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NHRA exhibit gets visitors revved up

Mickey Thompson’s history goes on display at the NHRA Motorsports Museum at the Fairplex in Pomona.

“The Mickey Thompson: First American to 400 MPH” exhibit is on display currently at the Pomona NHRA Motorsports Museum through October. The exhibit showcased many of Thompson’s cars he built and drove, one being the record-breaking land speed car, the Challenger 1, which housed four Pontiac engines and many other parts. In 1960, Thompson pushed the car to a booming 406.60 miles per hour, which made it the first American to top 400 miles per hour. / photo by Nicholas Mitzenmacher

“The Mickey Thompson: First American to 400 MPH” exhibit is on display currently at the Pomona NHRA Motorsports Museum through October. The exhibit showcased many of Thompson’s cars he built and drove, one being the record-breaking land speed car, the Challenger 1, which housed four Pontiac engines and many other parts. In 1960, Thompson pushed the car to a booming 406.60 miles per hour, which made it the first American to top 400 miles per hour. / photo by Nicholas Mitzenmacher

Michael Shather
Staff Writer

Speed is a drug: When one first feels the rush of pushing RPMs into the red zone, there is no going back to driving carpool.

Competing in nearly 10,000 races, Mickey Thompson was a man addicted to speed.

Now through Oct. 3, the NHRA Motorsports Museum will hold a tribute to this legendary American racer.

The engines have long gone silent, now resting on crates or nestled within the engine bay, gazing up through the propped open hood.

These machines once burned rubber on tracks across America but now sit dormant in the gloom of the museum.

Blown-up images decorate the walls and a glass case holds jackets, helmets, suits and other racing gear, including the blue sweater coat Thompson wore while managing the Lion’s Drag Strip.

Many of the items were donated by family members, including Thompson’s son, Danny. Several cars came from racing museums in Florida and Indiana, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame.

There is also a 20-minute film chronicling Thompson’s exploits.

An elderly couple wanders silently through the exhibit paying homage to the great racer and design innovator.

“He was a driven young man,” said Tony Thacker, executive director of the NHRA museum. “It takes a special kind of person to be able to harness the whole horsepower of an automobile and make it go fast; it takes determination, perseverance and it’s not easy.”

Thacker, who moved from England in 1988, regards Thompson as one of his childhood idols. After he took over as the museum’s executive director, Thacker wanted to honor his idol and racing legend.

“He was the first American to go 400 miles an hour; the car was built in a home garage in El Monte,” Thacker said of the Challenger 1 car. “He didn’t have access to any aerodynamics, so it was built with charts and strings. It had four huge Pontiac engines … and it was pretty amazing.”

Thompson is regarded as a pioneer of aerodynamic designs. He was credited with the discovery of “ground effect,” the downward force created by wind passing over the car. This effect allowed Thompson to maintain control of his bullet-like car, the Challenger 1, while breaking the land speed record.

“Although he was born in Alhambra, he spent most of his adult years racing in El Monte, and owned a drag strip in Long Beach,” said Greg Sharp, curator of the NHRA Museum. “He was an innovator and wasn’t afraid to try anything.”

Thompson loved racing in any venue. He loved to race in on and off track events. Thompson created his own class of race car called funny cars. In the first year racing funny cars, Thompson’s team won 164 out of 170 races.

In the later years of his career, Thompson set out to conquer the dirt scene. He raced and completed the Baja 1000, a grueling off road endurance race.

Thompson was a true innovator. He was a “driver that had to win,” but above all, Thompson was a man who did it his way.

For more information, contact the NHRA Motorsports Museum at 909-622-2133.

Michael Shather can be reached at michael.shather@laverne.edu.

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