always considered myself a contractor that loves to race
The love affair began very early
growing up in San Francisco and hanging around older guys who
owned cars and hot rods. Back then the Bay Area was a magnet
for drag racing, legal and otherwise. The place to go was Half
Moon Bay. I was probably 12 years old when I got my first sniff
of nitro, and the car that delivered it was the Speed Sport Spl.
roadster. I was totally smitten with the sheer fury and power
of this vehicle, not to mention its unique sound. I knew right
then that drag racing was something I had to try some day.
A little later this dream got
sidetracked when the family moved to Wisconsin during my senior
year of high school. While not the hot bed of drag racing like
northern California, at least I was now old enough to drive the
cars I esteemed. I owned a succession of cars from a '34 Ford
coupe with a Red Ram Dodge engine, to a Studebaker, followed
by a '55 Thunderbird with a 421 Tri-Power Pontiac motor under
the hood. And, the drag strip close by was not just any old drag
strip.This track was the storied Union Grove where many of the
big names such as Don Garlits, Chris Karamesines, Art Malone,
The Guzler, The Big Wheel would appear. However, the Midwest
wasn't really my cup of tea, and at first chance, I returned
to Northern California and started a drywall business. This preoccupied almost all
my time for nearly a decade, and with the exception of doing
some drag boat racing, I did not seriously return to the drag
strip until 1972.
There is a somewhat humorous
story here. I was going to build a dragster with Arnold Birky
and even ordered a SPE car to get the project rolling. I took
my wife Judy to the drags and she said no way, "these things
are way too dangerous"! Now, that's not something I expected
to hear given the danger and great risk inherent with blown fuel
flat bottom boats. That was fine; I was already busy building
and racing drag boats and working long hours with the business.
FUNNY CAR FEVER
As with many boat racers, I witnessed
a scenario that would play out again and again: friends and fellow
racers losing their life in this extremely dangerous sport. When
a really close friend, Ted Holden, lost his life in a blown fuel
hydro, I said, "This is crazy", and quit. I still wanted
to race, but not in a sport that was just a different form of
Russian roulette. Coincidentally, I got a call from Ed Wills,
a well known drag racer (Mr. Ed top fuel dragsters and funny
cars) as well as boat racing enthusiast who I knew from the drag
boat scene. He and another team (Whipple-McCullough) were planning
to take their funny cars to the big New Year's Day race at Fremont
and said I should check it out. I spent that weekend hanging
out in their pit and familiarizing myself with funny car racing.
After talking with Art Whipple and Ed McCullough, I ended up
leaving the track as the new owner of their recently retired
'72 Barracuda-bodied nitro burning funny car.
The 1972 NHRA Winternationals
were just four weeks away and I had to work feverously to get
my new racer ready as I had no license, no truck, and no trailer--not
even an engine. I purchased a Keith Black engine and had Don
Kirby (one of the sport's premier lacquer men) re-paint the 'Cuda
(Kenny Youngblood provided the lettering and headlights). I made
the date, and amazingly, the show with relief driver Butch Maas
behind the wheel. We qualified number two and went to the second
round losing to Ed McCullough of all people.
Watching Butch wheel the 'Cuda
at Pomona really got me anxious to drive, so I entered the March
Meet to make some passes and complete my licensing. During eliminations,
Ed McCullough (a man of many hats) substituted in my place, and
to my surprise, ended up winning the event. The following weekend
was the Northern Nationals (Fremont) and the first opportunity
for me to strut my stuff. We qualified well, maybe even 2nd,
and in the first round got paired with Henry Harrison driving
Mickey Thompson's Mustang. Such being rookie nerves, I put on
both bulbs, and waited and waited for Henry to stage. I'm thinking,
"what's he doing", leaned forward, looked over, and
watched him take off. That was my humbling initiation to funny
The 'Cuda at Union Grove;
summer '72 (Coca-Cola's traveling circus).
My first funny: a Woody chassis
underneath a '72 'Cuda mold; KB power; burning out at Thompson,
<Bob McClurg Photo>
Let's back up a little and preface
the next experience with a little drag racing history. Starting
in 1969 a circuit called the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars was
formed. All the major car manufacturers were represented and
included some big names like Jack Chrisman, Fred Goeske, Gary
Dyer (Mr. Norm's Super Charger), Kelly Chadwick, and Kenny Safford.
It was in its fourth year when I got involved, and by the time
it folded at the end of 1976, over 40 drivers had worn the Coke
shirt and white pants. It was the Chicago-style format where
each car got two runs after which the quickest two would return
for the final. The qualifying runs were important because, in
addition to the $1000.00 guarantee, there was a pro-rated pay
out based on one's overall standing. A typical purse might be
$1200.00 for the last four, $1400.00 for the next two, and $2000.00
and $2500.00 for the finalists. It was run by the Gold Agency
and their booking agent Ira Lichey. Whatever tracks wanted us,
got us. We raced all over the States and at some really marginal
This experience taught me a lot
about driving race cars in general, and funny cars in particular,
if just because so many of the tracks were narrow, short, and
slick. As in all forms of motor sports, there were a lot of other
activities going on besides the racing on the track. One night
at U.S. 30, we made it to the final, but broke a rear end when
the light went green and had to shut off. We were just about
ready to load the car into the trailer when eight really big
guys showed up and they were not looking for autographs. One
asked me what happened on that run. I answered that the rear
end broke; his response was, "show me". I retorted,
"I'm not going to show you" and that's when I got a
good look at a revolver. I pulled out the third member, and fortunately,
the teeth were broken. "That's cool man. I had $10,000 on
you and just wanted to make sure you didn't throw it". Phew!
The '73 Roadrunner at
OCIR; Kendall GT-1 hand out from 1974.
ENGINE IN FRONT; ENGINE IN
Although I stayed with the Coke
circuit for only one year (1972), I ended up selling my business
in California and bought a home on a lake in southern Michigan
to pursue a career as a funny car match racer. I met a lot of
new racing friends as a result of the Coke tour and one of them
was Tim Beebe. In 1973, we decided to partner on a top fuel dragster
to go along with the funny car. Larry Huff offered us a great
deal on a Woody car, so we bought it and put one of the funny
car motors into it. We didn't race it for long, and shortly thereafter,
purchased a brand spanking new Don Long chassis. We originally
planned to use the late model Chrysler 426 cid engine, but switched
to the Donovan block when Ed offered us a lot of parts gratuitously.
We debuted at OCIR in memorable fashion; unbeknownst to Tim,
the Donovan had a gremlin in the oiling system and on the very
first run, broke a rod. In the ensuing carnage, my nice Marc
Denakas supercharger took a ride into space, and I almost got
beaned when gravity brought it back to Earth. But, in no time,
Tim got the Donovan singing, and at Indy in 1975, our 245 mph
would rate as the fastest speed at that date with a Donovan block.
Ontario Motor Speedway
World Finals; 1974
<Bob McClurg Photo>
The following sequence of first
round action at the 1975 Nationals (Indy) was caught by Clayton
Taylor. That's me on the left and an unfortunate Dick Lahaie
on the right. The 245 mph I ran that week end was the fastest
speed to date with a Donovan.
My problems paled in
comparison to what Dick was going through.
As a driver, this shot
is particularly disturbing; upside down riding the guardrail.
I had no idea all this was going
on behind me. I thought my chute had gotten caught on the guardrail
and had a very difficult time stopping the car.
Initially I was upset that the
Safety Safari wasn't Johnny-on-the-spot making sure I was OK.
But, when I looked back up the track, I saw them all heading
to Dick's car. It was then that I knew he was involved in a bad
This was LaHaie's second bad
crash in 1975 (first at Gainesville); Dick broke his arm at Gainesville
and lost a toe in this terrifying crash. He was back on the track
a month later with a new fueler.
From 1973 through 1976, Tim and
I raced the funny car and the fuel dragster. When one was on
the track, the other one was parked. A combination of factors
lured me back to the West Coast in 1977, not the least of which
was the cold winters of the Midwest. I started a construction
business building high-end homes in the Santa Rosa area. Though
my commitment to racing was somewhat diminished from 1977 through
1985, I still found time to satisfy the nitro fix racing a top
fuel dragster with fellow Santa Rosan Arnold Birky. It wasn't
a particularly ambitious deal and we generally frequented west
coast venues like Sears Point, Sacramento, OCIR, and Pomona.
Younger days for sure.
car at OCIR; that's Arnold Birky with his hands over his ears.
No throttle stops on
the injectors in those days; Pomona Winternationals.
Wheels up leave at Bakersfield.
Sacramento Raceway; in the days
when the divisional races had top fuel dragsters.
This is Daniel Wilikson's twin-turbo
427cid Chevy pro comp car that I drove in 1978; it was a total
monster and would have dominated the class. When we ran 232 mph
(25 mph over the record!!), NHRA did not know what to do with
us, so they banned the car. It is still complete and resting
in Daniel's shop in Cloverdale.
HERE WE GO AGAIN!
Even though I was comfortable
with my part-time racing status, if trouble wants to find you
it will. In 1986, a gentleman named Norm Hudson decided to go
funny car racing. He purchased a complete operation from Roland
Leong, but needed not only a driver, but someone who could do
basically everything. My name popped up as someone who could
fill that role and Norm called to see if I was interested. Once
that little voice whispered in my ear, "hmmm, that sounds
like fun", I was snagged. Just like that I was back driving
a funny car, but it wasn't the same game. Everything from fuel
and clutch management to body aerodynamics had gotten a lot more
sophisticated (and expensive).
After a little more than one
year, I bought Norm's whole operation and continued to race selected
NHRA events up to 1993. It was at this juncture in my racing
career that I had to step back and take a serious look at the
direction the sport was going. Basically, I had to decide whether
I was going to be a contractor or a professional drag racer.
On one hand I loved drag racing more than anything; countering
that was my dislike for all the travel and time away from home.
My contracting business, Jim Murphy and Associates (J-M-A), was
doing well, so I sold the entire racing operation and took up
golfing (!!!). Don't fret, it didn't last long. By 1996, I was
cajoled out of retirement once more.
Norm Hudson's spiffy
Dodge Daytona; Fremont Raceway.
Racing Jim Head at the
World Finals; Pomona, November 1986
Same venue against "the
Getting a little help
from my Safety Safari friends; Denver 1988.
The Chevy Beretta with
the laundry out; Pomona 1988.
My last funny car; a
Dodge-bodied Steve Plueger car (1991-1993).
JIM HERBERT AND
The same funny car a year later
at the Winternationals with some subtle, cosmetic changes (blue
In the early 1990s, simultaneous
with the growth of NHRA/ IHRA drag racing, an association called
The Goodguys was promoting their VRA (Vintage Racing Association)
style of drag racing, the so-called nostalgia drag racing. What
started out as reunions soon spawned a circuit of races based
on the old style front-engined dragsters of the 1960s and early
1970s. A lot of the racers from that time built period-correct
dragsters updated to meet contemporary safety specifications.
There were a lot of guys from Northern California doing this
kind of racing, and one of them was Jim Herbert. His driver,
Ted Taylor had given up the seat due to health considerations,
and Jim was having a hard time finding a suitable replacement.
He kept calling me and eventually weakened my resolve enough
to get me out to the track to at least see what it was all about.
I ended up driving the last three events for him in 1996 and
had a blast. So, into the closet went the clubs and out came
The series wasn't that ambitious,
and that allowed me enough time to satisfy both business and
motor sport commitments. And, we were having success on the track.
We won the VRA championship in both 1997 and 1998. Then, ten
days before the 1999 March Meet a tragic event occurred that
totally devastated the team. Jim suffered an aneurysm of the
main aorta and died almost immediately. We were all in shock
and didn't know what to do next. Knowing Jim would have wanted
us to race, and with some urging from Cheri, Jim's widow, we
somehow managed to get it together and make the race. Yet, we
were miserable and stumbled around barely making the show. Sunday
morning the team assembled and we made a pact that WW2 Racing
would go out and perform like a defending two-time champion.
We ran low e.t. of every round and ended up winning our third
straight March Meet.
A win for WW2 Racing
when Jim Herbert was still at the helm.
1999 was the only year
we ran the black-brown-red-and white scheme on the car.
My face straining with
the pain of Jim's death; Bakersfield March Meet 1999.
In the left lane is Pete Kaiser
who is about to give a lesson on what not to do when you get
out of the groove and cross the center line.
For the entire crew it
was a bittersweet victory.
Moments after winning the 1999
March Meet; I should have been hysterically happy, but I just
couldn't shake the hurt I felt when I realized Herbert would
not be part of this celebration.
Wheelie prior to getting
the OSH colors; Sonoma 2000.
When I finally replaced this
dragster with a new Sterling car, I adorned it in OSH colors
and used it as a show car for personal appearances at OSH's retail
outlets. Today? It's in the hands of some capable Aussies.
This happens when one puts his
dragster on a diet (1790 lbs. with driver); same run as above;
I eventually bought Jim's operation
from Cheri and continued to compete as WW2 Racing. Unlike the
three previous years, we struggled and could not find a consistent
combination. This is when I called my old friend, Tim Beebe,
to see if he had the time and interest to be a crew chief again.
I knew it was a long shot because Tim lives in Porterville and
home for WW2 Racing is Santa Rosa. I was really pleased when
he accepted the offer because it allowed me to concentrate more
on driving and less on tuning.
The best way to characterize
2001 and even 2002 would be to say that we were competitive but
not real consistent. We changed a lot of stuff searching for
the right combination, including moving the supercharger back.
All that hard work came to fruition in 2003. We began the year
with a win at Bakersfield (March Meet) followed by an impressive
showing at the "Igniter Open" at Boise. We had regained
our form and were running 5.8s at many events despite some mid-year
turmoil with the fuel lines (valve was opening when it was supposed
to be closing). Midway through the year we finally laid our old
tried-and-true Donovan to rest and put a Rodeck billet block
between the rails. Coupled with a new set of Alan Johnson heads,
we ended the year in fine style. At the VRA finals in November,
we won the race, set a new e.t. record (5.71), and sewed up another
championship. This was also the year we became the first nostalgia
front-motored fuel dragster to run 250 mph; a huge milestone.
In 2001 and 2002 I switched
to the old-style mask and goggles.
Early 2001: OSH livery, 400 cid
Donovan, Mastodon heads, and Littlefield blower set back 5".
When the engine was happy, the
fat lady could really sing as evidenced by the times shown above.
If you look closely, you'll spy Jack Williams taking in the action.
Sadly, Jack passed away in February of 2006.
I particularly like this shot
because it clearly shows the tremendous amount of force that
can affect one of these dragsters: note the distortion to the
front wing, canards, and tires. Through it all, my Stirling car
absorbs it and sends me down the track as if I were on a string.
When Sears, who owned OSH, was
bought by K-Mart, our contract with the home improvement purveyor
came to an end. We had carried the OSH colors for four years
(2001-2004) and it had been a great ride. Now, I would have to
do it mostly on my own dime.
The 2005 season started off on
a high note. After qualifying #2 at 5.91-248, we made it to the
semis before slipping up and losing to eventual winner Howard
Haight. At Sonoma, the teams only had one chance to qualify,
so we elected for a safe 6.14 to insure we made the show (there
were 20 cars). I was paired with Sean (Bellemeur) in the first
round and the kid took me out on a hole shot.
The Seattle event was difficult
for a lot of reasons other than just mechanical problems. While
at the track I got a call that my daughter was ill and in the
hospital (she was traveling in Mexico). This was just too unsettling
news to overcome, and thinking more about Dayna's health than
my success at the track, I uncharacteristically red lighted away
a 5.97 to Terry Cox's 5.98 (it was a double break-out) in the
The debut of WW2 Racing
in its green tuxedo; March Meet 2005.
2005 had been a trying year,
but when the finals rolled around in November, WW2 Racing was
back on track. We qualified low at 5.85-254.59, and in a good
old drag race, saw my buddy and long time competitor, Bill Dunlap,
eke out a close one at 6.02 to 6.05. Yes, 2005 wasn't what we
had hoped it would be, but we gathered a tremendous amount of
data from the experience and Tim and the whole crew was raring
to go in 2006.
In the War Room
of WW2 Racing; a 2005 New Year's Interview
SJ: Where did you come up
with the concept of WW2 Racing?
Jim: WW2 Racing was originally WW TWO Racing, a name penned by
two Sacramento racers, Steve Wiles and Ron Welty. It stood for
"Wiles and Wilty and two dummies". Steve and Ron ran
an injected car, but when Jim Herbert and Ted Taylor (the two
dummies) joined in, they dropped a blown nitro motor between
the rails. Let me say that Jim (Herbert) had a great sense of
humor and was very unpretentious about such things. When I bought
the operation after Jim's death, I freshened up the concept somewhat
with the World War II image. I thought it apropos considering
that we race nostalgia top fuel dragsters rather than the contemporary
Headquarters for WW2 Racing;
I spend a lot of time in my shop prepping the dragster for the
upcoming races. The guys usually come over one night a week and
many Saturdays to work on the race car.
SJ: There seems to be more
parity now in top fuel than in years past. Just look at 2005;
I don't think any of the teams could have predicted those final
standings? What's up for 2006?
Jim: Well, I believe we'll be a contender. The gremlins that
plagued us last year have been eradicated and we're anxiously
waiting for the March Meet. It should be a great year for the
Goodguys and fans, alike. There are a number of teams that can
win the championship. Last year's winner, Rick White, makes a
ton of horsepower; Brad Thompson, the CHRR winner, is definitely
a threat. Of course, you can't count out Harris or Dunlap; they
have been there many times and don't rattle when the pressure
is on. Then, Cox-Rodeck is getting close, and once they get their
arms around it, could be lethal.
SJ: I don't want to put you
on the spot, but how about a VRA report card?
Jim: Right now, it's a good program.
It's not just about top fuel dragsters because when the gasser
and nostalgia eliminator cars run, fans stay in the stands and
watch. The show only is going to get better with the addition
of nostalgia funny car.
SJ: How about the comment
that this series, especially top fuel, is getting too expensive?
Jim: Nitro racing has always
been expensive, and maybe it's not the class for everyone. But,
it's the cheapest nitro racing around and a great alternative
to the NHRA Powerade series where in the absence of corporate
sponsorship, it simply can't be done. Heck, it was expensive
back in the 1970s when I was match racing. One of the reasons
we formed the All American Fuel Dragsters group was to show Goodguys
that we were serious about the sport and willing to put on a
professional show for the fans. In return, they stepped up to
the plate and more than doubled the purses.
SJ: Will the lesser funded
teams be able to compete or will they have to drop down a class,
especially in light of the increasing popularity of billet blocks
and billet heads?
Jim: Let me say that the billet
block has been a money saver for us. Yes, the initial cost is
a bit more, but the Rodeck handles the stress better, and is
much easier to service. Don't get me wrong; the Donovan is a
great block, but it was designed over 30 years ago. The Rodeck,
being stronger, is safer; the cylinders stay true and the mains
don't walk around. A lot of teams still use the Donovan, like
Harris and McGee, so that's a pretty good endorsement for it.
December 31, 2005, but the Rodeck
won't be celebrating New Year's tonight; "OK then, how about
some nitro with my egg nog".
SJ: Having raced out of the
Midwest as well as the West Coast, obviously you have had to
endure the good, the bad, and the ugly. Tell us about some of
those drag strips?
Jim: Once we were down in Arkansas
at a small track for a match race. The fans, though not troublesome,
were a little wild and rambunctious. I did my burn-out and suddenly
this fan jumped out of the stands and started backing me up.
Clarence, my only crew member, was dumbfounded and basically
just walked away. This fellow had no idea what he was doing and
backed me up into the water box. Of course, I immediately smoked
the tires and lost the final round; that was just the way it
was back then.
There were a lot of tracks that
were way too short, narrow, or just plain did not have sufficient
shut down area to stop a nitro car if the driver had trouble.
I was at New York National Speedway on Long Island and the chutes
failed to deploy. Mind you, I had just set a track speed record
with a 228 mph pass with the funny car, and the end of the strip
was coming up real fast. I got on the brakes hard, probably too
hard, and really started bouncing. I needed to get off the brake
handle for a moment to calm the car down, but when you see the
forest rapidly approaching, instinct dictated otherwise. I went
through the sand trap into some trees, and bounced so high, it
did a somersault and came back down on its wheels. Dazed, but
basically OK, I kind of wandered away from the scene of the accident.
Now, get this; I was racing Fred
Goeske and he was the first person to get to the wreckage. He's
huffing and puffing and stopped to rest on a slick. Here comes
the ambulance, and thinking Fred was the driver, hauled him away,
leaving me to walk out. For the tracks I like? Indy is a great
track; smooth, long, with very good visual references for the
driver. Bakersfield has been very good to us, but you have to
know when to get on the chutes because the run-off isn't that
substantial. My home track, Infineon Raceway, is a state-of-the
art drag strip. Because of the hill, it is a very safe track,
so much so, that one can actually stop a nostalgia top fuel dragster
without pulling the chutes. But, to get the real flavor of nostalgia
top fuel racing, then the track to race at is, unequivocally,
Sacramento Raceway. I love the place; it is such a throw back
to the days when front-motored top fuel cars dominated the drag
SJ: When it comes down to
the final race of the day, who is the guy you would rather not
see in the other lane.
Jim: Jack Harris is the toughest
guy out there for me. He's not going to get rattled no matter
what the race or situation. Sean Bellemeur is a great leaver
and I have not had much success against him. Then, of course,
Bill (Dunlap) because of the many great duels with him over the
Homework for drivers.
Interior decorator's concept
for a race shop; posters of the Bakersfield March Meet, PDA,
"Last Drag Race", Fremont, Lions, Sacramento, OCIR.
Jim's view looking out from his
office; "There's a spacer under the injector hat in order
to have a better view down the track".
SJ: Any last thoughts or advice?
Jim: Don't give up on your dream.
When I first got into racing, guys were passionate about it.
Today, I just get the sense that not as many of the younger generation
have the same enthusiasm and zeal for the sport. And, something
I learned a long time ago which has been very helpful in all
my professional pursuits is that your word is everything. When
you give your word to somebody that is no different from any
other binding contract. Finally, and without a doubt, I would
never have been able to achieve what I have in this life without
Judy, my wife of 43 years. She has, and will continue to be,
the most influential person in my life. I have been so lucky,
so fortunate; I have a blessed life.
Top Fuel Champion awarded
at the 2017 California Hot Rod Reunion
Over the winter of 2006 the Goodguys/VRA
made the decision to drop their West Coast Series of races which
left the 2007 season looking somewhat unsure. However, the NHRA
Wally Parks Motorsports Museum stepped up and formed the Hot
Rod Heritage Racing Series that dwarfed the Goodguys efforts.
All was good. Murphy won the 2013 Top Fuel Championship and has
finished 2nd in points three times (2009, 2010, 2016). Murpy
came back in 2017 to try again, and did it.
Go to WW2
Racing Archinve page for reports all Murphy's races through