Living life as the son of a dynamic racing personality was never easy for Danny Thompson when his father Mickey was alive. Now that Mickey and his wife Trudy are dead, victims of assassin’s bullets last March 16, the difficulties have compounded.
Almost since the day he drove a little quarter-midget at his father’s Lions Drag Strip when he was 9, Danny has longed to be a race driver, to drive in the Indianapolis 500, or on the high banks of a superspeedway in a stock car.
“I haven’t made it, but the dream is still as strong as ever,” Danny said.
Now 38, time may be running out for the Huntington Beach man who looks like a smaller version of his dad.
Danny has been a winner in racing--in quarter-midgets, in motocross, in Formula Atlantic cars, in Super Vees and in off-road buggies and trucks, but whatever he did, his flamboyant father was the one who grabbed the headlines.
Danny was always in his father’s very large shadow.
“I’ve tried to steer myself toward Indy, but over the years I’ve found that you’ve got to go with the flow. Right now, all my efforts are with my stadium truck.”
Danny will be driving a Chevrolet S-10 racing truck Saturday night in the Coliseum. Win or lose, Danny will probably remain in the shadows.
Because the event, the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Gran Prix, was created by his father for stadium racing nine years ago to showcase the excitement of desert and Baja racing in a capsule form. And Saturday night’s event is being presented by the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group, another extension of his father’s legacy.
Danny won a heat race on that first night in the Coliseum in 1979, in a single-seat buggy, but as always, it was Mickey’s show.
“People have always asked me, more so since he was killed, if I expected to be like him, meaning as successful as he was,” Danny said. “I always said that it would take two, maybe three, lifetimes to even start to accomplish all that he did.
“I’ve always wanted to be successful, sure, and I feel I’ve been competitive in anything I’ve undertaken, but let’s face it, he’s a legend. He was always my hero. Even when we didn’t get along and there was a lot of that, I always idolized him. I always will.
“That’s what makes losing him so tough. I mean the way we lost him. If he’d died of cancer, or got hit by a car on the street or killed in race, I could reconcile his being gone. But the way it happened, it was like someone coming up and hitting you right in the forehead with a hammer.”
Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators have said they believe the brutal double murder was a contract killing, but although their investigation is ongoing, they have been unable to establish any solid clues.
“It was particularly hard for me at the first two races after it happened,” Danny said. “At Seattle and Houston. I kept expecting to see Dad walk around the corner, the way he always did, trying to do everything himself. It was tough to swallow.
“He always taught me to be tough, though, and I know if I’d sat around moping about him being gone that a big bolt of lightning would have come down and hit me right in the butt.”
As early as 6 or 7 years old, Danny remembers Mickey teaching him about being tough.
“There were three kids whose idea of fun was pushing me into the rose bushes after school. I went home one night, whining about what they’d done when my dad walked in. My mother was busy picking the thorns out of me and telling me how sorry she was.
“Dad’s reaction was to tell me I’d better learn how to be tough. He said I ought to take some boxing lessons at the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) so I could take care of myself. I did, and you know, I never had any trouble with those guys again.”
Danny also parlayed the training into a short career as a Golden Gloves boxer. He won enough to get people talking about him turning professional, but it wasn’t for Danny.
“All the time, my only real interest was to be a racer. I hung around Dad’s garage every chance I had, doing whatever I could to help. I chased stuff and swept out and finally started doing some welding and fabricating.
“Once I learned how to build things, Dad kept me awful busy. His passion was shock absorbers. He thought about them every day and most nights, too. I’d be asleep and the phone would ring, as often as not around 1 or 2 in the morning.
“It would be Dad. ‘Turn the light on,’ he’d say. ‘Get a pencil and some paper. I’ve got a new idea I want you to work on. Get up and have it ready by the time I get there in the morning. We need to test it.’ More times than not, I’d get up and get it done. It was never a threat to get it done, it was just the urgency that he expressed. He made it sound like it was the most important thing in the world. And to him, it was.”
Danny is still making shock absorbers. The ones on his Chevy truck were hand built in his Danny Thompson Motorsports shop in Huntington Beach. He has two shocks per wheel.
The entire truck, in fact, was built by Thompson at a cost of more than $150,000.
“You tell people that you’re racing trucks, and that you build them yourself and they’re thinking maybe $25,000 max, but the trucks we race are so sophisticated and so technologically advanced that they are full-bred racing machines, as much as a formula car or a Winston Cup stock car.
“We’ll have three complete sets of body panels. We use them the same way we do the tearaway shields on our goggles. When we roll over, or bang into one another, it looks cosmetically like we’ve destroyed our truck, but they’re built so strong that structurally they’re not hurt. We just tear off what’s left of the body panels, slap on new ones and get on with it.”
It seems like a strange path, but Thompson’s stadium truck racing may lead to his first stock car ride. The thread is his sponsor, which also sponsors Kyle Petty on the Winston Cup circuit. When the Goody’s 500 is held Sept. 25 at Martinsville, Va., Thompson may be in a second car.
Thompson’s only stock experience on the high banks is 40 laps at Atlanta International Raceway last November.
“Hal Needham (owner of the Skoal Bandit team) let me drive one of his cars the day after the last race,” Danny said. “About the third lap, I began to wonder how they did this for 500 miles. I gained a great deal of respect for the drivers in a short time.
“I had no idea it was so demanding physically. I was really tired after about 10 laps, but by the time I’d done 20 laps I was lapping the track at speeds that would have made me 31st qualifier among the 42 who made the race. I’m really anxious to get back down there and race with those guys.”
Although Mickey Thompson made millions with his inventions, businesses and promotions, he used little of it to promote his son’s racing career.
“Dad wanted me to be a lawyer, not a racer,” Danny said. “He started out supporting my racing when I was young, but he always said school had to be my first priority. I went to college for two years at L.A. Harbor, but I was spending all my spare time racing.
“When I told him that I wanted to quit school and race full-time, he said that if that’s what I wanted, I’d have to earn the money to support myself and my racing.
“He realized that I got a lot of my independence from him, and that he was the one who always said that if you wanted something real bad, to go after it. He respected that when I quit school. Sure, he gave me a lot of support mentally, and I learned a lot from watching him, but when I had to spend bucks for equipment, he made sure that I earned it.”
The younger Thompson said he also learned about intensity from his father.
“You couldn’t be around my dad long without feeling it,” Danny said. “When I’m working on a project, or racing, I feel like I’m the same way. I don’t know if I inherited any of that from him genetically, but I know it was instilled in me by association.”
Danny rode along with Mickey for five years in Baja, but Danny never got a chance to drive himself.
“Dad’s theory seemed to be that it was OK if he killed me (racing), but I couldn’t kill myself.”
Young Thompson worked for Ted Field’s Interscope team as a crewman and mechanic for driver Danny Ongais from 1978 to 1984.
Danny (Ongais) and my dad were very close. I remember in 1968, right after I’d graduated from Rolling Hills High School, Danny and I drove the chase truck when my dad was racing in Baja for Bill Stroppe. We became good friends so when he and Field started their team, he hired me.”
During that period, Thompson spent most of May each year at Indianapolis.
“I never got to drive a race car around the track, but many mornings I would run around it. You’d be surprised how many times I won the 500 while I was running those 2 1/2 miles.”
When Field left racing and virtually dissolved the Interscope team, Thompson decided to try something new.
“All my life, I was 33 then, I’d lived the panic life of racing. You know, work all night getting the car ready, get it to the track, be there first thing in the morning to test. Work, work, work. Every new thing was a panic.
“I decided I wanted to try a real job, get to work at 9, go home at 5, have the evenings to myself. I tried it for about a year, but it didn’t take. I found out I was more at home with the panic life.”
Today, the panic is having the Chevy truck ready to race Saturday night against the series-leading Mazdas of Glen Harris, Rod Millen and Jeff Huber; the Toyotas of Ivan Stewart and Steve Millen; the Jeeps of Walker Evans and Al Arciero; the Nissan of Roger Mears, and the Ford of Dan Esslinger.
Al Unser Sr. had been scheduled to drive a Jeep, but the four-time Indianapolis 500 champion has withdrawn to drive an Indy car Sunday in Toronto.
“This has not been a red-hot year for us,” Thompson said. “Strange little things keep happening, like the ignition breaking at Anaheim, the oil cooler splitting in half at the Rose Bowl. And twice we got hit and turned over, once when we were running second at Houston. We’ve just been upside down too much.
“The Coliseum race has a special meaning for me, though. Knowing it was where Dad started it all (stadium off-road racing), and knowing I won there in the first race, it all adds up to a special kind of motivation.
“I never thought I could be motivated more than I am before the start of any race. I am always motivated by the thought of winning, but I know when I’m lining up for the main event Saturday night, I’ll have a little extra jolt of adrenaline flowing.
“I’ll have a lump in my throat, thinking about Dad. Subconsciously, I’ll probably be looking for him walking down the track, but once I flip the visor down on my helmet, nothing else will be on my mind except the race. Once I’m in the car, my mind is 100% on the business at hand.”
Danny finished second last year in the Coliseum when he debuted his new truck, then won the SCORE International closed course championship at Riverside International Raceway--another event founded by his father.
“I’ve never felt better about a race than I do about Saturday’s,” he said. “Mainly, that’s because I’ve had nine days of testing on a training track I helped lay out in Diamond Bar. Lack of testing has hurt us all year, but after giving the truck a real test the last couple of weeks, I’m looking forward to the Coliseum.”
Although Danny was named to the MTEG board of directors by his aunt, Collene Campbell, the executor of the Mickey Thompson estate, he plans to take a minimal role in its future.
“It wouldn’t be fair, to me or to the business, to split my time as long as I’m actively racing. I hope my age won’t work against me, but I’m still aiming at Indy or NASCAR, and I don’t want anything else to detract from that.
“Besides, my dad was planning on phasing out of the business when he turned 60,” said Danny, whose father would have been 60 on Sept. 7, “so he had things pretty well organized for Bill Marcel to take over. It doesn’t need my help at the moment, anyway. It’s running like a Swiss watch right now.”
Marcel is the MTEG president. One long-range project Danny and Collene are working on, however, is a Mickey Thompson museum.
“Dad still had most of his cars, from his drag racing days down to the latest off-road equipment he drove. They are about 15 of them at his place in Bradbury, some in the garage and some outside. They’re all in need of serious restoration, but they’re there, the funny car, the dragsters, four Indy cars, the Challenger (first car to exceed 400 m.p.h.), the Ford Autolite car and the off-road buggys and trucks.
“Some of them were badly burned in the Bradbury fire a few years ago, but they could be restored. Collene and I talk almost every day about what to do with them. We’d like to keep them around here, maybe in Long Beach or Wilmington, where he got his businesses started, or around Alhambra or El Monte, where he grew up.”
If Danny wins Saturday night in the Coliseum, his truck would be a welcome addition to the museum. Along with the single-seater he drove to victory in his father’s first stadium off-road race in 1979.