In terms of energy and innovation, no other hot rodder contributed more to the sport than Mickey Thompson. Not only was he one of the all-time greats in drag racing lore, but he also made his mark at the Indianapolis 500, Bonneville, off-road competition, and a wide variety of motorsports competition venues over the course of his career.
Thompson's career in speed began when attending the first legal drag races in Santa Ana, Calif., in 1950, and one of his breakthrough designs was created in 1954.
“It was late 1954 that I decided to build a radically new type of dragster. For years everyone in the sport had been making noises about traction, weight transfer and about getting as much of the weight of the vehicle as possible concentrated on its rear driving tires. As the whole sport learned to get more and more horsepower from its engines, the need for greater traction became even greater.
Gradually the idea took shape. The big obstacle was keeping the driver between the engine and the rear axle. This required a drive shaft of a certain length, which pushed the engine forward by that amount. Now if you would place the driver behind the rear axle you could couple the engine-transmission assembly directly to it and you would really have the main weight of the vehicle focused on the driving wheels.”
“There was another problem to traction and that was the amount of rubber on the ground. If you could double the area of rubber on the pavement, you could probably transmit almost double the horsepower to the road before the wheels would spin. That is when I went to dual rear wheels and everybody laughed at my "Truck", but I got the results I'd hoped for. Then I went to the A-1 Tire Company and talked them into building moulds for the first recap wide-tread slicks, which I seemed to have invented. This paid off some more.
One of the biggest factors limiting dragster performance in those days was directional stability-the things were just desperately hard to keep going in a straight line. I felt that this could be helped by approaching as closely as possible to a three-wheel configuration with the front wheels very wide apart and the rear wheels just as close together as the width of the driver's body would allow. So I built a dragster that way.
As it gradually took shape, the result of all these ideas made me the butt of jokes all over southern California. But funny thing was that it ran and one day a Santa Anna hot rodder Leroy Neumeyer said to me, ‘You know what that beast reminds me of, Mick? A slingshot. You know, the way the driver sits back there like a rock in a slingshot.’"
That was the name that stuck and the configuration proved to be so successful, so unbeatable, that within a couple of years it became the standard of the sport.
Previous pioneers had sat behind rear axles and Chryslers, but the world waited for Calvin Rice and Mickey Thompson to convincingly demonstrate the superiority of Hemi-powered slingshots. The two tangled at the inaugural NHRA Nationals (1954, pictured), which Rice opened with a flathead, then won with a Chrysler V8. Thompson's rail, the first single-engined car to run 150 mph, introduced the rollcage and the narrowed rear axle to rails, while stimulating interest in streamlining.
A change so momentous in the sport, it would not happen again until Don Garlits introduced the rear-engined Dragster in 1971.