Most people think of museums as dried-up, dusty old places with no relevance to what’s happening in the world around them. Well, it’s not like that here at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California. For example, we recently received a call from an auctioneer who had sold an auto parts store back east. Leftover was an old trophy from the Pomona Drags in 1953. The name on the trophy was M. Serar, and the guy asked if I knew anybody by that name. I said I did. So I called my friend Rudy, and sure enough, his mom had won that trophy in 1953. What a great feeling is was to reunite Rudy with his mom’s long lost trophy.
Another time we decided to take Dick Kraft’s Bug—the first real rail job—down to a car show in Fullerton, California. Dick was there, and surprise, it was his 90th birthday, so we were able to put him in his old car (before he died) like it was Santa Ana in 1950. We did the same with Ed Iskenderian, who actually drove his pre-World War II roadster around the museum. The smile on his face was beam axle wide.
To me making those connections are what museums are all about. More recently we had another great opportunity when we got Mickey Thompson’s Assault dragster back from Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing where it had been on loan. The Assault had been on display in Ocala, Florida, for many years, and although Jim Travis had restored it cosmetically many years ago, it had not run in almost 50 years. I thought about how cool it would be to get the car running and have Mickey’s son Danny drive it down the strip at the 19th Annual California Hot Rod Reunion (October 2010). That year also happened to be the 50th anniversary of Mickey going 400 mph in the Challenger, so it was perfect timing.
We’ve always heard that Mickey was a driven man, and in 1959, while the Challenger was still in development, work began on the Assault I. As a base, Mickey used his favorite 103-inch Dragmaster chassis, much modified and made of ductile mild steel rather than chrome-moly. It’s interesting to check out the attached cost analysis of one of M/T’s Dragmaster-based rails—$7,000—quite a lot of money in 1960.
With a bunch of spare Pontiac motors from the Challenger, Mickey set his sights on breaking a number of international and national standing-start records. The array of Tempest 389 motors were bored and stroked to give displacements ranging from 293 ci to a whopping 503 ci, each designed to comply with the FIA class regulations. Each easily swapped motor was fitted with a chain-driven 6-71 Jimmy blower, Hilborn injection, Isky cam, Grant pistons, Vertex mags and billet rods machined by Mickey. Power ranged from 640 hp for the small motor with 25 percent nitro to a strong 846 for the 503 on straight alcohol. Incidentally, because of the car’s B&M Hydro-stick transmission push starts were impossible, so Mickey installed an innovative 24-volt, plug-in starter. Testing took place at Lions Drag Strip, which of course, Mickey managed. He also managed to run in the March Meet that year, albeit in a different dragster, beating Art Malone in one of Garlit’s Swamp Rats.
March Air Force Base near Riverside, California, provided the necessary 13,300-foot strip for the kilo and mile record attempts; the same landing strip that Calvin Rice had used for his record-setting runs in 1958. When dawn broke on the morning of May 14, 1960, Mickey easily broke the record on his first run with a Class C motor; however, on the return run, a wrist pin broke and locked the motor. Nevertheless, the crew had practiced engine swaps, and in less than 90 minutes, they had the B motor installed. M/T quickly broke both the mile and the kilo records, swapped in the A-Unlimited motor, and easily broke more records. Contemporary reports say, “The course was rough and daylight often could be seen under all four wheels.” By the end of the day, Thompson had set 12 new records—a record in itself.
Later the same year, Mickey went back to Bonneville with the Challenger and went 406 mph. He ran the car at the inaugural Winternationals in 1961, scoring his first big win in Middle Eliminator, and the following July he returned to March AFB with not one but four cars and five motors. Alongside the Assault were two more Dragmaster cars: a rail job with an inline two-cylinder blown Pontiac and the Attempt with an inline blown four-cylinder and a Frank Kurtis-built, fully enclosed, one-piece aluminum body. Both the two- and four-cylinder motors were cut-down V-8s and both the motors and the cars they powered are on display at the NHRA Museum. The fourth car was a ’61 Pontiac Catalina. All of the cars were now painted dark metallic blue to match the repainted Challenger.
Mickey and crew were out there at dawn with their sights set on 18 records. The course was set out so that the maximum number of records could be set with the least number of runs. By laying out the kilometer within the mile, and with one of its ends corresponding with the end of the mile, two-way averages for both distances could be set with only three runs: The first run for the kilo, the second for the return of the kilo and the mile, and the third run for the return mile. Remember, return runs had to be made within one hour.
It was a blistering 109 F day and strong winds prevented the planned engine swap in the Attempt; nevertheless, when the dust settled M/T had 14 new records on the books. The partially streamlined Assault set new Class C records for both the standing start kilometer and the mile, surpassing records set by Ed Cortopassi in the Glass Slipper dragster (kilo) and Bernd Rosemeyer in an Auto Union (mile). Pretty good for a California hot rodder.
According to Jim Travis, restorer of many of Mickey’s cars, after the record runs Mickey loaned the Assault to Dragmaster’sDode Martin and Jim Nelson, who took the car on tour back east. With Jim driving, they regularly ran the quarter at 180 mph in around 10 seconds.
After its day in the sun, Assault went into storage with many of Mickey’s other creations, however, in 1985, there was a fire at Mickey’s Bradbury home where he stored his collection. Desperately pumping water from his swimming pool, Mickey attempted to stave off the flames. Unfortunately, while none of the cars was destroyed, the Assault and several others, including the Challenger, were badly damaged. Sadly, only three years later, Mickey and his then-wife Trudy were brutally murdered. The race cars remained, and in 1993, Jim Travis restored the Assault in time for display at the California Hot Rod Reunion. It was there that Don Garlits persuaded Travis and owner Danny Thompson to let him borrow at least one of M/T’s vehicles for display in his drag racing museum.
Assault was displayed at Don’s museum until early in 2010 when the NHRA Museum staff began planning the 19th California Hot Rod Reunion presented by Automobile Club of Southern California. Wouldn’t it be a good idea, they thought, as it was the 50th anniversary of the Assault, to get it running for the Reunion and have Danny behind the wheel to drive it? After all, isn’t that what museum’s are about?
Once again, Jim Travis, the original restorer, was called in to get the car running. Because he’d gone through the car earlier, Jim knew that it wouldn’t take a whole lot to get the Assault running. The injector and pump were sent off to Hilborn to be rebuilt. The Magneto was sent to Don Zig and a few hoses were replaced. Other than that, according to Jim, it was just a matter of getting it to crank over and fire up on 20 percent. Thanks also go out to Steve Hope and H&H Motorsports in Whittier for all of their help.
Maybe because of the bellmouths at the ends of the exhaust pipes, the Assault has a sound all of its own, and it was very cool to hear the car fire up for the first time in almost 50 years and watch Danny as he paraded down the strip at the Reunion. That’s what museums should be about! For more information on the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by Automobile Club of Southern California go to museum.nhra.com or call 909.622.2133.
Text by Tony Thacker
Photos Courtesy of the Greg Sharp Collection/Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum and Marc Geertz of National Dragster