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Jim Murphy Bio

By Jim Murphy; edited by Steven Justice



"I've 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 drywallMurphy boat racing 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.




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 car racing.


My first funny: a Woody chassis underneath a '72 'Cuda mold; KB power; burning out at Thompson, Ohio.


The 'Cuda at Union Grove; summer '72 (Coca-Cola's traveling circus).
<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 tracks.

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.




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.


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.


My problems paled in comparison to what Dick was going through.




As a driver, this shot is particularly disturbing; upside down riding the guardrail.


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 crash.


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.


The Birky-Murphy-Trapp car at OCIR; that's Arnold Birky with his hands over his ears.


No throttle stops on the injectors in those days; Pomona Winternationals.


Sacramento Raceway; in the days when the divisional races had top fuel dragsters.


Wheels up leave at Bakersfield.


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.




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 Vipe"


Getting a little help from my Safety Safari friends; Denver 1988.


The Chevy Beretta with the laundry out; Pomona 1988.


The same funny car a year later at the Winternationals with some subtle, cosmetic changes (blue lettering).


My last funny car; a Dodge-bodied Steve Plueger car (1991-1993).





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 helmet.

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.


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.


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.


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.


For the entire crew it was a bittersweet victory.


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.


Wheelie prior to getting the OSH colors; Sonoma 2000.


This happens when one puts his dragster on a diet (1790 lbs. with driver); same run as above; different view.



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.


Early 2001: OSH livery, 400 cid Donovan, Mastodon heads, and Littlefield blower set back 5".


In 2001 and 2002 I switched to the old-style mask and goggles.


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 quarters.


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 REDs.


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 racing landscape.

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 years.


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.


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 2023.


Untitled Document

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