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"Sammy Thompson" - 'His life was fast'

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Sammy Thompson - Racer / WW II Vet

Not every celebrated Missoulian was lucky enough to have a chronicler. No story is complete without one. 52-year-old race driver Sammy Thompson’s story ended abruptly in 1978 when he died tragically on Flathead Lake in the middle of the night. Except for a few brief glimpses here and there, Thompson’s story would likely be forgotten if a Missoula reporter/author hadn’t profiled him in 2 Missoulian articles that he wrote.  Thompson’s short life caught the attention of Missoula’s Steve Smith, first as a stock car phenomenon and later as something more than that. As he would do later in several books he wrote about Missoula and its people, Smith gave us something more than the facts. Following is what he wrote about Sammy Thompson. Thanks, Steve.

The first story Smith wrote about Thompson appeared in the Missoulian on July 12, 1966 – prominently centered between two other articles on the same day’s sports page. This article also had two photos of Sammy, top and bottom, one with him standing alongside his ‘Little Gem’ stock car – the second, a photo of his car as he “Feeds his dust to the runnerup,” on the dirt track. The article is titled “What Makes Sammy Run?”   a loose allusion to the Budd Schulberg’s 1941 novel and it’s clear that Sammy Thompson never slowed down either.

What Makes Sammy Run?

By Steve Smith

About the only thing that ever crosses the finish line ahead of Sam Thompson is his radiator cap.

The way he wins the Sunday modified events at the Missoula auto race track on Miller Creek Road, you’d think he owned the place, and was writing his own script.

Out of his car and off the track, Thompson is a very popular person. People shout “Hi Sam” from all parts of the stands when he passes.

Half-pint kid clamor for rides in his car at the end of each day’s racing and some even ask for his autograph. That happened Sunday when the deeply tanned, 40-year-old, western Montana racing veteran walked off with everything but the trophy girl.

Out where the dust is up and the chips down, however, his popularity must drop immensely as time and again he beats the pack and adds still more trophies to his already monumental collection.

Something of an Enigma

Thompson, a local tavern owner and father of four, is becoming something of an enigma at the races. Only a few have figured out how to drive the quarter mile dirt loop faster than he without ending up in the adjoining pasture.

But they can’t do it regularly, and generally speaking, Thompson always wins.

That it’s a combination of car and driver, with emphasis on the latter, no one seems to offer much argument.

Thompson has been racing the dirt tracks of the state since 1952. A Billings native, he came to Missoula in 1948 to attend the University after an uncle (also named Sam) discharged him from the service.

Thompson, who through his college years tended bar to help with expenses, stayed in the tavern business following his graduation in 1951 with a degree in business administration.

According to Thompson, he and his partner were approached one day and asked to sponsor one of the stock cars which were then churning up the dust of the Missoula County Fair Ground track.

Thompson, who stipulated that he be allowed to drive in half the events, agreed, and, quite literally, was off to the races.

That was 14 years and approximately 200 trophies ago.

Although he has made some money in the motorized mayhem of the stock car races, Thompson’s main satisfaction apparently comes from the sport.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” he grinned.

What Makes Sammy Run

What makes Sammy run should delight both automobile buffs and the most avid devotees of the legendary Rube Goldberg.

To a frame composed of 1935 Chevrolet side rails and 1931 Ford crossmembers, Thompson added a six-cylinder, 250-cubic inch Ford engine built from stock parts ranging from 1954 to 1959 vintage.

Next he installed a ’40 Ford pickup rear end, a ’46 Ford passenger car front end, a ’51 Chevrolet pickup steering gear, a Chevrolet transmission, a ’51 Chrysler radiator, ’36 Ford wheels and roll bars.

He then wrapped the whole package in a tin cowling made from a beer sign and has scarcely seen the back of anyone’s car since.

“It’s the best handling car I’ve ever had,” he claimed, and obviously he was telling the truth.

In 1965 he won 28 trophies in Missoula and Kalispell races and thus far this year has picked up eight more.

Thompson’s package has never been completely unwrapped on the track, but there have been times when the paper was torn. Only three weeks ago he found himself bouncing tail over teakettle on the northwest turn of the Missoula raceway.

The car had been turned every way but loose and was resting upside down when the ambulance and wrecker arrived.

But all was well, Thompson crawled out and spit a little dust. The car was righted and re-entered in the race and some 15 laps later, the berry-brown, crewcut man with the big smile was taking the checkered flag for another victory.

According to Thompson, fear plays a small role in his racing, regardless of the situation in which he finds himself.

“There’s no time to be afraid,” he says, “because you’re too busy thinking about getting ahead of somebody.”

At the time of his flip was he afraid? He said no.

“The only thing I thought was here’s my little gem all mashed up.”

Another Time, Another Place

At another time and another place, Thompson himself almost got “all mashed up.”

It was in 1955 in Kalispell and Thompson was driving a heat race in a car equipped with tubeless tires. He became sandwiched between two other cars which began squeezing in on him.

During the action, one of the tires on Thompson’s car deflated and he rolled. Another car coming up through the pack slammed into him and Thompson woke up in a Kalispell hospital.

“It took me a year to get over it,” he said.

How About the Big Time?

Thompson, whose talent at handling 2,000 pounds of bucking racing machine is obvious, said he has always wanted to go into big-time competition but can’t afford it.

“I’ve got to stay here and work,” he said, flashing the smile.

A few minutes later, he was thundering around the oval track, working his way up in a 25-lap main event from the back-of-the-pack starting position he had been assigned.

“He’s about the best in the state,” said Gene Farish, a timekeeper.

“He’s about as clean a driver as is on the track,” said Ben Gates, a pit boss, referring to Thompson’s driving tactics.

“It’s a lot of fun – great sport!” said Thompson when it was all over and he had again crossed the finish line led only by his radiator cap.



A second Steve Smith article about Thompson appeared in the Missoulian on July 20, 1978.

Sammy Thompson

But If You Never Saw Him Drive . . .

By Steve Smith

Staff Writer

If you never saw him drive a race car you missed something.

To appreciate him, you wouldn’t have had to be part of what some Missoulians thought was that unseemly wild bunch he drove and drank with for a quarter of a century of blistering hot summer Sunday afternoons. That, for many residents looking down middle-class noses at “those bums,” would have been too much to ask.

You wouldn’t even have had to be a racing fan. Or an enthusiast of automobiles and engines. Or one of those Walter Mitty types in search of a bloodbath and a vicarious thrill.

All you would have needed was an ability to enjoy experiencing somebody doing something difficult exceptionally well. Robert Sam Thompson’s mastery over a thundering race car was superb. It was, in is own way, a thing of beauty, like Bjorn Borg’s tennis, or Rod Stieger’s acting, or Beverly Sills’ or Judith Blegen’s singing.

Thompson drove race cars – a difficult feat – extraordinarily well, a fact attested to by the hundreds of trophies he won over a period of 25 years. (He gave most of them away to kids.) He drove cars so well, in fact, that for years his specialty division – the mosquito-like modified racers – was something of a mockery around Missoula-area dirt tracks. He drove them so well that, with some tutelage and polishing, he might have found his way to Indianapolis to compete against the Andrettis and Foyts and Unsers of America.

But if you never saw him drive, you won’t see him now. And he’ll never try his hand at Indianapolis, which he had become too old to do anyway. For Thompson, 52, drowned early Monday, the victim of his second boating mishap on Flathead waters. Word of his death reached Missoula Monday afternoon, and Tuesday was a day of sorrow and remembering in and out of Thompson’s haunts.

“That funeral,” said Kent “Big Dan” Daniels, who had worked for Thompson as a night bartender at Thompson’s Trail’s End bar on West Broadway. “There ain’t going to be no place other than the Field House that will be able to hold all the people who would like to go.”

Daniels, a giant of a man reminiscent of television’s Hoss Cartwright, seemed to be suppressing tears as he talked about his 17-year relationship with Thompson.

“We were great friends,” Daniels said. “He was a hell of a man. He was never really a boss. I worked for him, but he was just one of the people . . . You’ll never find a better man in this town unless it’s his dad . . .”

Earlier in the day, Daniels had been at the Trail’s End, where, among other things, black humor was being bandied about in groping attempts to ease gloom.

“Do you know what some people were saying?” Daniels asked. “They were saying things like, ‘Want to go for a boat ride? Got plenty of life preservers.’ You try to laugh about what happened – keep your spirits up, but deep inside it’s trouble.”

And there were others remembering Sammy Thompson, both as a race car driver and as a human being.

“I think he was one of the most popular drivers in the state,” said Jack Miller of Missoula, treasurer of the Missoula Auto Racers Association and a long-time competitor of Thompson’s in the modified class. “He’d do anything to help anybody . . .”

“I worked for him for 7 1/2 years and he was a fantastic man,” said Janie Wiedrich, day bartender at Thompson’s other tavern, the Eastgate Lounge on East Broadway. “For a boss, he never hassled you unless you made a big mistake. And even then he’d maybe just mention it and that’d be the end of it.”

Wiedrich said Thompson was so good-hearted and easy-going with people that they occasionally took advantage of him. And she said that Thompson’s casual dress often took people by surprise.

“People would come in and ask for the boss and you’d tell them the guy down at the end of the bar,” she said. “They’d be looking for a guy in a suit. They’d be shocked when they’d find the boss in a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and tennie runners.”

Alice Miller, wife of Jack Miller: “For some reason or another, everybody kind of clung to Sam. I don’t think you’ll hear a bad word about him.”

Donna Waller, Lolo, one of Thompson’s step-daughters from his second marriage: “He was the most likeable person you’d ever want to know. He liked everybody and everybody liked him. It’s going to be a hell of a loss.”

Danette Thompson, Missoula, another step-daughter who was so close to Thompson that she changed her last name: “I thought he was the greatest person who ever lived. I loved him so much that I couldn’t even say. As far as I’m concerned I was not his step-daughter but his daughter. And I know he considered me a daughter. We just belonged to each other.” (Thompson has another daughter, Tania, by his first marriage. The Missoulian was unable to reach her for comment.)

Dorothy Touchette, now a resident of Billings, a long-time Missoula stock car race fan and an unofficial historian for local tracks: “Sammy’s like any of us, he wasn’t perfect. But he was loved . . . He was a sensitive man, maybe not from all appearances, but he really was. I don’t know of another racer who loved children more. They just thrived on Sam; he was a hero. They loved his car, but they loved that smile when Sam would get out of the car.”

Dennis Hill, Thompson’s pit man at the races and a personal friend: “I don’t think he’ll ever be forgotten. Racing in this area was Sam Thompson.”

Dave Klapwyk, Vancouver, Wash., who raced against Thompson when he lived in Missoula: “I despised the man back in 1955. He was out to win in those days and he didn’t care how he did it. But I learned to respect him and I still do . . . To me Sam was king, he was the man to beat . . . He was pure race driver . . . I loved the man, I really did. I guess I almost worshipped him, and so did a lot of other people. . .”

Big Dan Daniels reminisced even further, as did Dorothy Touchette and Dennis Hill.

“You think he was a good driver,” said Daniels, “you should have seen him tend bar. I don’t know anyone who could touch him. He’d have five jokes and a couple of stories going up and down the bar and never miss a beat on refilling a drink. He’d stop back and tell part of this story and go down and tell part of that story. And when he’d get back up the bar he wasn’t telling this guy part of that guy’s story. He’d keep them all straight. I don’t know how he did it.”

Touchette confirmed Thompson’s bartending prowess.

“I never saw such a fantastic bartender in my life,” she said. “He could wait on more people and yet be polite and have a few words for everybody.”

Daniels, who described the Trail’s End as a “real cliquish bar” and a “very gentle” place, said that two words – pard and onion – were big with Thompson.

“You did not say that four-letter F word in Sam’s bars,” Daniels said. “When Sam himself might have been tempted to use it, he would say ‘onion.’ You could use any other kind of language you wanted to, but you didn’t use that word. Believe me, there’s some bad asses in this town, and when they darkened his door at the Trail’s End it was onion. And when Sam said ‘Pard,’ you were in trouble. When a guy pushed him just so far, he’d say, ‘Pard, you’re done. Out. That’s it. When Sam said ‘Pard,’ that’s all there was to it.”

Touchette and her husband, Eugene, first met Thompson in 1953. He was a year and a half out of the University of Montana’s School of Business Administration (B.A., December 1950), was part-owner of the now-defunct Havana Bar and was in his second year of racing. He had gained a reputation as a “rough driver” and had been tagged with the nickname “Black Sam” because of the number of times he was given black flags for fouls during competition.

The Touchettes were in Kalispell in 1955 when Thompson, driving a heat race, became sandwiched between two other cars. Thompson’s car rolled and another car coming up through the pack slammed into it. Thompson woke up in a Kalispell hospital.

“It took me a year to get over it,” Thompson told this reporter in 1966.

In one of the nine photo albums of Missoula stock car racing that she owns, Mrs. Touchette has a picture taken in 1957 when local stock car racers competed on an asphalt track near East Missoula.

“The picture shows Sammy and Bob Taber, Bob Rock and Don Davis in action on the track,” Mrs. Touchette said. “Sammy is the only one going in the opposite direction. I approached him about that one time and he laughed and said, ‘I wasn’t going the wrong way, the rest of them were!”

The Touchettes continued to attend the races through the years, following them from their infant days at the Missoula County Fairgrounds to the Wye to East Missoula to the Garden
City Speedway up Miller Creek. And as Thompson established his dominance over the years, men who had watched him as children came along to drive against him.

“Bobby Dicken (another modified racer) told me that he used to hitchhike to the Wye to watch Sam Thompson race,” Mrs. Touchette said. “This is what happened through the years.  As Sammy kept on racing, it ended up that the kids who used to run out to see him were racing against him. The thing I respect about so many of our Missoula drivers is that they were never discouraged. Jack Miller, Dave Klapwyk, Bobby Dicken, I could name a multitude of them who kept coming back each year. They didn’t stop because Sammy always won. They never said, “What’s the use? Their attitude was more like, ‘I’ll beat him someday.’”

Mrs. Touchette remembers when Thompson’s racing career was not as successful.

“When Sammy was an up-and-coming driver in the fifties, there was one season when he wasn’t doing worth a damn,” she said. “So the head judge drew him a map of the track and presented it to him. Sam didn’t have many mementos of his racing left – he’d given a lot of them away – but he still had that map.”

And Mrs. Touchette knew that Thompson liked women as much as they like him.

“I was out to East Missoula one time talking to Bob Taber (of Taber’s Truck Stop) and Franz Willig (a Missoula boat-racing enthusiast),” she said. “And Franz said, ‘You know, when Sam Thompson offered all those girls those rings, they didn’t realize he meant a piston ring.’”

One of Thompson’s closest lady friends following the breakup of his two marriages was a young woman known to Thompson’s friends as “Super America,” or simply “S.A.”

“Sam worshipped her,” said his friend, Dave Klapwyk. “She became very ill with cancer and Sam took her to Mexico for laetril treatment. She eventually died, and I’d be damn surprised if you went to Trail’s End even now if there wasn’t a red rose somewhere near the bar in remembrance of her.”

“Her death pretty well broke Sammy up, and his racing showed it,” said Mrs. Touchette. “He was a very sentimental and sensitive man.”

Mrs. Touchette nevertheless believes racing was Thompson’s “number-one-love.” And she expressed sadness that the modified class that Thompson had worked so hard to promote through the years is not being run this year, leaving Thompson and other modified drivers on the sidelines.

“I saw Sammy June 9,” she said, “and I just barely mentioned racing. It was like his heart was broken. He couldn’t talk about it. We all feel sad that Sammy should quit racing under those conditions. . .”

Klapwyk echoed Mrs. Touchette’s sentiments about the current turmoil in Missoula auto racing, saying, “Racing is going to go to hell there in the next few years unless somebody gets behind it like Sam did. He went out of his way to promote it and spent a lot of bucks that he knew he’d never get back. And a lot of people were helped along the way, including the Missoula Community Hospital and the funds raised or crippled children.”

Hill, Thompson’s pit man, also expressed disappointment about the Missoula racing scene.

“Racing was a hobby with Sam and he promoted the sport,” Hill said. “He wanted to see as many people in racing as he could. But racing has escalated into the big-dollar cars, something he really didn’t want to see. One of his philosophies was, ‘Every time you up the price of cars you’re running somebody out of racing.’ He could have had probably the trickest race car in the state if he had wanted to run everybody out. He was that caliber of driver and all he had to do was have the equipment. But that never was his style. He liked competition and he liked to race what everybody else had. . .”

Hill also commented on Thompson’s pace of living and his propensity for work.

“He didn’t like to wait for anything; his life was fast,” Hill said. “He was the hardest-working individual I’ve ever seen. I think that the biggest reason Sam never went professional. He dedicated so much time to his business. Maybe the biggest fault he had was that he worked so hard he didn’t enjoy some of the things he could have. Taking a day off here and there to go stay at the lake for a full weekend was a rarity. He’d go up on a Sunday and he’d be back Sunday night so he could work Monday. You could get him to sit down and BS for awhile, but he was never one for sitting any too long. He had the philosophy that time was too valuable, and he just didn’t care to waste much of it.”

Time may have been valuable to Thompson, but he apparently always had enough for his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Clifford J. Thompson of Missoula.

“Any time we raced out of town, the first thing Sam did when it was over was go and call his mother and father,” Hill said. “He’d say, ‘Boy, don’t let me forget to call my folks.’ That was like Bible.”

Thompson’s father did not like automobile racing and he reportedly worried extensively about his son.

“He had a deep fear about Sam getting killed in a car,” said Mrs. Touchette. “He told me one time that he said to Sam, ‘Name your price and I’ll buy the car,’ I don’t know if he told Sam what he’d do with it, but he told me. He said, ‘I’ll drive it into the closest river.’”

Several of Thompson’s friends have expressed amazement about the way in which he died.

“There’s something fishy about it,” said Dave Klapwyk. “He lost a boat above Kerr Dam just a few years ago and he managed to save both himself and another person. He was a powerful swimmer. . .”

On Wednesday, however, Lake County Sheriff-Coroner Glenn Frame said no evidence exists of foul play. From the initial investigation, Frame said, alcohol does not appear to be a factor in the drowning. Frame said witnesses had told him that Thompson had had drinks with his dinner Sunday evening at the Blue Bay resort.

Frame reiterated that Thompson was wearing three life jackets when his body was recovered. He said that the jackets were in place and had been put on correctly. And Frame said that despite rumors, he has no knowledge of Thompson’s inboard-outboard boat having surfaced. The lake in the area where Thompson’s body was recovered is more than 300 feet deep.

Perhaps Hill summed up Thompson best when he described a conversation the two had several years ago.

“I think his philosophy was to be a winner,” Hill said. “Sam and I talked once after he had been a pallbearer for somebody. He told me that every day you make it one more day it’s a great world. He said there’s got to be a better day, no matter how she looks today.”


Below is Sammy Thompson’s obituary from the July 20, 1978 Missoulian:

Robert S. (Sammy) Thompson, 52, of 1424 Toole Ave., Missoula, drowned July 17 in Flathead Lake.

He was a veteran of World War II.

Survivors include his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Clifford J. Thompson, Missoula; his daughter, Tania Erickson, Missoula, two step-daughters, Donna Waller and Danette Thompson, both of Missoula, and a step son, Gerold Jette, Polson.

Funeral services will be Monday, July 24, 2 p.m., in St. Anthony Church, Tremont and Woodford, with the Rev. Beryl Burr officiating. Cremation will follow at Sunset Memorial Gardens Crematory. Squire-Simmons-Carr is in charge of arrangements.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Crippled Children and Adult Rehabilition Center, Fort Missoula Road, Missoula.


Last Updated on Thursday, 28 December 2017 21:38