Mickey Thompson: The Man and Legend Behind Mickey Thompson Performance Tires & Wheels

by Steve Temple

If you Google “Mickey Thompson,” you’ll find a lot of listings for tires and wheels. This is because Mickey Thompson Tires and Wheels have a stellar reputation. Take a little more time searching Wikipedia and other sources and you’ll find out about the man behind the company that bears his name.

Usually, in a manufacturer’s profile we like to focus on products a company offers to give readers an idea of what’s offered and what the products do for you. However, in this case, a closer look at the company founder and automotive legend, Thompson, will also give you some clear insight into the product. So, here goes.

Marion Lee “Mickey” Thompson was born in Alhambra, California in December of 1928. Being in the heart of the car culture, Southern California, surely helped Mickey Thompson in his career, but Thompson’s passion for speed was what made him a driving force in the industry. Mickey Thompson began his career in the, then, new sport of drag racing. He is credited with creating the signal starting and foul light systems still used in drag racing today. Mickey Thompson never abandoned his passion for speed – he later designed and built the first slingshot dragster and in ’68 redesigned the Funny Car that won the National Hot Rod Association Spring Nationals and Nationals with driver Danny Ongais.

By the early 1950s, Thompson united with the throngs of amateur racers running in Mexico. There he met Gene McMannis, Goodyear’s racing tire designer. Over the years, McMannis was his co-conspirator in creating tires that would go as fast as Thompson knew his cars could go. In McMannis, Thompson found someone as committed to pushing technology beyond – way beyond – the norm as he was. That shared mindset of a devotion to improvement was a prerequisite for building the tires that would launch Thompson into the speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats in 1960. Eventually, McMannis became his partner in Mickey Thompson Performance. He experimented with tread angles, thickness, and deflections at speed and came up with handmade tires that stayed the course. With these tires, Mickey Thompson became the first American to break the 400mph speed barrier, with an impressive e 406.60mph. The pair’s next project was matching McMannis’ low-profile racing tire with a Thompson-built racing car. The debut was banned at Indianapolis, but eventually all the drivers went to the configuration.

The two started Mickey Thompson Performance Tires in 1963 and turned their attention to off-road racing. The problems were obvious: off-road race tires had to be super tough and be able to dig out of deeply rutted terrain. To solve this, Mickey Thompson Performance Tires came out with the Baja belted tire, with the tread wrapping over the shoulder and onto the sidewall. In between racing, testing and developing the company, Thompson founded SCORE-the sanctioning body for North American off-road racing-and the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group that brought the sport of off road racing and tons of dirt into stadiums across the country. So, if all this doesn’t convince you of the quality and durability of Mickey Thompson tires, we’ll go on to some of the technology that goes into the product.

While other companies started adapting street tires for off-road use, Mickey Thompson started with an off-road racer’s need for a durable tire and designed a specific tire to meet that need. Take, for example, the Baja MTZ Radial truck tire. Conventional 2- and 3-ply tires don’t respond quickly to tight cornering. There’s a lag, called transient steering response, between the time you think the tire should be responding and the time you feel it kick in. The problem is that the plies all run in the same direction, so as the plies twist in response to the cornering, the tread literally squirms and power is lost through the sidewall. The Baja MTZ is built with a third ply – the PowerPly – that runs at an angle across the first two radial plies, linking them and strengthening the tire for better traction and steering response.

When a company designs tires for the high speeds of Bonneville and the harsh conditions of the Baja desert, they don’t leave anything to chance. Mickey Thompson off-road and truck tires have a deeper tread than most of the competition – 12.5 percent deeper, MT claims. The deeper the tread, the better the traction. In addition, sidewalls, the target for rubber-ripping rocks, are constructed with 20-percent more rubber. The side-biters reduce sidewall failure; in addition, the stepped design helps dig out of ruts and mud more effectively. Mickey Thompson’s more recent designs incorporate longitudinal water channels that throw off water and improve traction on soaked roads.

The 23-degree tread angle on the Mickey Thompson Baja Claw cuts through mud and then flings the mud out of the tread better than conventionally aligned patterns. The company even has a rating system for its line of light truck tires, helping customers select the correct tire for their individual driving conditions. For instance, weekend off-roaders can opt for the Baja ATZ Radial rated at 70 percent road and sand and 30 percent dirt and mud, offering a quieter ride without compromising off-road performance. Those with dedicated off-roaders will favor the Baja MTZ Radial with “PowerPlay,” rated for 40 percent road and sand and 60 percent dirt and mud, with an extra nylon belt between the tread and steel belts for more strength, stepped side-bites and deep scalloped shoulder lugs.

Anybody who straps into a performance vehicle – whether it’s at the drag strip or trailhead – has a need for adventure, be it speed or wild rock crawling. As off-roaders, we don’t have to compromise durability or traction, as long as we look up Mickey Thompson.

Mickey Thompson Performance