Monday, October 7, 2013

The Miller Special Man: Jimmy Murphy Was One Tough Sonovabitch

By all accounts, Jimmy Murphy was the kind of guy you wanted to smash in the face on the race track, but buy him a beer afterwards. A helluva competitor, and a heckuva nice guy. He was also one of the evolutionary links between the eras of spectacle events and the dawning of the Golden Age of motor racing. 

His is the story of racing itself...

Jimmy Murphy, at the peak of his powers, and soon to be dead. This was taken the year before he died in his Miller Special.
     It is said that some men are destined for greatness in their field; Jimmy was the embodiment of that. A natural talent behind the wheel, he began full-time racing in 1919; in 1920 he finished 4th in the Indianapolis 500.
   The Duesenberg Brothers had been early advocates of Jimmy's. After a matter of months, he had been paid to be team-driver, and then promoted to number one when Duesenberg decided to take on the great Europeans. They entered three cars in the French Grand Prix, and Jimmy was to be the point man.

Then disaster struck. 
As Murphy was running a practice lap with Louis Inghibert, he crashed the car, flipping end over end into a ditch. He was confined to a hospital bed with internal injuries until two-hours before race-time. But that was just a minor obstacle. After being helped into the cockpit, the Thundering Irishman smashed the speed record, and won the race, finishing with a flat tire and a destroyed radiator.

Great ad from 1923 featuring Jimmy Murphy.

In 1922, Murphy bucked the Dusenbergs, and ran a Miller engine in his Indianapolis 500 car. Calling it the "Murphy Special", he dominated in winning the event. He was the National Racing Champion for the year, and finished second in 1923 despite missing several European races. 

    1924 was supposed to be his year. His racing points were piling up, and he was on his way to another crown when, with 12 miles left in the AAA Championship 150 mile race in New York, he was attempting to pass competitor Phil Shafer. 

  Jimmy Murphy had raced on the wooden board circuit for years, without serious injury, and the Syracuse dirt-track was considered one of the safest. This time, however, the Irish hero went into a skid at tremendous speed, the brakes locked, and he crashed through a wooden fence lining the track. He was killed instantly, a chunk of timber tearing through his chest. He was 30.

   Because he had accumulated so many race points up to that point, his total was enough for him to be awarded the annual Champion Driver title posthumously.

In five years, he had accumulated 18 major victories (a pace hard to imagine now), and absolutely cemented his status as one of the greatest, if not the greatest driver of all time.

Jimmy Murphy's grave in Calvary Cemetary, East Los Angeles.