If Oldsmobiles seem to be rather strange material for off-road racers, it's stranger yet that Hickey ran them without any official affiliation with the company. He had been a manager at GM, and he'd had a long relationship with George Hurst (as in shifters), who was a key Olds supplier at the time. Those connections gave Hickey access to some of Olds' hottest parts. Hickey was a senior research engineer at Chevrolet from 1959 to 1969, when he developed the first Blazers. His racing projects included the Baja Boots (AW, Oct. 16, 1995). Today Hickey is 77. He owns a ranch near Paso Robles, Calif., and satisfies his urge to putter by improving farm machinery. But in 1972, at the height of his off-road days, Hickey worked out of a shop in Ventura.
It first raced in June '72 at the Seven-11, a desert race in Las Vegas that evolved into the Mint 400. "I had known Jim Garner for years," Hickey says. "He was a friend of Bob Bondurant, and Bob and I were friends. The thing about Garner was that, while he wasn't the world's most fearless driver, he had the best retention of any man who drove for me. On a prerun, if he hit a bump, he'd come back five days later and tell you where it was within 10 feet." Garner only won one race in the Banshee. That was the Riverside Grand Prix, run along a river bed near Riverside, Calif. But he usually ran near the front of the pack, and often placed high in the final standings. Oddly, his only competition accident came in the race he won. According to Hickey, Garner momentarily took his eyes off the course near the finish line at Riverside to look at the crowd, and flipped the Banshee into the river. Garner crawled out and threw his helmet in the mud in disgust. Yet he was so far ahead that he was eventually declared the winner. The actor had one other wreck in the Banshee a big one, in an early shakedown, when the car was going at least two-thirds of its 144-mph top speed. "He went into this corner at about a hundred miles an hour, lost it in the sand and flipped the car about five times,'' Hickey says. "I was relieved to learn it was strong enough to protect Garner from injuries. The last thing I wanted to do was buy a movie star." Hickey straightened the frame, added new fiberglass and had the Banshee ready to race.
The '72 season wasn't the end; Mickey Thompson drove the Banshee in several races without a win. And unlike the typical desert racer, which is stripped for parts, the Banshee is still together. Current owner Jack Mendenhaul keeps it in his Land Speed Museum in Buelton, Calif., about 45 minutes west Of Santa Barbara. The collection includes a number of one-off desert racers, and lots of automobilia. For information, call (805) 688-3139.