SCORE Journal

SCORE Journal Issue - SEPTEMBER 2017

SCORE Journal - The Official Publication of SCORE Off-Road Racing

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Page 46 of 87

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the SCORE Baja 1000. Throughout its many years of competition, the race has spawned heroes, legends, and incredible performance products that have both shaped and fueled the off-road industry. In celebration of the Baja 1000’s 50th, SCORE Journal will be featuring the race’s multi-time winners, teams, innovators and legends which have contributed to the story on how this one race became the most important in all of off-road racing. The True Story of SCORE International Danny Thompson tells of how his dad, Mickey Thompson, turned a dream into reality and changed off-road motorsports forever By Stephen Romero Through the years there have been untold stories written about SCORE International, and at times some facts have been clouded by aging memories and conflicting recollections. Most off-road historians and enthusiasts know, however, that the story behind the creation of SCORE began with one man’s vision to make off-road desert racing bigger, safer, and more recognizable as a true sport. A Humble Start The year was 1969, and Mickey Thompson had just signed his entry card to compete in his first off-road desert race. Thompson and Danny “Flyin’ Hawaiian” Ongais were big names in NHRA drag racing by the time they decided to challenge the relatively unknown Mexican 1000 race. In the lineup were racers such as Parnelli Jones, Rod Hall, Larry Minor and others, who would go on to become great champions. Thompson and Ongais were clearly out of their comfort zone. They had no serious off-road desert racing experience and this was their first trip to the Baja Peninsula, but they knew how to win races. At the start of the race, they charged ahead past Camalu, El Rosaria, Punta Prieta and down to the tip of the Baja Peninsula in a Bill Stroppe prepared Ford F100, leading and following others more than 800-miles across Mexico. While that might have been the end of their Baja story, Thompson clearly had other ideas after finishing the race. Four years later, Thompson would establish SCORE International as a sanctioning body to oversee endurance off-road racing throughout North America. As his son, Danny recalled, “He was so excited after racing the Mexican 1000 in ’69 that it was all he talked about. It grew from there.” Thompson Assumes Control The public knew Mickey Thompson as the man who broke the 400 mph land speed barrier driving his Challenger 1 in 1960. He also was credited with inventing the drag racing “Christmas Tree” starting lights, and set hundreds of speed and endurance records. Aside from the land speed racing and drag racing, however, Thompson was a novice in off-road desert racing circles in the late ‘60s, which made his commitment to form a sanctioning body like SCORE International in 1973 that much more remarkable. But if Thompson was anything, he was a quick study, and soon wrapped all of his interests around off-road racing. “It was a massive amount of work to start an organization like SCORE,” Danny Thompson recounted. “My understanding was that the Mexican government had an issue with the former sanctioning body that was running the race, and asked my dad to step in. I don’t know the details of the conversation, but they would not let the former sanctioning body come back, and my dad started talking about creating a new sanctioning body. That was the way he was. He would come up with ways to do things, he never slept, he would write down everything he wanted to accomplish and it was a long list.” An Uphill Battle One of the issues that confronted Thompson was logistics. The Baja Peninsula was a big territory. He was constantly consumed by it from the onset, taking frequent trips to the Baja Peninsula to plan the courses and figure out how to staff a race with at times hundreds of people. Through the initial negotiations with Mexican officials, sponsors and others, his wife Trudy stood by his side for support. She saw to it that he was able to accomplish everything he wanted to. “My dad came flying into the offices one day and started shouting about this organization called SCORE and how we were going to race in Mexico,” laughed Thompson. According to Thompson, he recalls that SCORE stood for Southern California Off-Road Enthusiasts. “We had no rule book, no check points, no pit stops, it was a blur for a couple of years,” said Thompson. “Those were some exciting times. Being around my dad was interesting because there were always some new ideas. As soon as someone told my dad he couldn’t do something, it was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.” The truth is, Mickey Thompson had his hand in everything motorsports related for decades — from an Indianapolis 500 project with Chuck Daigh, Fritz Voight, and rookie driver Dan Gurney to personal feats at Bonneville. You could say, off-road desert racing was just another cog in the gears that turned in his head. Landing the Big Fish By 1973 Mickey Thompson’s focus was on finding the right person to manage SCORE. “My dad wanted to concentrate on being in the driver’s seat of the race cars we built,” said Thompson. “So that meant he needed to find someone to run the business for him.” According to Danny Thompson, it was close family friend John House, that came up with the original rule book for the first SCORE Baja 1000 and of course, Mickey’s wife Trudy was there to ensure that everything ran as smoothly as possible. Meanwhile, Mickey Thompson was busy tracking down Sal Fish. Fish had the dream job of being the publisher of Hot Rod Magazine before Thompson cornered him at Riverside International Raceway. According to Danny, his dad was relentless and persuaded Fish to assume managing control of SCORE in 1974. “I have never second-guessed my decision to leave Petersen Publishing and join SCORE International, but there were some early moments before technology exploded that I did wonder what I was doing,” said Fish in a recent interview. “My dad asked me to take Fish pre-running to Mexico so he could get an idea of what the SCORE Baja 1000 course looked like and it was like taking a Girl Scout on a picnic,” said Thompson. “He kept asking where the hotels were located, and I had to finally tell him that there were no hotels in the desert and that we were sleeping on the ground while we mapped out the course.” The experience was eye-opening for Fish, but ultimately he took the reigns which allowed Mickey Thompson to pursue more adventures in racing and building vehicles. Racing was in Mickey Thompson’s DNA from an early age, and according to Danny Thompson, he would not be sidelined by running SCORE; and that’s why Sal Fish was so important to the organization. “I think my dad built one of the first trick trucks to run Baja before the Trophy Trucks were invented,” said Thompson. “I don’t think my dad got enough credit for starting SCORE, but he was the man who did it.” Behind the Scenes Thompson’s mom Trudy also had a role that was much larger than the public ever saw. In fact, she was a vital part of Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group, which was created in 1979 to bring off-road style racing out of the desert and into major metropolitan stadiums from coast to coast and internationally. It became an immediate success and was promptly seen on major television networks. According to Thompson when his dad wasn’t busy instructing Fish on how to manage SCORE those first few years, he was prepping his own vehicles for desert racing. “My dad was a shock and suspension genius,” said Thompson. “He created bypass shocks 30 years ago before anyone starting running them. I’d work until 5 a.m. in the morning on shocks for my dad’s desert race car and he would still make changes, but looking back, his ideas were ahead of their time.” Thompson was all about going fast, and as his son recalled, he would go to the extremes to make a race car perform at the top of its game. “I can remember blowing up Bilstein shocks on the dyno to try to find their limits so that we could create a better shock,” said Thompson. “It was always what was going to work best. It didn’t matter how many times you had to change something.” An Aptitude for Invention While Mickey Thompson made his mark racing and promoting, he clearly had an aptitude for invention. “Smoke would run out of his brains,” said Thompson. “He built Lyon’s Drag Strip from scratch when I was about four years old. He was a thinker, I don’t know where it came from. He went on to start stadium short course racing before anyone was considering it. He was always able to bring great people together and that was how he did things. It was never all him though, he had the right people around. Before his passing, he wanted to return to land speed racing and he wanted me to drive. The hairs stood up on my arms because my dad never did anything to promote my own racing. I had to do it all on my own.” While the SCORE Baja 1000 turns 50 years old, the stories and legendary drivers that the race has spawned are often embellished or fade into obscurity. One thing remains, however, the fact that SCORE International was founded by a unique man with vision, and who took great personal risks to ensure that sanctioned racing lives on in the hearts of those that follow their dreams to the highest level of off-road motorsports competition. SJ

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