If you're one of those weirdo intellectual gearheads who reads books, we're not going to give you the swirly-and-stolen-lunch-money treatment you probably deserve. No, we're going to indulge your shameful habit!
That's right, Jalopnik Book Reviews are in the house, and I'll do my best to make this a regular weekend feature. If it's printed and has something to do with cars, we might be reviewing it here- shop manuals to NASCAR romance novels!
We're going to start off this series with a book about a subject that had damn well better be dear to the hearts of all our readers: Mickey Thompson. Thompson's 1964 memoir, Challenger, should be considered a 27-alarm must-read (well worth the crazy high price tag for a used copy; that's my read-50-times thrift-store copy on the left), with its accounts of the 1953 and 1954 Carrera Panamerica races alone being worth the cost. However, Challenger was written only halfway through MT's career, and he was too sharp a businessman not to make his memoir a masterpiece of promotional spin for his various endeavors. Especially maddening is the lack of detail concerning Thompson's revolutionary Indy 500 cars, which were still works-in-progress during the writing of Challenger.
Erik Arneson's Mickey Thompson: The Fast Life And Tragic Death Of A Racing Legend tells the whole MT story, from his early days of salt-flat madness and drag racing innovation, through the speed-parts and indoor off-road-racing businesses, to his murder and 20-year pursuit of the former business partner who was convicted of the hit in 2007.
This book gets an excellent Jalopnik Four Rod Rating™, thanks to the clarity of Arneson's writing style and the fascinating subject matter, but that rating comes with a caveat: the serious MT fan will emerge from the book wanting more. This book is attempting to be two books in one: biography of an innovative genius who revolutionized just about every field he entered, and true-crime/pursuit-of-justice account. Unfortunately for geeked-out gearheads like me, the focus on the kind of man MT was and the trial of Mike Goodwin comes at the expense of the mechanical stuff we want to know about.
For example, check out this photo showing a detail of the 406-MPH, quadra-Pontiac-engined Challenger's drivetrain. The chains! The gears! How did this setup work? What was it like to build? Now multiply that by ten thousand and you can sense the dilemma of trying to do justice to the engineering and fabrication übergod that was Mickey Thompson. The main sources for the book were Thompson's relatives, particularly his son, Danny, and thus it tends to heavy on the "Mickey was a great guy" and "Goodwin is pure pond scum" stuff while being light on the engineering and business-of-motorsports innovation Thompson accomplished. That's not to say that the story of the hunt for the killers of Mickey and Trudy Thompson doesn't make for fascinating reading, of course, but elsewhere… well, I'd be willing to swap the three pages of description of Thompson's house on the Palos Verdes Peninsula for another three pages on the building of the Carrera Panamerica cars, for example.
Fortunately, there's ample material on MT's Indianapolis 500 efforts of the mid-1960s. While bad luck kept his mid-engined, Buick aluminum 215-powered cars from serious contention, they marked the beginning of the end for the old front-engined Offenhauser-powered Indy cars, and Thompson designed everything from the chassis to the tires themselves. Later on, Thompson managed to find a way to turn Baja-style off-road racing into a profitable indoor spectator sport, and the twists and turns of the SCORE series make for interesting reading for students of the business of racing. Like I said, a Four-Rod Rating™. Murilee says check it out!