The Killer Car - Mickey Thompson's Sears Allstate Special #BlogPost

Mikey Thompson was already known by 1963. He’d built cars for the NHRA and Indianapolis in the past, most with radical and game-changing designs. For the 1963 Indianapolis 500, Thompson designed a radical new car. The Sears Allstate Special, as it would later become known, was built around the twelve inch tires it used to grip the track. Thompson planned to enter three cars in the 1964 Indy 500, all designed after his 1963 car. Thompson needed drivers to harness the power of these cars, so he adopted one of, if not the most, promising sports car drivers in the country, Dave MacDonald. MacDonald was a sports car driver for Carrol Shelby and was known for his sideways driving style. He was perfect for the Thompson car.

However, in October 1963, USAC changed the rules for the 1964 event. The twelve inch tires that Thompson’s car was designed around would be outlawed. Fifteen inches would be the minimum tire width for the 1964 Indy 500. Thompson panicked. He had already signed a contract with Sears to supply twelve inch tires for the Month of May. Mickey wanted to have fifteen inch tires as soon as possible for testing at Indy, which could be done during an off-week in MacDonald’s Cobra schedule in November of 1963. Sears said they would have fifteen inch tires ready by then, and a five day test was set up at Indy for Late November.

Another puzzle piece fell into place before the test as well. Mickey and his team had run Chevrolet engines for the 1963 event, but Mickey cut a deal with Ford to run one of their engines in the 1964 event. The DOHC Ford engine was new, but was also heavier than the Chevrolet engines used the year prior. However, the Ford engine would not be ready for the Late-November test, meaning any adjustments the team made to the car around the fifteen inch tires would also have to be made for a much heavier engine.

When the team showed up to start the test on November 26th, everyone was on edge. The taller car was believed to have a negative affect on the handling of the car, by allowing air to get under the front end of the car and lifting it off the racetrack, taking away front grip. When MacDonald went to run his first laps early in the day, and the hypothesis was confirmed. The higher roll center of the car ruined the handling. It rolled through the corners, and floated left and right down the straights. MacDonald pulled the car in after only a few laps, fearing for his life.

Another driver who would drive one of Thompson’s cars in the 1964 event was at the test as well, Duane Carter. He took a spin after MacDonald came back into the pits and had similar results. The car was flat out dangerous to race. The Thompson team spent the rest of the day working on the car, desperately trying to find a fix.

When Day Two of testing came along, the air was crisp and the Indiana skies filled with think clouds. Duane and MacDonald both were eager to test what the Sears Tire Specialists and the Thompson crew had adjusted on the cars overnight. Carter said an average lap of 146 mph before pulling it down into the pits, saying that’s all he could muster without crashing. Although it seems fast on paper, it was five mph down on Parnelli Jones’ pole for the 1963 Indy 500, done in a Roadster, not a new and faster rear-engined car.

Thompson canceled the tests after the second day of disaster, and went back to the drawing board. Thompson towed both cars back from Indianapolis to his shop in Long Beach on the 28th of November, and began work on new suspension modifications for the next test in March 1964.

After Months of work from Thompson’s team, they had new and improved cars ready for the March 17th test at Indianapolis. MacDonald and Thompson both arrived to the track before dawn, craving an early start to the day. The car had wings and sideskirts when pulled off the trailer, it looked absolutely insane. However, another issue occurred for MacDonald. USAC Officials denied the use of these modifications during testing. Again, Thompson would be forced to test with a sketchy handling car.

And another issue, Ford had only supplied one DOHC engine for the test, going in the #82 Car. The #83 would still use the outdated and lighter Chevy engine, making it harder for the team to collected valuable data. One upside for Thompson though, was that there were three drivers at the test. MacDonald, Masten Gregory, and Graham Hill. Hill wanted to run Indy in 1964, and was being considered to run the #84 Thompson car in May. He went out in the #83 car during the morning session, but only made two laps before pulling into the pits, telling Thompson the car was “diabolical.” He left for Europe and didn’t come back until 1966.

More bad news came for Thompson during this test. The cars were slower than in November, way slower. Thompson managed a lap of 135 mph in the lighter, but less powerful Chevy-powered #83 car, while Masten managed 136 mph in the heavier Ford car, about ten mph off their November pace. Thompson was, again, dissapointed, and left for Long Beach the next day with the cars to make significant changes.

On April 21st, Thompson scheduled a press conference to show off the changes. A radically different design was displayed to the press. The car had a fendered, aerodynamic body that would help compensate for the lifting the open tires caused in the test, along with helping straight-line speed. The car looked like something from a science-fiction novel.

On May 1st, the Speedway opened for first practice for the 1964 Indianapolis 500. Thompson’s #83 car was rolled out next to Chuck Rodee’s #87 Roadster, and just how radical Thompson’s car was became displayed. The car looked like a rollerskate. The Roadster looked like something from ten years prior next to the Sears Allstate Special. How they each preformed on track was a different story.

MacDonald was the first driver out. He spent a few laps on the track, but came back only to tell Thompson that if he went over 145 mph, the car’s front end lifted in the air. Masten Gregory then went out in Duane Carter’s Baby Blue #82 car, only to come back end and tell Thompson that the car is not sticking in the corners and also still lifting on the straights. The cars were lifting so bad that Gregory and MacDonald both stated that the steering was so light on the straights they felt as if they had no control.

All day they worked on the cars, but to no avail. It was especially important to get MacDonald’s car right as he had to complete his rookie test the day after. Fortunately, the rookie test would have a top speed of 135 mph, meaning MacDonald would not have to get into the “danger zone” of 145 mph plus. He passed his test with flying colors.

MacDonald would lose valuable practice time on May 3rd, choosing to run the USAC Stock Car race at Indianapolis Raceway Park. He had chosen to skip the USAC Stock Car Series race at Pensacola earlier in the year to run the Atlanta 500 NASCAR race, losing the USRRC (United States Road Racing Club) points lead to Jim Hall. However, at the last minute, Carroll Shelby rerouted MacDonald from IRP to Laguna Seca, to run a King Cobra against Jim Hall. MacDonald finished 2nd by eighteen seconds to Hall.

As the month went on, tensions grew. Masten Gregory flew into Indy on May 4th to drive the #84 car in practice. After only a few laps, he came into the pits, screaming at Thompson about still present handling issues. MacDonald arrived late in the afternoon to finish out practice. MacDonald’s #83 also still struggled with the floating issues, leading to an early end to practice for the MacDonald team.

On the 5th of May, Thompson put a different front end design he had brought to the track on MacDonald’s car. USAC stated that the front end had to be numbered before going out on track. Thompson then put USAC on blast, unhappy with the politics going down in the garage area, and stating USAC was personally out to get him. The car was painted quickly and MacDonald only got a few laps in the newly designed front end, the day was a loss for both driver and owner.

Gregory also thought the day was a loss, and complained about the car to anyone who would listen. His good friend Jack Brabham told reporters that Gregory had told him the Thompson car was “The most lethal, evil car I’ve ever driven.”

The new front end was also a disaster. If the car went over 120 mph, the handling effects were exaggerated, making the cars even harder to drive. On May 7th, Parnelli Jones hit 156.223 mph in his front engined Roadster.

For the next six days, Thompson and Crew completely redesigned the cars in their Indianapolis garage. On May 13th, Masten Gregory took his #84 car out for practice. His mistrust in the car was reaching its climax. As he entered Turn 1 on a lap, he lost control. The car slammed into the outside wall and slid to the apron. Gregory was unhurt, but angry. He left the Thompson team that day. Gregory would join the open spot at the Dean Van Lines team and begins to openly criticize Thompson’s car in the press, labeling them death traps.

Thompson was dejected. He became desperate to make the cars better. Thompson took a hacksaw and chopped the fenders off MacDonald’s car. He believed air was being trapped under the car’s fenders, leading to the lifting problem. MacDonald went out again without the fenders. The fixed worked. MacDonald clocked a four-lap average of over 155 mph, the fastest any of the cars had gone all month. However, not everything was fixed. Although the cars was faster, the handling wasn’t better. MacDonald still complained of ill-handling, but since the car went faster, the fenders were removed from all of the Thompson machines.

Experiments continued on MacDonald’s car as fender channels were added. The first good news of the month came in, MacDonald said the car’s handling got better with the channels. The car wouldn’t be perfect for pole day qualifying, but it was better.

When Dave MacDonald went out for his four lap qualifying on May 16th, a record crowd of 200,000 people came to see. Both Thompson and MacDonald didn’t think the car would be ready to make it into the thirty-three car field. Nonetheless, MacDonald made it in. He qualified in the 14th position, with an average of 151.464 mph. However, it was still almost seven mph off Jim Clark’s pole speed of 158.858 mph. It didn’t dampen the spirits of MacDonald’s team, and they kept their heads held high.

Something did damage their spirits on May 17th, but it wasn’t the car’s handling. The engine in MacDonald’s #83 car gave out late in practice. USAC rules stated they couldn’t run an engine from the unused #82 car that new driver Eddie Johnson was using. MacDonald lost critical testing time, and decided to head back home to California to spend time with his wife and child.

On May 19th, disaster struck again. Although the car’s handling was improved, it still wasn’t good by any means. Eddie Johnson, who had taken over Gregory’s #82 car, struggled to get used to the car. In the morning practice, Johnson lost control of the car and smashed into the wall. All three Sears Allstate Specials were now out of commission, with only eleven days left until the 500.

The hastily prepared #84 car that Duane Carter was supposed to drive was then handed to Johnson. Johnson set practice laps for days on end leading up to the final weekend of qualifying. On May 22nd, both MacDonald and a new Ford engine arrived for the #83 car. They continued to struggled with the handling of the car, and MacDonald was growing more apprehensive as the days dragged on.

Eddie Johnson managed to qualify his way into the race on his second attempt at qualifying on May 23rd, a week before the race. Johnson managed a speed of 152.905 mph. Both Johnson and Thompson were all smiles afterward, and were a bit more confident in the car.

Meanwhile, the #82 car became a ride of bad luck. Drivers who had not qualified came to the car for the final day of qualifying. Both Bobby Johns and Chuck Arnold attempted to qualify the car in, but neither were able to wrangle the car in. Arnold spun in Turn 1 while making his attempt, pulling into the pits and quitting. However, Johns completed his four lap run, but didn’t have enough speed to make the show. Johns qualified 34th, the first car not in the race.

MacDonald’s optimism and good attitude were brought to an end on the 24th of May when he learned his good friend, Fireball Roberts, had been badly injured at the World 600, a NASCAR Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was uncertain if Roberts would live at the time, and he passed away on July 2nd, 1964.

MacDonald practiced with a heavy heart, with his attitude seemingly broken. On the final day of practice, May 28th, Jim Clark, who drove one of Colin Chapman’s Lotus 34’s, supposedly came up to MacDonald, telling him to back out of the death trap that was Thompson’s car before it was too late. MacDonald supposedly refused, wanting to race. That day in practice, MacDonald craved to run as many laps as possible, but his practice ended when body panels started flying off the car. MacDonald would go into the race underpracticed.

Thompson’s crew worked throughout the night of May 29th and the morning of race day, May 30th, to fix the car’s woes. MacDonald grew more frightened as the race approached. He brought up a new debate with Thompson on race morning, whether the car should be full of fuel or not. MacDonald was worried that the extra fuel in the car may hurt its handling, and it might be safer to make a pit stop rather than taking the excess of 80 gallon fuel tank to the end of the race. He was also worried that if he crashed, the car would become a rolling inferno. Thompson argued that it would save more time without fueling the car, so he kept it full for the race.

A record crowd of 300,000 arrived to watch the greatest race in the world, the Indy 500 on May 30th, 1964. The stands were filled with anticipation and excitement for the race, but the driver starting 14th was only filled with fear.

The green flag flew and Jim Clark darted into the lead as the pack shuffled and tried to get in line for the first laps of the race. MacDonald’s fear was forgotten and his hard charging driving style came into play. He began to try to drive through the pack.

On the first lap, MacDonald passed five cars, including Johnny Rutherford, who later stated that he thought MacDonald was going to “…either win this thing or crash.” Rutherford noticed that in the turbulent air, MacDonald’s car handed extremely poorly. MacDonald was all over the place in the corners, shooting grass and dirt onto the track. It looked awful to drive, then on the second lap, coming out of Turn 4, disaster.

MacDonald swept low off Turn 4 to try to pass Jim Hurtubise and Walt Hansgen by taking them three abreast coming off the corner. As he swept low, air picked up under the nose of the car, only allowing for the power of the car to keep the wheel spinning in the direction the car was headed, left.

MacDonald lost control and slammed into the inside wall. All forty-five gallons of fuel stored in the side of the car lit ablaze. The rolling inferno bounced off the inside wall and came up in front of traffic. Driver of the #25 Red Ball Special, Eddie Sachs was the first on the scene. As MacDonald slid across the track, Sachs aimed for a opening on the high side of the track, but it was too late. Sachs broadsided MacDonald’s car, killing Sach’s instantly and igniting the estimated 80 gallons of fuel in his car in front of the rest of the pack.

Ronnie Duman hit a car in the flames and spun into the pit wall, being badly burned in the process, but did survive. Bobby Unser in a Novi hit Duman from behind and pushed him through the burning wreckage. Johnny Rutherford, Chuck Stevenson and Norm Hall also all were involved, but uninjured.

The race, which had never been stopped since its inception in 1911, was red flagged for the accident. Safety crews were on the scene as fast as they could be, but the fire took minutes to extinguish. MacDonald was pulled from his car afterward, disoriented, badly burned, but alive. He was taken immediately to the care center, but it was to no avail. MacDonald’s lungs were seared, and he passed away due to his injuries at 1:20 pm.

The race resumed hours later, but the energy wasn’t the same. AJ Foyt took the lead midway through the race after Parnelli Jones had a fire in the pits, and ran away with the race. None of the drivers had been informed of the news of Sachs and MacDonald’s passing. AJ pulled into victory lane, only to be greeted by a grim newspaper that he would hold up for victory photos. The headline read, “Foyt Winner in 500; Sachs, MacDonald Die.” AJ’s grim look afterward defined the afternoon.

The crash broke Dave’s wife Sherry MacDonald, who refused to return to any racetracks after Dave’s passing. Dave’s son, Rich, started up a memorial website to his father in 2003, Sherry only returned to racing circles after this, going back to Indianapolis for the first time for the 100th Running of the 500 in 2016. Joined by Rich and Eddie Sachs Jr, they finally gained closure from that horrible day.



i can’t imagine what could have been going thru his head at the time. he knows the car can kill him at any second yet he still got in to drive it. great post

09/16/2017 - 19:32 |
1 | 0
(what's left of) Sir GT-R

The amount of balls required to still do that, knowing full well it’d most certainly kill you, had to be very big

09/16/2017 - 22:42 |
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