When somebody does one thing, and does it very well for 40 years, they are considered extremely dedicated. “Dedicated” is a great adjective to describe Jim Murphy. Dedicated not only to his family, but also his faith, his business and the sport of drag racing.
Jim grew up in San Francisco in the ’60s. He says that his life was like American Graffiti. One day he was allowed to tag along with friends who were headed for the historic Half Moon Bay Dragway, and the first car Jim saw make a pass was the Speed Sport Special. Jim says, “The color, the noise was unbelievable and it was all very exciting to me.”
In high school, Jim started working on cars, and admits that he went to Lake Merced where illegal street racing took place on Saturday nights. Just prior to graduation, his father’s job was transferred and the family moved to Wisconsin. That transition was quite a culture shock. However, for Jim it was a blessing because it was there that he met his future wife and life partner Judy.
In Wisconsin, Jim continued his love of all things mechanical, especially cars. His first race car was a ’55 Ford Thunderbird in which he stuffed a 421-ci Pontiac. But there was little time for racing. Jim and Judy had married and Jim was working many different jobs to make ends meet. He recalls those days, “I was 19 and Judy was 18, so we kinda raised one another, along with our daughter, simultaneously.” Jim couldn’t take the cold winters, though, and so when his daughter was six weeks old the family went back to the Bay Area. Shortly thereafter, Jim went into business for himself, “Started a dry wall business and that became successful and from then on I have only worked for myself.”
Jim got into boat racing in the Bay Area. First in circle boats at Clear Lake, California, next came straight-line racing, eventually piloting blown fuel flat-bottom boats. Reality entered into the picture in the early ’70s. “A number of people I knew got killed (in boats) and I began to think this is getting stupid.” In late ’71 Jim’s best friend at the time, Ted Holden, died in a Top Fuel Hydro, and Jim pulled the plug.
Then more American Graffiti entered into Jim’s life. A former boat racer invited him to Fremont’s New Year’s Day. “So I went and became smitten with this Funny Car thing.” At the event, Jim met Art Whipple and Ed McCulloch. Whipple sold Jim a rolling chassis. The two mentored Jim, providing him with baseline tune-ups and advising him about equipment to purchase. By February he had his new car painted, and with a couple of new Keith Black engines he was ready to go.
Borrowing a friend’s open stock car trailer, he headed to Pomona. Jim didn’t have a license to drive the car, so a friend hooked him up with the legendary Butch Maas who’d won the previous year’s Winternationals. The car qualified second and went a couple of rounds. It soon licensed but not in time for that year’s March Meet. He enlisted Ed “The Ace” McCulloch to drive. This collaboration proved successful as Ace won the event.
In 1972 Jim was approached to participate in the Coke Cavalcade of Stars Funny Car tour. “I decided to sell the drywall business and moved back to Wisconsin to be more centrally located, and that’s where I met Tim Beebe.” Jim ran the Coke series, which barnstormed the country. In September, he competed at the Indy Nationals. After making two qualifying runs he and the crew packed up the car and went to a race in Union Grove, Wisconsin. “Back then lots of guys did that, we left Indy #3 qualifier, ran the Union Grove race then drove all night back to Indy.” Jim went to the finals there, smoked the tires and lost to Ed McCulloch. Later at the World Finals, Murphy qualified #1 with an earth-shattering (at the time) 6.32 at 231.95 mph. The prior benchmark for Funny Cars was 6.40 at 227. He made it to the semifinals.
Following the World Finals he got a phone call from Woody Gilmore who wanted to build the team a car. Jim took him up on the offer and the team was ready for the ’73 Winternationals. He ran well at Pomona, making it to the semifinals, and then lost to Don Schumacher. In all three cases so close yet so far away. He continued to dabble in the sport through the early ’80s.
In 1987, the bug bit again. “Norm Hudson, a guy here in town, had purchased a complete Funny Car, having never run a car before, he contacted Roland Leong who told him to call me for help.” That partnership lasted about a year, and Jim admits he was sucked back into the sport. He purchased the operation from Hudson, put a bright yellow Beretta body on it and named it Holy Smokes. “That car got so much ink because the body was a Chevrolet,” Jim told us.
That started the line of Holy Smokes cars. “We did alright, but we were a mid-pack car and only ran about twelve to fourteen races a year,” he said. It began to get expensive to run all those national events. The team would do okay and Jim’s best finish was twelfth in points. In 1993, he pulled back on the racing due to escalating costs. He didn’t just want to show up, he wanted to be competitive.
He decided to take time to concentrate on business, play golf and have some quality time with the family, but playing golf wasn’t cutting it. “Once you get this sport in your blood, it’s my drug of choice, and nothing else seems measure up, ’cause it is such a measureable sport, and I just didn’t want to play golf anymore.”
In 1996, he got a call from Jim Herbert, owner of the WWII Nostalgia Top Fueler, requesting him to pilot the dragster, but Jim was reluctant. He finally caved in, agreeing to drive the last three events of the year. Herbert told him: “Jim you are gonna love this, it is like back the way it used to be, not the NHRA Big Show at all.”
“He was right, I loved it.”
Jim’s love for nostalgia racing was nurtured by the fact that it was more about camaraderie, until it was time to race, then you want to rip their hearts out. In 1997 and ’98, Murphy and Herbert became a force on the Goodguys tour, winning the championship in both years—life was good. Nine days prior to the ’99 March Meet, Herbert passed away. Jim and the team were devastated.
The Goodguys had requested the team bring the car to the Patch and do a burnout, then shut the car off as a tribute to Herbert. But Herbert’s wife Sherry would have none of that. Jim remembers, “She said, ‘no way, Jim would really be upset if you did that, now if you guys want to take the car and run it then go ahead, but don’t do that, race it like Jim would want to.’” So the team went to Bakersfield and struggled through everything that happened, the car wasn’t right and everything was crazy. Moreover, the team just barely made the show. On Saturday evening, while pouring over the computer data, an anomaly was found. Come Sunday, the team went out and paid tribute to Herbert in the best way possible. They ran Low E.T. of every round and won the event. Jim remembers, “It was almost like someone from Hollywood had scripted it that way.”
So back into the nitro fray Jim goes, purchasing the equipment from Herbert’s wife. He won the title again in 1999, and a fourth time in 2003. When the nostalgia series became an NHRA property, Murphy was in contention for the title three more times, but just couldn’t close out the deal. “We had been close many times and even went to the Reunion with the lead, but just didn’t make it happen.”
The 2013 March Meet didn’t work out for Jim, on many different levels especially the car’s performance. On the heels of that disappointment, one of Jim’s best friends and longtime crew chief Tim Beebe decided to step away from the sport. “He told me he was just getting tired, but we still remain the best of friends.”
Not long after, Jim got a call from Frank Ousley, the owner of the Crop Duster Top Fueler, which won the March Meet. He wanted to concentrate more on his Funny Car and was wondering if Murphy would be interested in his 1-year-old Neale and Parks dragster.
Murphy’s interest was piqued by the fact it was built like a modern Top Fuel car that flexes. He also wanted Ousley’s tune-up, which had originated from none other than Jack Harris. A deal was struck and the car was brought to the Hot Rod Reunion at Bowling Green, Kentucky, where Jim won the event the first time out with the new car.
The rest of the year the team, with Ousley advising, performed consistently and Jim won his fifth Top Fuel title. “I kinda wanted to be like Jimmie Johnson and have five titles,” he says with a chuckle.
After more than 40 years of participating in nitro drag racing, Jim looks to 2014 with a continued strong passion for the sport. He has devised a new system that will dramatically reduce the number of oil downs in the nitro classes and can be used in both nostalgia and big show competition (see sidebar).
He’s hoping to run a new drivetrain in the WWII car. Because most of the current Nostalgia Top Fuelers are high gear only, Jim’s experimenting with a bigger tire and a two-speed B&J transmission to help extend engine life.
Jim reflected upon the past 40 years in drag racing, “Lately, I have wondered that with a couple of different small adjustments or a bit more luck how different my life would have been if I had won those three races [Indy, Ontario and Pomona].” It could have meant sponsorship to run more big show races, and contend for big show titles.
Moreover, Jim’s grateful for what happened. He feels God had other intentions for him, and he’s content with his business, his life, his family, his God and the fact that he too can be called “Five Time,” just like Jimmie Johnson was. It’s only taken 40 years and lots of dedication to do it.
Murphy Fluid Containment Device
A problem that’s plagued Nostalgia Top Fuelers for many years is that when an engine suffers a burned piston or broken connecting rod, a great deal of internal pressure is created in the crankcase; this pressure is relieved by finding the escape route of least resistance.
Typically the route is into the cylinder heads, escaping through breathers in the valve covers. While in theory it seems to be a good idea and in many cases it does work, it’s not efficient.
Many times the pressure is so great it starts to push out sealing gaskets. This pressure carries engine oil with it as it ventilates to the outside atmosphere, depositing oil everywhere.
If the pressure cannot escape in that manner, it will back up the oil system, causing the oil pan or an external oil tank to explode, dumping nearly 3 gallons of oil on the track.
Jim Murphy, with the assistance of a good friend and engineer Jim Head, has devised a cure. Their innovation is designed to evacuate the pressure from the crank case in a much more efficient manner.
According to Jim, “We opened the four holes in the lifter valley from 5/16 inch to a rectangular opening of .900 x 1.00 initially. We then built an aluminum shield to direct the oil thrown up from the crank and cam. This shield directed that oil back into the crankcase. I then mounted a piece of 2 x 3-inch tubing to the top of the valley cover going forward, in between the blower belt. At the end of the rectangular tube we have two pieces of 1.250 tubing that connect to the upper frame rail with hose. This then vents to the rear of the car and into the puke tank. We also have an independent breather that comes off the dry sump oil tank into the bottom rail and back to its own smaller tank. The single line for this is also 1.250. The reason behind a separate vent for the dry sump tank is to prevent a fire from going back into the tank and have it explode. The thinking behind this system is it allows the crankcase to breathe and not build up pressure that tries to come out of every orifice in the engine. The puke tank holds three gallons of oil, which is larger than required by the NHRA rules.”
Jim tested the containment system twice at Boise, and most recently at the March Meet. On all three occasions the system worked as designed, keeping oil off the track. According to Jim, NHRA officials spent quite a bit of time looking at the system and seemed to be impressed with it.
There are many who feel the system should be mandatory on Nostalgia Top Fuelers and Funny Cars. Since there were four nitro-induced oil downs at the March Meet, it might be a good idea.
Please note: These two below photos need to be attached to the Sidebar, and not the main story.
Text and Photos by Brian Losness