Saturday, October 03, 2009

Mickey Thompson, The Fast Life and Tragic Death of a Racing Legend

Baja Racing Book Review

By: Steve Parker

One of the great enjoyments for truck and car nuts, at least this one, are new and exhaustively detailed books on our favorite topic ... with plenty of photos.

When those books are about people and topics we know personally, that makes the books that much more interesting and exciting ... and they better be correct!

Recently I interviewed the author of the Mickey Thompson book.

"Mickey Thompson - The Fast Life and Tragic Death of a Racing Legend" by Erik Arneson, published by MBI and Motorbooks

This was a book just begging to be written since that awful day in 1988 when Mickey and his wife Trudy were, as the Los Angeles County Sheriff put it, "assassinated" in their driveway by thugs hired by a former business partner. That "partner" is now serving two life sentences in a California state prison; the actual hired shooters were never found.

Thompson defined and often dominated American motorsports from the '50s through the '80s; he operated the first professional ¼-mile drag strip in America, Lions Associated Drag Strip in Los Angeles' harbor area, set more land speed records than anyone else at the Bonneville Salt Flats, was so innovative at developing cars for the Indy 500 that many oldtimers shunned his efforts and, finally, brought the excitement of Baja-style off-road racing to major stadiums across the country.

My connection? I knew Thompson well and worked for him between 1978 and 1980, during the time he staged the first major off-road race in the middle of an American city: 1979's Off-Road Championship Grand Prix in the Los Angeles Coliseum. I know the title well because I actually named the event in an office contest --- and got a $1,000 bonus from Mickey (or MT, as we all called him) for coming up with it ... big money for a 25-year old kid back then!

His natural enthusiasm, non-stop energy, impressive promotional abilities and some outrageous personal habits (such as setting his plane on 'autopilot' so he could take a nap, or eating his steak with an ice cream desert on the same plate) are all well-documented.

MT's dad was a big, tough Irish cop in southern California, where MT was born and raised and lived his life, and the kids in that family learned that running home to avoid a fight was much, much worse than actually getting your ass kicked by some bully.

But MT was also a warm and caring person ... something folks who didn't know him well would never guess. Under the obvious gruffness and the anger which would often result in a fistfight between Mick and his latest enemy-of-the-moment, Thompson was a loyal friend, loving husband, son, father and grandfather and would hire people for more money than they ever made after talking with them for five minutes. He was a good boss, too.
2009-09-28-mickeythompson.jpg Mickey and Trudy Thompson

Arneson, a former USA TODAY writer and now VP of media relations for SPEED television, wrote a book which covers the major sections of MT's life from teenage street racing to the professional drag strip, Bonneville, Indy and Baja and the stadium racing series; it has many pages of photos to document all those efforts.

There's a lot of space devoted to the murders and the subsequent court cases; while this might be a bit dull to readers who don't remember or know the story, the entire affair was so complicated, taking some 20 years from the murders until a conviction, that the details are welcomed to fill-in the blanks.

If the book were fiction, it would be unbelievable. That one man could so dominate so many different aspects of one of the roughest sports in the world and for so many years is one of those stories "you couldn't make up."

But Arneson didn't have to make up any of it; MT did it all, and then some.

Gary Newsome,Editor