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Mickey Thompson: The fast life & tragic death of a racing legend by Erik Arneson

Mickey Thompson: The fast life & tragic death of a racing legend by Erik Arneson
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Book Review by Richard Parks, Photographic Consultant Roger Rohrdanz


The book cover jacket lists some accolades by famous racing personalities; Dave Despain, Don Prudhomme and Dan Gurney. You can’t go wrong by following their advice. That’s the value of a book cover jacket or sleeve, it entices you to pick up the book and skim through it. I always tell you the importance of the jackets and why you need to keep them in good repair; it adds value to the book. But the jacket has another important purpose and that is to get you to read a little further and burn with a desire to reach into your pocket and come up with the cash to buy the book and add it to your library. Mickey Thompson; The fast life and tragic death of a racing legend, by Erik Arneson is an interesting little book. The jacket itself isn’t spectacular as covers go and the colors are all drab, but the picture of Mickey Thompson is eye catching. In fact any picture of Mickey is enthralling; he simply was a charismatic racing figure for our times. I only met Thompson once in my life and the memory of that brief encounter has lasted freshly in my mind ever since. I’ve met his son Danny and first wife Judy on many occasions and they are just as likable as Mickey was. The publisher is Motorbooks, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota and they have a reputation for making quality books. Mickey Thompson is a hard-bound book measuring 6 ¼ by 9 ¼ inches in size. The pages are bound to the spine by a quality cloth binding with an additional gluing for long term wear. The paper is a normal bond quality, unwaxed, and not the high quality photographic paper that you normally see in coffee table type books. The size and style of the book shows that it wasn’t intended to be displayed as a coffee table book, but one where the story is what is important, not the looks of the book. The photographs are clear and crisp, but the unwaxed paper makes them appear a bit duller than normal. There are 304 pages, with 77 black and white photographs and 2 drawings. The issue date is 2008 and the ISBN # is 978-07603-3178-1.

The foreword is by Danny Thompson, Mickey’s son by Judy. Arneson dedicates the book to Shav Glick, the Los Angeles Times sports writer and editor, who has since passed away. There is a four page preface written by the author, who also wrote a two page acknowledgment to the people that inspired him. The contents of the book are found in the 11 chapters. At the end of the book is a two page addendum referring to the sources that Arneson used. The author includes a 5 page index, which for the most part was complete though I found a few names that weren’t indexed. There was also a drawing of the thugs who murdered Mickey and Trudy Thompson and have never been caught. The text reads well and keeps our interest going. Since the text is double spaced it is easy to read each chapter quickly, but the photographs grab our attention and cause the reader to slow down and think about the merits of the life of a monumental man and his life of racing exploits.  Chapter One took up the subject of Mickey and Trudy’s murder. The author is correct when he says that this horrific event overshadows the achievements that Mickey accomplished. My father told me at the time of the murders that the racing and entertainment industries were terrified that this could be just the beginning of a Charles Manson type of murder spree against well-known personalities. Of course, it wasn’t, but many people associated with Mickey Thompson took added safety precautions until it was apparent that no crime spree was occurring. Chapter Two delves into Mickey’s early life and is rather short for my taste. It also tells the story of how Mickey and Judy met and is quite touching and romantic. Mickey had a romantic side, but it was more on the charisma of a young and angry Marlon Brando, than a dashing Cary Grant. I found a few errors in this chapter having to do with dry lakes racing.

The author made small errors that he might not have known about and which others whom he interviewed might have missed. For example, Mickey did not break Hitler’s land speed records. He broke records set by the Auto Union drivers and other German car racers of the 1930’s. They were records sanctioned and recorded by the FIA. Wally Parks and Ak Miller were not the founders of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), though they played a small part in the founding of that organization. Parks and Miller played a leading role after the SCTA was reorganized in 1945. Both Russetta and the SCTA raced at El Mirage. These are picky little errors and I think that the author did know, but may have not described these things as clearly as he could have. As for Mickey working as a pressman for the L. A. Times, he could not have known exactly what went on there and possibly his son and first wife may not have known either. Mickey was hired in as a pressman, but friends and relatives who worked with Mickey have told me that his two functions for the Times consisted of writing articles and working in the repair shop. The foreman was partial to Mickey and let him do just about whatever he wanted to do. Mickey would race on the weekends and write recaps for the newspaper during the week. He would also work on his cars in the shop. It caused quite a problem for the other employees who felt a bit of jealousy. The author also toned down the severity of Mickey’s street racing. His father wasn’t kept from the truth; he fully knew of what Mickey did and got him out of a lot of very serious trouble. Mickey Thompson was his own man and he didn’t brook opposition easily. He was tough, some might say dangerously so. He was charismatic and he definitely was a free spirit and one who lived by his own rules, challenging others who he felt threatened him or his family. 

   On more than one occasion he let it be known that he would never let anyone harm his family. He went after the murderers of his nephew and some say was the main cause for the capture of the villains. He had friends and he had enemies and they weren’t your garden variety friends or enemies. Mickey lived a larger than life existence, but like so many racers of that era, he was a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He could be utterly aggressive and overboard in his public life and gracious and sedate in his private life. He could also take over the spotlight, so that when he worked as a team the other members were simply forced into the shadows. Where this was play acting and where this was reality; we were never quite sure. I know that my father was always on his best behavior when he was around Mickey. Mickey was just twenty when the SCTA, led by Ak Miller and Wally Parks put on the SCTA Hot Rod exhibition in 1948. The prize that year for the lucky winner was a roadster assembled during the show in front of the crowds from parts donated by racers and speed equipment manufacturers. Mickey talked a lot of people into donating parts, but it was a group effort. Whenever this topic came up it always seemed to be Mickey who was in charge; the one who was responsible. Perhaps this is as it should be; a leader is always needed and Mickey certainly was a leader. He was also known as the boss. No matter where he was, he was the one people went to.

   Let’s just say that the author is trying to get there, but Mickey is a big bite to get into one’s mouth all at once. I did enjoy the story and I’ve made little mistakes myself. Can you enjoy this book even though there are a few misses? Yes, I did. Arneson gives an honest look at Mickey Thompson. For years we have guessed at the reason why Mickey failed to back up his record at Bonneville when he exceeded 400 mph. The author spoke to those in the know and calculates that it was an engine malfunction and Mickey did not want to embarrass his sponsor. I was also impressed that the author stressed Mickey’s private life and his love for his family. So often these sentiments are completely overlooked. I learned things about Mickey that I had never known before. Finally, the harsh and unyielding Mickey Thompson that I knew turned into a gentle giant in many respects. I saw the real Mickey for a change. There was a richer and more complex man, who acted simply and direct when challenged. Arneson understands that and so I can accept a few errors here and there for he captured the real Mickey Thompson. He also showed us the real Judy Thompson and her children, Danny and Lyndy. I’ve met Judy many times and wondered about her vitality. In the book that question is answered, for Mickey found a woman to love who matched his nerve and courage. Arneson was also willing to tackle the sins of the man as well as his glories. Mickey could be very cruel as well as very loyal and true to his friends. I’ve often wondered if Mickey wasn’t just bad at cracking jokes, but those that knew him well tell me that “Mickey was being Mickey.” By that they meant that he could run the gamut of emotions that are normally denied to most people. We have limits on our actions; while Mickey operated in a world where limitations were despised.

   He was also forgiven by his friends and grudgingly respected by everyone, even his enemies. The man who took Mickey’s life may have hated him, but he also knew that both of them could not exist in the same time and space. Goodwin was never the man that Mickey was, but I can understand how a murderer can feel overwhelmed by a man of mythic proportions. In the end that is how every great story ends. Achilles defeats and slays every Trojan, even the mighty Hector, who comes against him. It takes magic and trickery to slay the great Achilles. The hero isn’t perfect in myths and legends; he is simply a man above all other men. A hero comes around so rarely that when he does we tend to turn them into perfect demi-gods. What must these men think about our adoration of them? According to Arneson they are concentrating so much on the problem or the battles that they face that they simply don’t see us at all. They are above us in their own world and if they treat us badly, most of the time they are oblivious to their behavior. Mickey simply didn’t think in terms of flaws and perfection. That’s what we think about, because we are normal human beings trying to comprehend a legend like Mickey Thompson. We cast our negative and positive virtues on a man who simply wasn’t interested in what we believed. There was only one thing that Mickey lived for and that was to win at everything that he tried. That he failed sometimes is simply a human trait. That he succeeded so often puts him into the company of great men. See him as flawed or see him as a great man; that is our choice. Mickey Thompson; The fast life and tragic death of a racing legend, is an engrossing book and worth adding to your library.


Gone Racin’ is at [email protected].


I rate this book a 6 out of 8 sparkplugs.