As a guest on a recent FOX iRacing broadcast of a dirt-track race that included NHRA star Ron Capps, motor-racing superstar Mario Andretti said he'd have loved to try Top Fuel. He didn't but he did drive one of Mickey Thompson's dragsters, and we have the photo to prove it.
Asked by hosts Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer if he'd ever drag raced, Andretti said he made some exhibition passes on behalf of the Tasca Ford at a track in Hartford, Conn., in May 1968 with Frank Maratta, who ran the racetrack in E. Haddam, Conn.
Andretti then added, "I would have loved, just like my nephew John, to have experienced maybe one of the Top Fuels." [John competed briefly in Top Fuel in 1993 with car owner/MLB slugger Jack Clark.]
The senior Andretti may never have made it to Top Fuel, but he did log some seat time behind the wheel of one of famed racer Mickey Thompson’s dragsters, as you can see above. OK, so it wasn't a real race car, but these scaled-down slingshots that M/T made were popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s and Mario took one for a spin in this circa 1970 photo.
It’s not exactly the predecessor to today’s Jr. Dragsters, but one could make a case for some family lineage.
The little chain-driven, fiberglass-bodied dragsters – of which only 180 were made by Mickey Thompson Advance Engineering -- were powered by a single-cylinder Tecumseh four-stroke engine and could reach a top speed of 25 mph but the main thrill came from the car’s ability to pop wheelies “with a punch of the throttle,” according to advertisements. The little dragsters even had wheelie bars in the back.
Here’s Thompson –- who, not coincidentally, is credited with the development of the slingshot dragster in 1954 -– taking a wheelie-popping test run at Lions Drag Strip in 1969. Drag racers being drag racers, for some the 3-hp engine and 25 mph were not good enough, so the engines were modified (or out-and-out replaced) and larger sprockets and tires added for more fun.
The cars came with a body choice of exactly two colors -– red or blue -– and sold for a pretty steep $395 (about $2,800 in 2020 money), and as demand began to wane were closed out for $265, which would have made a pretty good investment seeing as how the beautifully restored version above went on the RM Sotheby’s auction block in 2018 and sold for more than $19,000!