Sport: Auto Racing
Born: June 23, 1977
Died: August 31, 2006
Charles Edward Magill was born February 8, 1920 in Haddonfield. His family nicknamed him “Mickey” and later a racing promoter shortened that to Mike. As a teenager, Mike played the line for the Haddonfield Memorial High football team.
Mike was fascinated by how things worked and how to make those things go faster. He was also tough and coordinated. At the outbreak of World War II, the US Army recognized these qualities and assigned him to flight school. Mike, who was instantly recognizable at airfields thanks to a shock of red hair, saw action in the Pacific with the 6th Night Fighter Squadron, which was entrusted with intercepting Japan’s “Bedtime Charlie” Zero raids. He crash-landed twice during the war, the second time suffering injuries leading to his 1945 discharge.
In 1947, Mike completed the journey from cockpit to driver’s seat and joined the rough-and-tumble world of stock-car and midget racing. He also picked up paychecks as a stunt driver, working for a time with Joie Chitwood’s road show. He refused to do ramp-to-ramp jumps but had no problem driving through fire or staging head-on wrecks.
Mike soon became one of the top drviers in the northeast, capturing several track and series championships in the early 1950s. He also competed in a handful of NASCAR Grand National races. He was known as the King of the Big Cars in United Racing Club circles and was famous for winning a 1951 race in Langhorne, PA in front of a URC-record 39,246 fans. Mike often flew to races, borrowing a plane from his Haddonfield neighbor, Russell Danner.
Mike became a regular on the USAC East Coast circuit and finished third in the 1956 East Coast points standing. This, plus the fast-and-fearless way he attacked banked turns, brought Mike to the attention of the open-wheel crowd and he caught rides at the Indianapolis 500 each spring from 1956 to 1960, successfully qualifying three straight years from 1957 to 1959. His 1958 start came as a sub for the soon-to-retire world champion Juan Manuel Fangio, who was scheduled to drive the Dayton Steel Foundry Special. However, a last-minute contractual spat with a British company opened up the seat and Mike (who also drove for Dayton Steel) got the call. He crashed the car in a practice run but worked alongside team mechanics to rebuild it in time to qualify—which he did, on the last row. When the flag dropped, Mike blew past half the starting field but the car’s tailpipe was crushed in a Lap 1 pile-up. Pat O’Connor was killed in the same crash. After an hour of pit repairs, Mike returned to the track and finished 17th. .
That summer, Mike was invited to Europe to drive for Fangio in the Italian Grand Prix. A newspaper reporter caught up with Mike, perched atop a bulldozer at his Haddonfield home. When asked about his European adventure, Mike said, “I don’t know what they want with an Irishman like me—who may end up driving an American car with a German motor for an Argentine champion…but I’ll be there.” Mike was among several top American drivers at Monza, including Carroll Shelby and Phil Hill, but did not end up qualifying.
Back and head injuries suffered in a crash on Lap 47 of the 1959 Indy 500 spelled the beginning of the end to Mike’s racing career. He attempted to qualify at the Brickyard in 1960 but fell short, again driving for Dayton Steel. In retirement, Mike kept up his racing contacts and became a supporter of their Victory Junction Camp, which started in memory of Adam Petty. In 2002, Mike was inducted into the Eastern Motorsport Press Association Hall of Fame. He passed away at age 86 in his longtime hometown.