, it could be coupled directly with the engine-transmission assembly, and all the vehicle's weight focused on the driving wheels. Some of the drivers called my car 'the Monster' or 'the Tractor,' but a Santa Ana hot rodder, LeRoy Neumayer, said it reminded him of a slingshot, and the name not only stuck, but the design was quickly adapted by everyone else."

The late, great Jack Chrisman drove Thompson's 432-cid aluminum Pontiac-equipped Dragmaster car to an 8.76, 171.75-mph win over Don Garlits in the Top Eliminator final at the 1962 NHRA Nationals.

This is a neat shot of Thompson adding the notation “on 7 cyl” to one of the tombstones on the side of his ramp truck. In the tradition of fighter pilots who stenciled their kills on their planes, a bunch of drivers would add names of their “victims” to their cars. In retrospect, it’s kinda sad to know that the playful “RIP” on the tombstones of legends like “Jungle Jim” Liberman, Dick Harrell, and Chrisman are now reality.

Here’s a very cool “family portrait” of Thompson drivers and cars from 1969 or ’70. Flanking Thompson, center, are, from left, Arnie Behling, Johnny Wright, Danny Ongais, and Butch Leal. The missing driver is “Mighty Mike” Van Sant. The cars, from front to back, are Ongais’ Amos Saterlee-tuned, 427-powered Mustang; Behling’s 429-powered, Alan Gillis-wrenched Maverick; the Mustangs of Wright and Van Sant; and Leal’s Mustang Pro Stocker.

Ongais’ Mustang was a terror in 1969, winning the NHRA Springnationals and Nationals. Thompson was very experimentative with his chassis, including the famed monocoque construction car and, as is evident from this photo (remember when Funny Cars had see-through rear windows?), a new roll cage shape that closely surrounded the driver as opposed to the traditional square-cage designs popularized by the Logghe brothers.

Yeah, like I said, Thompson liked to tinker. I don’t think that this interesting Top Fuel-like wing setup ever ran in competition. In fact, the notation on the back of this photo says “Do not use,” but I think the statute of limitations on that has passed.

Another interesting photo without much information on hand shows another Thompson Mustang wheelman, Larry Fullerton, taking on a Top Fueler at Orange County Int’l Raceway.

Here’s a classic shot of Thompson driving the ramp-truck-mounted Wright Mustang through some town, apparently leading a parade of haulers en route to the local dragstrip.

A great shot of Pat Foster, far lane, wheeling the second M/T Mustang against future teammate Van Sant’s slick Invader Corvette. Below, Foster takes on “the All-American Boy,” Charlie Allen, at Riverside Raceway. Allen, of course, would go on to own OCIR and Firebird Int’l Raceway.

A clean shot of the Behling-driven Maverick. I got a neat email from Eddie Buck, who is restoring one of the Thompson Mavericks and documenting it on Facebook here. The chassis he’s using is the one that sat mismatched beneath the Grand Am body that Army Armstrong bought from the Thompson family. “I have unbent/tweaked/twisted most of it. On the whole, I'll have replaced just 20 feet of tubing. I purchased the mold Donnie Reeves had made from Larry Fullerton's Maverick for Danny Miller, and it's now being prepped to pop a new body. If possible, can you make the appeal to your readers to maybe help me find and return the suspension to the chassis. It was long gone by the time we got the chassis here.” If you guys know anything, let me know or drop Buck a message on the Facebook page.

Dale Pulde had a lot of wild times with Thompson’s famed lightweight Pinto over the years, including this wheelstand at Lions (above) and the car (below) being carried out on its shield — well, atop an old van — after a fire at U.S. 30. The car also was heavily burned in a fire in the final round at Indy in 1972. As he was quoted in Arneson’s book, “It took me four firesuits to get through ’71 and ’72.”

A nice photo of Thompson, left, and Pulde, right, flanking engine man Steve Montrelli at Lions.

Another Lions pic, this one of the Henry Harrison-driven Vega running against Frank Rupert and the Bays & Rupert Vega, circa 1971.

OK, that’s it for the Thompson photos for now. You know me, once you get me started looking through old photos or old issues, I really lose track of time and reality. I literally could have run two or three times as many from his folder but had to reel in my ambitions to these dozen and a half.

The trip through Thompson’s folder did inspire me to look through some others in the future. The National Dragster photo library houses an extraordinary collection of photos, and I know that some have never been seen or at least not seen in decades, so be on the lookout for some other photographic trips down Memory Lane in the future. I’ll see you next week.