Mickey Thompson sped along at 100 miles an hour or so. He didn’t have another land-speed record or motorsports title in his sights. He didn’t even have his hands on the wheel of a specially prepared racing machine. Instead, he was in a rush to get out of Mexico, and though he narrowly escaped retribution this time, karma caught up to him a couple years later when the cancellation of La Carrera Panamericana kept him from racing a one-of-two Allied-bodied Kurtis on the international stage.
The 1953 flight out of Mexico, as Erik Arneson detailed in “Mickey Thompson: The Fast Life and Tragic Death of a Racing Legend,” followed his and Rodger Flores’ crash in a six-cylinder-powered Ford sedan during that year’s running of La Carrera Panamericana. While La Carrera began in 1950, it was Thompson’s first time running the Mexican road race and contending with the country’s notoriously tight and dangerous roads at speed.
The race had hardly begun when Thompson and Flores first encountered trouble. As Arneson wrote:
Racer Bob Christi[e], also piloting a Ford six, went over a poorly banked turn. Dozens of spectators rushed across the road to get to the accident scene at the bottom of the embankment. Just a few minutes later, Mickey and Rodger rounded the corner and saw nothing but a sea of people crowding their path.
Saying later that the last thing he remembered seeing was a woman carrying a child, Mickey swerved to avoid the throng, barreling over the same embankment Christi[e] had crashed over. Christi[e]’s car, and the crowd that had surrounded it, were not visible from the road. Thompson’s car flipped and landed in the middle of the gathering, killing a soldier, a policeman, a town official, and three local residents. Nobody in either race car was injured.
In the post-accident confusion, some American media outlets mistakenly reported Thompson had died in the crash. While some sources say friends of Thompson’s from Ford whisked him away from the scene, according to Arneson’s account Thompson at least had time to strip the drivetrain and some other parts from the Ford and load them into Thompson’s support truck.
It was in that support truck that Thompson and the regular support truck driver, Emilio Noriega, charged north to the border after the crash, forcing a family in a car off the road and facing down the firearm-wielding owner of the car.
Somehow, Thompson and Flores not only avoided any sort of retribution for the crash(es), they were also permitted entry into the 1954 edition of La Carrera Panamericana. This time, driving a V-8-powered 1954 Ford nicknamed Ensaladera, the two led their division after the first day of the race but crashed on the second day when a tie rod broke and sent them into a stone wall.
Despite his track record, Thompson decided to go all-out for the 1955 race. Rather than rely on a production-line auto or even a stock chassis, he had Frank Kurtis build him a 94-inch-wheelbase sports car chassis that Thompson equipped with a 205 hp Lincoln 317-cu.in. V-8 — the same engine that powered the Lincoln race team in prior La Carrera Panamericana outings.
Atop the chassis he mounted an Allied Swallow fiberglass coupe body, the same model that he, Bill Burke, and George Barris, splashed from Robert Petersen’s Cisitalia 202 coupe without Petersen’s permission or knowledge in the fall of 1952 and proceeded to use as the basis for their fiberglass body venture.
Thompson, in fact, built two such Allied-bodied Kurtis-chassis cars, but only prepared one for the 1955 race, slated for early December. However, one can only speculate how Thompson would have fared in a purpose-built race car in his third attempt at the road race; in August 1955, just a couple months after Pierre Levegh’s crash at that year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, Mexican President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines canceled La Carrera Panamericana.
Officially, Cortines canceled it because the Panamerican Highway no longer required the race’s promotional efforts, which was the original rationale for the race. Unofficially, Levegh’s crash forced Cortines to consider the deadly legacy of the five prior Mexican road races in which 27 people — participants and spectators alike — had died. (Or, as Johnny Tipler noted in “La Carrera Panamericana: The World’s Greatest Road Race!” a number of other factors, including the economic cost and the suspicious dealings of the organizers, could have factored into Cortines’ decision as well.) Thompson’s crash — which Life magazine called “Disaster at Tehuantepec” — accounted for the largest single loss of life.
What happened to the two Allied-bodied Kurtises afterward nobody seems to know for sure. Nor, apparently, is it known which of the two Thompson intended to actually race. Of the two, however, one (chassis number KK43) has gone on to claim its La Carrera Panamericana heritage: Two years after the resurrection of the race, Phil Denny of PRD Engineering in Sonoma, California, prepared KK43 for its race debut for owner Jeffery Pattinson with a rebuilt Lincoln V-8 from JMS Racing Engines of El Monte, California.
In addition to subsequent editions of La Carrera Panamericana and the Chihuahua Express, KK43 has also previously crossed the block, selling for $220,000 at the RM Sotheby’s Andrews Collection auction in 2015. Bonhams has now listed KK43 for its 2020 Scottsdale auction, though sans a pre-auction estimate.
The Bonhams Scottsdale auction will take place January 16 at the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa. For more information, visit Bonhams.com.