He was the racing driver of the Decade of the 1920's. He drove championship Duesenberg and Miller cars on the board tracks and at Indianapolis. He also raced in Europe competing in the French, which he won, and Italian Grand Prix's. Jimmy Murphy had a brief, but brilliant career of only four years and nine months but is truly American Racing's "Neglected Legend".
Jimmy Murphy gets maybe a couple of paragraphs in most automobile racing history books. Most say simply, winner of the 1922 Indianapolis 500 and first US driver to win a Grand Prix race. Period, that's all for one of the most brilliant, but brief, careers of a driver whose name should rank along side DePalama, DePaolo, Mays, Meyer, Shaw and even a Foyt, or the Unsers or Andrettis.
He was born in San Francisco, California, on Minna Street, between 7th and 8th, in September of 1894. His parents were Irish immigrants, who owned a fuel and feed store which fronted on Mission Street, behind the family home on Minna. In 1906, Jimmy's mother died during the April 18 earthquake and fire. Jimmy's father left him in the care of his cousin, Lt. Tom Murphy, who later to become San Francisco's Fire Chief.
Then in late 1907 he went to live with his mother's brother, Judge Martin O'Donnell in Vernon, now East Los Angeles.
There Jimmy attended Huntington Park High School, travelling to and from school on a motorcycle given him by Judge O'Donnell. He became an expert rider and mechanic and, a few months short of graduation, opened a garage with a friend, developing a clientele of motorcycle and automobile owners from the Los Angeles area.
In 1916, on his 21st birthday, he went to work for the Duesenberg racing team as a riding mechanic and was promoted to driver in late 1919.
Jimmy Murphy, in his first major race, the inaugural race at the Beverly Hills 1-1/4 mile board track, in 1920 not only won but put his Duesenberg on the pole and set a World Record for a 250 mile race with a speed of 103.204 mph. Beating the likes of the DePalma brothers, Milton, Mulford and 13 more of the world's best that first time out.
Thus began Jimmy Murphy's four years and nine month race thru the pages of history that came to a tragic end in a crash at Syracuse, NY Sept. 24, 1924.
In those four years and nine months Jimmy would compete in 85 board track races and win 18 of them. Both records in the history of board track racing. He also set one lap records at Beverly Hills, 115.00, San Carlos, 113.210 and Uninotown 109.460 which were never broken.
In those four years and nine months Jimmy Murphy would compete in five Indianapolis 500's and finish worse than fourth only once. That one time was a 14th place in 1921, but he finished fourth that year driving in relief of Eddie Miller, even though "officially" credited with 14th place. Counting that relief stint for Miller in '21 Jimmy completed the full 200 laps in all five appearances at the Speedway.
He won the 500 in 1922 from the pole after leading for 156 laps. He led for 11 laps in '23 and finished third, he sat on the pole again in '24 and led for 56 laps before finishing third once again.
But none of these were Jimmy Murphy's finest hour in automobile racing. He saved that for the 1921 French Grand Prix, a 322 mile chase around the old Le Mans circuit of 10.7 miles.
None other than the great Peter DePaolo used to glory in telling the story of Jimmy Murphy and the '21 French Grind Prix.
"Jimmy Murphy drove the greatest race of his career that day at LeMans. He was in the hospital until just two hours before the race began," as Peter tells the story.
"A week before the race, during a practice run, he turned over, landed in a ditch with the car landed on top of him. Jimmy had some rather serious internal injuries and was put in the hospital."
DePaolo would shake his head and continue, "Murphy got up from his hospital bed, bandaged from the waist to shoulders, he had to be assisted to get in his car at the start.
But he gave the Old World one of it's greatest driving lessons that day, winning the great classic at an average of 78.1 mph, shattering all European long-distance road racing records."
Then, with that DePaolo grin, Peter would conclude, "Uncle Ralph, with me as riding mechanican, finished a distant second, a full 15 minutes behind the flying Jimmy.
It was at the Awards Banquet we really learned how the Frenchmen felt about getting beat so soundly by the Americans. The first toast was not to Jimmy Murphy, the victor, but to French country man Jule Goux, who had finished a distant third 21 minutes behind Jimmy."
"This was more than Jimmy could stand," according to Peter, "the American winner of the French Grand Prix, who should have been the guest of honor and his manager, George Robertson, put down their glasses and walked out.
"Both men walked a short distance, to a little side street cafe and said to the waiter, 'Bring us some ham and eggs' ".
Then, on September 15, 1924 on what was regarded to be the safest dirt track in the country, Jimmy Murphy met his death. It was the 150 mile AAA championship event at the State Fair Grounds at Syracuse, New York. With 138 of the 150 miles behind him, while traveling at 80 mph, Murphy attempted to overtake Phil Shafer. When he attempted to swing out of the first turn into the backstretch, his Miller Special failed to straighten out, clipped the inside rail, then skidded and hit the fence a second time, crashing through. Although the car did not overturn, wooden splinters from the rail struck Murphy in the chest and abdomen apparently causing his death. When the AAA championship points were tabulated at the end of the year, Murphy was awarded the championship posthumously. He had 1,595 points.
Jimmy Murphy a brief, but brilliant career of only four years and nine months but truly American Racing's "Neglected Legend".