POMONA, Calif. -- As my 17-year-old son Rocco and I began our trip on the mother road Route 66 heading east to Chicago in our Mustang convertible, an appropriate car for this mission, it seemed perfect to start our journey at a place that celebrates the automobile.
Not just any automobile, but the baddest, fastest ones that ever laid rubber born during the era when people used to get their kicks on Route 66 with hot rods.
The National Hot Rod Association Motorsports Museum in Pomona is a place where muscle cars and the men that dared to drive them are celebrated. This is not the reckless "2 Fast 2 Furious" trend of street racing that is claiming lives across the country (two teens died here last week in a street drag race). The museum is home to the drivers and their machines that raced on drag strips, oval tracks, and the dry lakes and salt flats of the desert. These are the men who drove faster than anyone else ever had.
There were dragster jockeys "Big Daddy" Don Garlits and Don "The Snake" Prudhomme; Indy cars driven by Parnell Jones and Al Unser; and roadsters like the 1935 Nash Coupe raced by Doc Lavider, who was wheelchair-bound since the age of 3 with arthritis and had the car fitted with special hand controls so he could race.
But there is one driver who was perhaps the Babe Ruth of speed racing. Even as a teenager with a passing interest in hot cars and the men who made and drove them, I was very familiar with the name of Mickey Thompson, a Southern California racing legend, once known as the "fastest man on earth." I can still remember the "Mickey Thompson" wheels decals I had on my school book covers, along with Holley Carbs, Mallory ignition and Cragar headers.
"Mickey Thompson was a true pioneer," said Sam Jackson, the museum's director. "He was the sport's greatest innovator, and he wasn't afraid to try anything. The sport was advanced tremendously because of Mickey Thompson."
Several of Thompson's cars were on display, such as his Challenger 1, which set the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1960 and, using four supercharged Pontiac engines, became the first car clocked at more than 400 miles per hour. That made Thompson an international star in the world of motorsports, and he used it to build a racing and automotive empire.
Also at the museum was his Attempt 1 Pontiac, one of four cars that Thompson used to break eight of eight international records and six of 10 American records at March Air Force Base in Riverside, Calif., in July 1961. These marks, along with the 28 world, international, and national records that Thompson had established in 1959 and 1960, "gave him more [records] than any man has ever held at a given time," according to Car Life magazine.
More than 40 years later, the name of Mickey Thompson is still big news in Southern California, but not for setting speed records or building new hot rods. Thompson and his wife Trudy were murdered 15 years ago and it remains one of the biggest unsolved homicides in this part of the country so much so that Thompson's relatives offered a $1 million reward several years ago in desperation to solve the mystery. And though someone was finally arrested in the case, questions still remain.
Michael Goodwin, a business partner of Thompson's, is accused of ordering a hit on Thompson and his wife, who were gunned down by two men on bicycles, of all things, near their home on March, 16, 1988.
Goodwin had been mentioned as a possible suspect, but was not arrested until a year and a half ago, and prosecutors said that he ordered Thompson killed because of a business deal gone bad. Goodwin is a former music promoter and a pioneer in racing in his own right, called the "father of supercross" for creating indoor motocross motocross bikes that come to arenas across the country and race on a dirt track.
The case against him is in limbo right now.
The murders occurred in Los Angeles County, but the district attorney's office there never filed charges in the case. The Orange County District Attorney's office charged Goodwin on the basis that the planning of the murders took place in that jurisdiction. Goodwin's lawyers have appealed that jurisdiction, and the case remains under advisement by the state court of appeals, which already has given itself one 90-day extension as it reviews the appeal. Recently, the Los Angeles Times reported that prosecutors admitted that the gun Goodwin supposedly gave to the killers could not have been one of the murder weapons, as they claimed it was.
Goodwin has pled innocent to the charges and has been in jail since December 2001. There is no trial date in sight, and still no closure on the death of the man who tempted fate on his own terms in the California desert more than 40 years ago, when such men seemed larger than life -- names on decals on a young boy's school books, before television shrunk all of our icons.