The Golden Age of American Motorsport
Jimmy Murphy was a hero in American motor racing during the early 1920's - the 'Golden Age' of the sport in the United States. He was twice US champion, he won the most famous race of all, the Indianapolis 500 miles, and he became the first American driver to win a European Grand Prix. Murphy's race-driving career spanned only five seasons before he was fatally injured in a crash, yet this was sufficient enough for him to become a legend. A dance was named after him, the Jimmy Murphy Fox Trot.
James Anthony Murphy, of Irish parentage, was born in San Francisco in 1894. His mother died when he was a baby and at the age of 10 he was orphaned when his father was killed in the San' Francisco earthquake. He was raised by relations, Judge Martin O'Donnell and his wife, and was timid by nature.
O'Donnell gave Murphy a motor cycle to ride to school and he quickly learned how it worked and became interested in mechanics. Murphy left school early to start a small garage business in Los Angeles. Murphy's small size - he was 5 ft 7 in and weighed 10½ stone - played an important part in his introduction to motor sport.
Riding mechanic with Duesenberg
At the age of 21, in 1916, he was offered the place of riding mechanic with Omar Toft in the Corona races. However, on race morning Toft's car was disqualified and Murphy's hopes seemed vanished for ever. Fortunately, Eddie O'Donnell, veteran driver of the crack Duesenberg team, offered Murphy a ride as his own riding mechanic was ill. And they won. This led to a permanent seat alongside O'Donnell or Duesenberg team members Tommy Milton and Eddie Rickenbacker.
At the end of 1919 Murphy was offered what he considered beyond expectations, a chance to drive a Duesenberg at Uniontown. However, he crashed, injuring his riding mechanic, and Fred Duesenberg decided Murphy would never drive again. However, Fred and his brother August Duesenberg were blackmailed into giving Murphy another chance by their top driver, Tommy Milton. Murphy had gone to visit Milton in hospital (following a fiery accident in that same race) and, feeling utterly depressed, told him he was going back into the garage business. Milton urged Murphy to postpone his decision and dictated to the Duesenbergs that Murphy should be given another chance; or Milton would quit them.
First race in the 1920 season was at Beverly Speedway and with O'Donnell absent with an arm injury Murphy took his place. He took pole position, led off the line and was never headed throughout the 150 miles. Luck was certainly on his side, as seconds after crossing the line the it was discovered his car's back axle was hanging by the single thread of the last nut - all the other team cars had failed. At the end of the year, however, Murphy's friendship with Milton turned very sour.
Stealing Milton's Thunder
Milton had helped design and build a new land-speed-record Duesenberg and was due to run it at Daytona following a race in Havana, Cuba. Meanwhile Fred Duesenberg sent Murphy off to Daytona to 'test' the new machine ... and the 'test' developed into a new record of 152 mph. To say Milton was furious was an understatement. Jimmy Murphy was selected to drive a 3-litre Duesenberg in the 1921 French Grand Prix
(Grand Prix de I'ACF) at Le Mans. The car was fitted with hydraulic four-wheel brakes, yet they were not perfect in practice a week prior to the race when a wheel locked and Murphy crashed. Jimmy was thrown out, cracked several ribs and was admitted to hospital.
The first American to win a European Grand Prix
The car was quickly repaired and the brake problem solved, a cloud still lingered over the probability of Murphy being in any shape to compete. He was determined he would and arranged to be tightly bandaged from his hips to his armpits, to be driven to the circuit and lifted into the car. Driving in agony for over four hours, and with the added problem of stones being hurled from the wheels of the cars ahead (one of which pierced the Duesenberg's radiator
with two of the 30 laps to complete), not to mention a puncture which meant driving most of the last lap on the wheel rim, Murphy won. He became the first American to win a European Grand Prix, a record no one was to equal until Phil Hill, a fellow Californian, won the Italian Grand Prix
The American Automobile Association's National Driving Championship
For 1922 Murphy contested the Indianapolis 500-mile race with a Le Mans-type Duesenberg equipped with a Miller engine. He won at a record average speed of 94.48 mph and with added victories in long-distance board-track races at Beverly, Uniontown and Tacoma he also gained the American Automobile Association's National Driving Championship. The following season saw Murphy head the newly-formed Durant team and he won at Beverly and Fresno, also taking third place at Indianapolis. Murphy's second championship year was in 1924 when he won two major board-track races at Altoona, another at Kansas City plus a dirt-track event at Readville.
The second-to-last event of the season was a dirt-track race at Syracuse. Murphy did not like dirt races, preferring hard surfaces which suited his very smooth driving style. But he had been wrongly led to believe his title might be in jeopardy and entered the race. Near the end, when about to pounce for the lead, Murphy's car slid wildly on oil and headed towards the inside fence. Others had walked away from similar accidents in the past, but Murphy died. A piece of splintered fencing pierced his heart and, at the age of 30, Murphy's brilliant career was over: Ironically, it was Tommy Milton that took Murphy's body back to Los Angeles and made the funeral arrangements.