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LAND SPEED RECORD

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LAND SPEED RECORD

IMJIN WAR

PERCY WILLIAMS

ELEPHANT TOPSY

GEORGE FOULK


Samuel Hawley is a writer of narrative nonfiction and fiction. His books are highly eclectic. He has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting and land speed racing and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.

MICKEY THOMPSON / CHALLENGER: JUDY CREACH INTERVIEW


Judy Creach was Mickey Thompson’s first wife. She was there on the salt flats for all his land speed attempts. They divorced in 1969. I interviewed her over the phone at her home in Huntington Beach, California on July 17, 2009.

*          *          *

What name do you use now?

 

Judy Creach. I went by Thompson-Creach for a long time, but when my second husband passed away it was crazy, so I just started going by Judy Creach.

 

I understand that Mickey didn’t sleep much.

 

That’s right. Sometimes he slept, but he really didn’t sleep. Because I’d wake up in the morning and there’d be a [garbled] a mile long.

 

When he was at Bonneville running for the record, were there any particular tasks that you did?

 

We didn’t have fire suits or anything then, so he wore leather motorcycle pants and jacket and everything and they were loose at the bottom and the end. So I had to tape them all up. About the only thing I ever heard him say he was afraid of, and that was fire. Because he was so contained inside the cockpit of the Challenger that if it caught on fire he couldn’t get out. Because Fritz [Voigt] used to have to bang him on the head to get him in.

 

So you would tape the pants legs of those leather pants.

 

Yeah, the pants legs at the bottom. And his gloves would go over. If we had what we have now, you know, we wouldn’t have lost a driver at Indianapolis.

 

Because it was such a tight squeeze, could Mickey get out of the car by himself?

 

I think he could have gotten out. It was the helmet. The roll bar was made to fit him with his helmet on. That’s how they bent the material that went around the roll bar. I think he probably could have [gotten out], but it would have been awful hard. If he was on fire he probably would have been burned badly by the time he got out.

 

Could Mickey turn his head at all when his head was pushed back into that pocket?

 

No. He said all he had to see was that little square [of window] right in front of him. As long as he could see the black line he was okay. That’s about all he saw too.

 

In Mickey’s book it says that that windshield was only four inches square. Was it really that small?

 

Yes, it was. It was very small.

 

When you went to the salt flats did you usually take your kids along?

 

No. We’d leave them with either Mickey’s folks or my folks. Usually Mickey’s folks because my folks passed away early. In fact, one time we were there so long that when I came back my youngest, a little girl, didn’t even know me. She was riding a tricycle at her grandparents house and I was so lonesome and I ran up to her and she looked at me like, “Huh?”

 

About when Mickey fell unconscious in 1959 because of the fumes. Do you have any memories of that?

 

Oh yeah. What had happened was his oxygen line had either come lose or was crimped. Anyway, he wasn’t getting any oxygen. And all of a sudden he veered off course. Fritz and I were always behind him, but needless to say he was a long ways ahead of us. I hate cell phones, but I think if we had cell phones in those days everything would have been so much easier. So once we pushed him off and he took off, of course he grew smaller and smaller to where we couldn’t even see him because of the curvature of the earth. So when we got to where we could see him, he had veered off course. No wreck. No violence. No anything, as I recall. And as I said, I did turn 80 last year and boy, my thinker isn’t real clear. Fritz, he’s 86 now, he’s still real clear on a lot of this stuff. But when Fritz got out and opened the canopy, he [Mickey] was unconscious. Fritz immediately checked the line and it was gone. But right then and there I couldn’t tell you what happened. Fritz pulled him out of the car, and maybe I helped.

 

So you were right there. You were in the vehicle with Fritz.

 

Yeah...I think. You know, sometimes you hear a story so long and then Fritz will say, “You weren’t there on that,” or I’ll say to him, “You weren’t there. It was just Mickey and I.” And we’ll go, “Oh yeah.” So when I’m questioned about it, because I knew the whole incident so well—sometimes I wonder if I was there. But if Fritz said I was or wasn’t, I would believe him.

 

[I ask about the sponsorship Mickey received. I mention the four engines from Pontiac, and the $10,000 from Goodyear.]

 

I think we got, besides the engines from Pontiac, it seems that was when we got a $10,000 check from them too. That was probably the extent of it. We didn’t have hardly any money at all.

 

So the sponsorship amounted to some equipment and ten-odd thousand dollars.

 

Yeah. Right. I mean, we were never given—if you think about what the guys are given now, it’s just astronomical. My son Danny wants to do it [go after the land speed record] so bad. He set the record at Bonneville last year for that new Mustang. He’s working with Ford right now and they’re trying for 300 this year in the Mustang...Mickey was building this second streamliner when he died, and Danny has that. And Danny’s big desire in life is to run that car at Bonneville. So he’s trying right now for sponsors. He was telling me the other day some figures. Just to bring the FIA over from Europe, it’s like $10,000 a day or something. It’s just ridiculous.

 

So we did what we did—I’m sure you’ve read about Donald Campbell. He just looked at us and he said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You don’t have blueprints and designs?” And I looked at Donald and said, “Yeah we do. They’re all on the floor of the garage in El Monte.” And he said, “No, that’s impossible.” Because he came in with an entourage of, I don’t know, he must have had 25 or 30 people with him. So we didn’t have any money.

 

[I ask Judy about the story Mickey tells in his autobiography of running on the salt in 1960, when it is so rough, and he was getting shaken so badly that he emerges from the cockpit vomiting and in pain. I have found no corroboration of this in any other source. Does she have any recollection of it?]

 

I don’t remember that.

 

I wonder if that was an embellishment.

 

I don’t know. Griff Borgeson wrote that [book]. I really don’t remember that. But Fritz would.

 

Would you have been there, though?

 

Well yeah, I didn’t miss anything. But I don’t remember that at all.

 

After Mickey did his 406.6 mph in Sept. 1960, someone painted on the Bonneville sign, the one with Cobb’s record on it, “M. Thompson, 406.60 MPH.” Would someone in Mickey’s crew have done that by any chance?

 

That I don’t know. Fritz would probably know that too.

 

I have a number for Fritz’s shop on Slausen Avenue. Would he still visit that shop?

 

He goes every day, but he just goes to go....

 

His real name is Frederick, right?

 

Yeah, Frederick. But I never knew him as Frederick. He’s a wonderful guy....He remembers all that stuff. One time at Bonneville—they worked all night when we were at Bonneville—he [Fritz] got up out of his sleep and went over to the garage because he thought of something or other. Anyway, they’d put some gears in backwards. And he just basically just wanted to check those gears, and they were in the wrong way. It hit him in the middle of the night. He did that a lot, where somebody would be in charge of a certain part of the car and he would always check it.

 

Both Fritz and Mickey sound like real characters, real forceful guys. How did they get along? Were they sometimes cussing at each other?

 

Oh yeah. They called each other an SOB just as a matter of fact. [Laughs] In fact, Fritz has got a mouth like a truck driver.

 

There are some good quotes from Fritz in Arneson’s book. They’re quite earthy.

 

Well that’s him. Fritz was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in Osceola, Florida. And his wife now—and he said it when they gave him this honor—he said, “My wife said I should keep a bar of soap in the pocket of my suit so I could keep my mouth clean.” I don’t know if you know people like this, but there are people who swear and it sounds awful, and then there’s people that just talk that way. When Mickey and I first started going with Fritz and his first wife, or second wife or third wife or something, we would go to Las Vegas. And the first time we did it, we were in the hotel room that night and I said, “Mickey, I can’t stand the way he talks. He’s awful.” And Mickey says, “No, that’s just how he talks. He’s not even swearing.” I thought he was just terrible. Of course I ended up going with him for ten years and realized that that wasn’t what he was like.

 

What about Mickey? Was he pretty colorful in his language?

 

 No. He was when he was with the guys, but he was very careful around me and the kids.

 

[I ask Judy why Mickey decided to announce his retirement from land speed competition in Sept. 1962.]

 

I’m not real sure on that. I think he was discouraged. Money was another thing. He kind of changed after Dave McDonald was killed. That was later, though [1964]. Because he was really hard on Danny, our boy. He didn’t want him to race.

 

Because of the danger?

 

Yeah. He did not want him to race.

 

Especially after the McDonald crash?

 

No, he was always that way with Danny. When we ran the drag strip Danny had a quarter midget and he raced over there. And one day there was an accident. I could see that because I worked in the tower. But I saw Mickey running through the pits and down there. Somebody had told him that somebody got hurt with a quarter midget, had broken their back, and he thought it was Danny. And he ran down there and he took Danny’s car away from him and wouldn’t let him race again. And it wasn’t Danny [who had crashed]. Danny always did what his dad said, but then he came to the point where he wanted to race. And Mickey said, “I don’t want you to race. I won’t support you or anything.” And Danny said, “That’s okay. I’m going to race anyway.”

 

What did Mickey think about Breedlove and the arrival of the jet cars at Bonneville, which really changed the land speed game?

 

He thought that was just fine. But he didn’t think, as all of us did, that jet cars should be in the same category as internal combustion [i.e. wheel-driven] cars. They’re like riding a bicycle and flying an airplane, they’re so different. He didn’t think they should be bunched in the same category. Him and Breedlove were friends and of course he knew all those guys, the Green Monster guy, I’m trying to think of his name...

 

Art Arfons.

 

Arfons, yeah. Those guys were all friends of ours and everything. That was their gig. They wanted to use those big jet engines and so forth. But that’s not what Mickey called racing. Because he was racing as a hot rodder. Not as any kind of engineer or anything like that. He was a plain old hot rodder, and he didn’t want that reputation changed.

 

In newspapers in Sept. 1960 Mickey is quoted as saying that plans were afoot to make a Hollywood movie about his life. I guess it never came off.

 

Yeah, it never did come off. Several people called him and approached him, but I think they were just talking through their hats. They did make one movie called “The Man in the Iron Cage.” But it was phony.

 

Was it a feature film or a documentary?

 

I have a copy of it. It was like a documentary. It did play here in Orange County. I never went to see it, but I did get a copy of it, and I couldn’t even look at the end of it, it was so bad.

 

Was it loosely based on Mickey’s life?

 

Yeah, and it was all mixed up. The timelines were all wrong in it. I know Mickey wasn’t happy with it. Anyway, it didn’t go. It was just dumped. So that was one thing. But there were a lot of those things. I remember some guy was writing a book on Challenger and he [Mickey] said, “You’ve got to send the first chapter to my wife and let her proofread it.” And they [this writer] had us running away in a milk truck together to get married. You know, that’s stupid. I called him back and said, “That’s not what happened.” And he said, “Yeah, but it’s much more exciting.” I said, “I don’t care about exciting.” [Later, at 26:35, Judy mentions that a movie is currently in the works on Mickey’s life. “My son’s working on it. I don’t ask many questions.” (Laughs)]

 

Was that film “The Man in the Iron Cage” made back in the 1960s, or later?

 

That was later, because it had his [Mickey’s] new wife, Trudy, in it. It had scenes with me, I was there, only they had Trudy there, her face. And they were married in...I forget, ’72, I think, or ’71. So it had to be after that.

 

Shortly after announcing in 1962 that he was retiring from land speed competition, Mickey announced that he was returning to the game with a rocket car he was then building. There was never any follow-up on this, so I guess it didn’t pan out. Do you know anything about that?

 

No, I didn’t know anything about that. Fritz can probably fill you in on that.

 

For all of us, those years are unforgettable. Unforgettable....My biggest regret is, if he had to die, that he died the way he did and not racing. He’d have loved to die racing. Because it was that important to him. When people lose loved ones doing something they loved, I say, “At least they were doing something they loved.”...Why would you live your life saying, “Oh, I might get hurt.” And I raised my kids that way too. I mean, what’s going to happen, happens. You might as well enjoy your life. It’s too short.


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copyright 2011 Samuel Hawley