We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 89 days to go, racing journalist Marshall Pruett continues his look back at milestone cars and technology.
Jimmy Murphy’s Duesenberg is a vision of beauty as it sits among the other Indy 500 winners in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. The San Franciscan drove the Duesenberg, with its advanced Miller straight-8 engine, to victory at the Speedway in 1922, and for that accomplishment alone, the gorgeous car and its inspiring ace are deserving of exceptional praise.
The tale of an American, driving a car from Minnesota’s Duesenberg with an engine from Harry Miller’s shop in Southern California, to claim his first 500 win at Indy is remarkable on its own, but it wasn’t the first time Murphy made international headlines with the pearl white machine.
Step back to 1921 where the No. 12, fitted with a straight-8 engine designed by company co-founder Fred Duesenberg, made Murphy the first American to win a European grand prix. Before his Duesenberg-Miller conquered the Brickyard, the original Duesenberg-Duesenberg made stars of Murphy and his auto manufacturer at Le Mans. Among the hundreds of famous racecars and drivers that emerged from the Twenties, few combined to reach the heights achieved by Murphy and Duesenberg.
On a French Grand Prix grid of 13 cars containing three Indy 500 winners – Jules Goux from 1913, Rene Thomas from 1914, and Ralph DePalma from 1915 – plus British speedster Henry Segrave, Murphy started eighth, quickly made his way to the front, and weathered intense pain to reach the checkered flag a full 15 minutes ahead of the rest of the field.
The fame and acclaim that followed from the win made the Duesenberg brand – the renowned “Duesy” – a household name. For Murphy, whose transformation from a riding mechanic at Indy to a factory Duesenberg driver to the first American to vanquish the best (Formula One’s precursor) had to offer was the ultimate rags-to-riches story.
Born to Irish immigrants and raised without the benefit of wealth, Murphy’s life prior to motor racing was notable for its lack of comfort or ease. Shaped by his rugged upbringing, Murphy was the perfect driver to deal with adversity on the road to triumph in France.
“During practice for the Grand Prix, [Murphy] had an accident due to brake imbalance with the Duesy’s new four-wheel hydraulic brakes,” Tom Ceretto wrote in Indy Car & Championship Racing magazine. “Bloodied, taped up and in pain with two broken ribs, Jimmy had to be hoisted into his white number 12 Duesenberg at the start of the race.”
Battered from his pre-race crash, Murphy – in an ironman performance for the ages – held on for just over four hours as the rough Le Mans circuit sent punishing jabs through the Duesy’s seat. Winning the 1922 Indianapolis 500 was far from effortless, but compared to the strength and determination Murphy was forced to summon in France, his breakthrough with the modified Duesy-Miller at the Brickyard was significantly less dramatic.
Between his Le Mans grand prix win in 1921 and the 1922 Indy 500 victory, Murphy spent an incredible nine hours, 24 minutes and 41 seconds behind the wheel of the Duesy to complete the nearly impossible year-to-year feat. Two years after conquering the treacherous French road course, organizers would transform the race from its place as a stop on the grand prix calendar to the event we know today: The 24 Hours of Le Mans.
A terrible crash on a dirt track in Syracuse, New York, ended Murphy’s life the same year the 24 Hours got its start. Adding to his 1922 Indy 500 win and AAA Drivers’ championship, Murphy was posthumously crowned the 1924 AAA champ, and in five Indy 500 starts Murphy placed an astonishing fourth, 14th, first, third, and third.
Next time you’re at the IMS Museum, stop by and spend some time with Murphy’s old No. 12. As far as racing heroes go, Jimmy and that Duesy might be among the lesser-known legends, but they definitely belong among the greats.