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The Automotive Chronicles

Monthly newsletter published by McLellan's Automotive History. Dedicated to literature collectors, restorers, museums, publishers, manufacturers and investors who collect and preserve automotive literature
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December 2012 Issue
 
ARTICLE
King of the Boards: The Life and Times of Jimmy Murphy
Book review by Robert McLellan
 
 

Author: Gary D. Doyle, 2002. Approximately 300 rare photos and over 50 color paintings plus charts and other images, 336 pages, large format, hard bound with dust jacket, $59.00 (sale $39.95). Sold by http://www.racemaker.com

 
 

Can you judge a book by its 'cover'? Nice dust jacket, classy embossed binding, glossy thick pages, crisp photos and great color art. You will be surprised that your first impression will be surpassed by the enjoyment of actually reading the book. Note that the title "The Life and Times of Jimmy Murphy" makes the contents clearly known – in typical Gary Doyle style, nothing is left out. By connecting the culture and society of the times, personalities of those that he was surrounded by, the drivers he dueled with and the mix of the cars and race tracks, the reader will experience a series of captivating stories.

The author is more than a racing fan looking for a topic. Doyle was born with the project laid out before him. Jimmy Murphy was Doyle' grandmother's first cousin and Jimmy, at the age of 11, went to live with her after his parents died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As a child, the author was fascinated with Murphy because the house was filled with artifacts of Murphy's career. That memorabilia, photos and records along with years of research come together as a 'tell all' biography of one of the greatest board racers, winner of the 1921 French Grand Prix and the Indy 500 winner in 1922.

The Murphy story is one that begins with the influences that shaped his life, from the Irish immigrant influence, the San Francisco earthquake, living in Los Angeles with his aunt and uncle, the Duesenberg brothers and his fellow racing competitors and team members. Once he was established as a popular race car driver, he even became a stunt driver and movie star. In 1922-1923 he appeared in Racing Hearts as the leading man with actress Agnes Ayres. Outside of racing, Murphy appears to have led a normal life with family and friends. He was interested in few pursuits beyond the driver's cockpit but he did have a fascination for aviation. Getting to know Jimmy Murphy in the first chapter is important ground work to fully appreciate his racing career.

Jimmy began his racing career in 1916 as a riding mechanic for Duesenberg at Corona, California and unfortunately ended it in 1924 in a 100-mile dirt track race at Syracuse, New York. He made Duesenberg and Miller cars winners on board and dirt tracks to became a huge racing star. In this short career, one of his greatest successes was in 1921 when a team of Duesenbergs sponsored by French immigrant Albert Champion won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans. Murphy became the only American to have ever won a Grand Prix race in an American race car. The next time an American driver would win a Grand Prix in an American-built car would be 46 years later, when Dan Gurney won the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix in an Eagle. Murphy's mechanic in that race was none other than Eddie O'Donnell, with whom he rode to victory at Corona in 1916. That same Duesenberg that won at Le Mans, won the Indianapolis 500 the following year with Jimmy at the wheel. Up until his death in 1924, he had accumulated an unbeatable lead in the points toward the National Championship.

A book review can only touch upon the highlights of Murphy's racing career. In fact, 99.9% has been left unsaid – countless exploits, humorous incidents, tragic events and great successes. Add to that the beautiful art and outstanding photographs (with detailed descriptions) which contribute to enriching the story. And I must note that I have a great appreciation for a well organized book and Doyle dots every 'I' and crosses all the 'Ts' with 39 pages of bibliography, a list of sources, 11 appendixes and an index. Obviously, highly recommended reading.

 
 

Chapter 1: A Hero's Era
Summary: Details of Jimmy's early life in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It reviews his non-racing pursuits including movie making, business interests, family history, airplanes and more. Also describes the impact of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 on his family and the Los Angeles fascination with cars that ultimately captured his interests.

 
 

Chapter 2: The Knight's Squire
Summary:
Describes Murphy's stint as riding mechanic in the cockpit of early racing cars. Races at Corona and Santa Monica, California; Elgin, Illinois; Indianapolis and Uniontown, Pennsylvania, investigate the role of the riding mechanic through an analysis of Murphy and his various rides.

 
 

Chapter 3: Flying on the Sand (Land Speed Record of 1920)
Summary:
An interpretation of the events in Daytona in April of 1920. The chapter uses newspaper accounts of the day and overlooked source material to review the standard interpretation of Tommy Milton's land speed record and his relationship to Jimmy Murphy and Jimmy's role in what most historians have characterized as a bitter feud between the two dominant drivers of the decade.

 
 

Chapter 4: King of the Boards
Summary:
This is a reasonably complete analysis of board track racing which dominated the American Championship car trail during the 1920's. It addresses the major speedways, the significant drivers, unfortunate accidents and Murphy's dominance of the venue in terms of wins, money per start won and top 5 finish percentage. He was King of the Boards.

 
 

Chapter 5: Circus Maximus
Summary:
Murphy at Indianapolis, 1920-1924. The focus is on his win in 1922. Many details on the other races, however, with the "big stories" of each race. Circus Maximus comes from Griffith Borgeson's characterization of the Indianapolis 500 as the modern day equivalent to the big Roman chariot race.

 
 

Chapter 6: It Was a Duesey!
Summary:
This chapter deals with Murphy's historic win at Le Mans, France in 1921. Racing a Duesenburg, Jimmy, banged up from being injured in a practice accident, beat the best race cars and drivers Europe had to offer. Still, today, the only time an American driver in a totally American car has won a European Grand Prix event.

 
 

Chapter 7: Lunch with Mussolini
Summary:
Talks about Murphy's trip to Italy to race in the Italian Grand Prix of 1923. He finished third but sacrificed the AAA Driving Championship for this year by being out of the country. Why did he go?

 
 

Chapter 8: Murphy Goes West
Summary:
The last two weeks of Murphy's life and a discussion of his involvement with Harry Miller's front-drive racecar. It was originally created for Murphy. Jimmy was killed at Syracuse, New York on a dirt track he didn't particularly care for. Before his death, he had won the last three board track races that he started.

 
Photos courtesy: Racemaker Press
 
 
 
 
 
The Automotive Chronicles, December 2012
 
 
 
 
 
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