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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Mickey Thompson Tales

By Bill O’Neal

I have some great Mickey Thompson stories, but most don't pertain to drag racing. Mickey and I partnered up for a few off road races in the 80's before he got shot. We spent many hours driving to and from off road races in Mexico and Nevada. He had some colorful tales! And we made a few colorful tales, too.

Like the time we got stuck in a fast moving stream while pre-running a race down in Mexico. We come upon a group of the best off road racers in the world gathered at the bank of a mountain river. They were waiting for the water level to drop, so they could cross. MT, without hesitation, drives into the water and gets us stuck half way across. Sitting in the car, we were up to our chests in water. The VW engine had the distributor and carb sticking out of the water, but the motor died. The stream was dragging us down river. A group of racers who had decided not to cross the raging stream was lining the bank laughing at us. 

I climbed out of my seat, using the frame and roll cage to work my way back to the motor and the toolbox to get some WD40. I popped off the distributor cap and sprayed some WD into the distributor and on the coil. Mickey was still seated in the car. He got it fired up, shifted into gear, and tried to go ahead. The car moved a couple of feet, but was pushing up against a huge underwater rock and quit going forward. Mickey was shifting from first to reverse and back trying to move that huge rock, which wasn't budging a bit. I was yelling at him to quit before he broke the whole damn car. He kept trying to move that rock. 

The banks were covered with people laughing at us. Some of off-road racing’s elite were in our audience: Ivan Stewart, Malcolm Smith, Joe MacPherson, and dozen or so more. Mickey broke the shifter off. Ivan and the others were yelling instructions between bursts of laughter. It was a very funny scene from their point of view. I found some vise grips in the toolbox and while hanging upside down from the roll cage, monkey bar style with my legs hooked over the cage, I took a big deep breath and went head first into the water to secure the vise grips to the broken linkage so he could shift the trans back into gear. Mind you, this water was from the melting snow further up the mountain. We were freezing our butts off!

Finally, Mickey gives up. About that time, two caballaros (cowboys in Mexico) come riding up to the banks on their horses. Mickey wades across the river and talks to them for a minute; I see money exchange hands and the next thing I see is these two Mexican Cowboys lassoing the front shock towers. Now the riverbank sounded like the comedy club! Believe it or not, these cowboys get us unstuck and we are able to get out of the stream. As we stood shivering on the opposite bank, Mickey yells back at the "suckers" that didn't cross, because, as he put it, "We would be in a warm bed while they would be out there all night waiting for the water to subside." 

And away we went, traveling at almost dark, about 35 degrees out with nothing dry to wear, at speeds that only the best could sustain. About 50 miles down the road from the stream we came into a little town called Valle De Trinidad. Mickey finds the only storeowner in town and buys us some dry clothing. I was so cold that I was shaking too bad to talk. I'm sure I was blue. We changed clothes right there in the store in front of this Mexican woman and her children. It was a windfall for the storeowner. Mickey buys enough clothing for four people. We put it all on! Hats, gloves, underwear, pants, shirts, jackets, and even sweatshirts. That Mexican lady was all grins!

Next, we find some gas. Mexican gas. PEMEX. Stuff musta been about 80 octane and water. So, MT buys some octane booster. Leaving the Pemex station, he tells me to drive. It's a 140-KM drive to San Felipe. I take the highway instead of the dirt. MT falls asleep within 10 miles of leaving town. I am almost asleep myself, as traveling with MT meant going forever without sleep. Mind you we are in an open wheeled buggy here and the wind is coming through as there is no windshield, only my goggles. I'm freezing my butt off, and the motor is pinging. 

At about 50 miles out, I see the oil light flashing. The Pemex was doing its job, wiping out the rings from the detonation. I stop and pour in the last of our spare oil. It is still a quart low. I nurse it for the next 30-40 miles and I can see the lights of the town of San Felipe off in the distance. The oil light has quit flickering. It is now bright as can be, staying on full time. At the last minute, MT wakes up just as the motor locks up. I flip it to neutral and coast to a stop on the side of the highway, 10 miles short of our destination and a warm bed. MT is pissed at me for running the motor until it locks up. He hitches a ride to the truck and comes back with the trailer and we load up and head for California. California! 

It's about midnight when we start. I'm thinking, great, no sleep tonight (entering day 3 without sleep). I'm tired of getting chewed out for wrecking the motor, so I climb into the sleeper box behind the back seat of the dually. I can't sleep, as MT is driving at about warp speed. The next thing I hear is the loudest bang I ever heard in my life. It sounded as though I was in an oil drum and some threw in a cherry bomb. I came flying out of the sleeper into the back seat of the dually. I asked Mickey, "What the hell was that?" He says, "Don't worry about it, I hit something in the road." 

As we travel another five miles, I noticed he was nodding out, so I get him to stop and I climb in the driver’s seat. There is no left-hand mirror. I ask, where's the mirror. He acts like he has no idea! Seven hours later, I climb into my own bed, saying, Never again! But then there was the Mint 400 and The Nevada 500 coming up...

The only one even close to drag stories, was this: One day there was a great big fire that burned his neighborhood down in Bradbury, California. Mickey fought that fire with a two-inch water hose that he had the foresight to have installed when he built his multi-car garage/shop/offices down the hill from the house. He, his wife Trudy, and longtime mechanic John House stayed and saved that garage from the flames. The fire took everything up to the doors, and they were scorched and the eaves were burnt. Inside the garage were all of the original drag cars Mickey owned. 

These included the Mustang funny cars, dragsters, and a few more. Parked on the garage apron in an enclosed trailer was the four engine Challenger car in which he attempted to set the LSR. The tires were afire on the trailer as Mickey drug it to safety on the neighbor’s property. He drove the truck through the flames to save that car. The firemen were pissed that he wouldn't leave. I came up later to check out the destruction from the fire. His house was the only one left standing in the neighborhood. I asked him why he stayed, what was so important? He said, "My film collection." 

Most people don't know that his films were the most important things he owned. He had a cement vault with films of most of his career. It was shot during his racing, and some of it was staged for editing into movies. He wanted to make a movie of his life. It was his dream. I played some bit parts in some of the footage. He even premiered a movie in Hollywood at the Actors Guild Theater. Several big shots from racing were there to see it. It was titled "Man in an Iron Cage," starring MT, his wife Trudy, and a character actor named Denver Pyle. Must have been around 1982 when we went to that Premiere. I can't remember exactly when.

Bill O'Neal


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