September 1924 brought an end to the life of one of America’s greatest racing drivers, and via posthumous reconciliation with another concluded a tangled tale of greatness, America’s first Grand Prix victory, successes in the Indianapolis 500, and a feud concerning the Land Speed Record. The story of Tommy Milton and Jimmy Murphy is one of friendship gone awry and ultimate tragedy . . .
They started out as friends. indeed, Jimmy Murphy was Tommy Milton’s protégé. But as proof that there is nothing new under the racing sun, they fell out in a manner that predated the late Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost by nearly 65 years. An argument — more of a misunderstanding, it would transpire — that arose from running the Duesenberg Land Speed Record car was to fracture their alliance and set them against each other until the day that limmy Murphy perished on the boards of Syracuse.
They could not have been more different personalities. Tommy Milton was born blind in his left eye and had around two-thirds use of the right. He is uncannily resembled today by the singer Suggs from the band Madness. His optical shortfall endowed him with a permanent scowl, which perhaps had an adverse influence on the image he presented to his public. He would pass his medical tests by memorising the eye charts of the day.
He was in truth an urbane gentleman. modest, shy and rather introverted, but with a notoriously quick temper. In the cockpit he was smart, a ruthless leadfoot with a brilliance for race tactics. His style was daring and resourceful. Rather unfairly, perhaps because of that scowl, he was regarded as aloof, whereas he was really an extremely kind individual. Jimmy Murphy, Bob McDonogh and Ralph Hepburn all had cause to be grateful to him when he adopted them as protégés.
For all his sharp temper he was a generous player. Among other things, he was the man who first suggested that the pace car at Indy should be a special award to the winner. Wilbur Shaw described him as; “A gentleman at all times, a super mechanic and a terrific competitor who drove with his head as well as his hands and feet,” His firm grasp of mechanics was unusual for the period. It was he who decided to opt for transverse leaf springs for his Leach Special, for example, and that innovative concept is still in use today on some sprint cars.
Milton took a long time to sort them properly and to set his car up, but when he and Murphy duelled for the 1923 Indianapolis 500, his superior chassis work saw him pull away and cruise to his second win.
On April 4 1924 he took his Miller 183 to Muroc Dry Lake and achieved a staggering 151.26mph under AAA observation, nearly as fast as he’d gone in the twin-engined Duesenberg when it set the land speed record four years earlier. Then he took a Miller 122 to 141mph, These were incredible speeds for such small capacities. Jimmy Murphy was an almost complete contrast.
He was small, jockey-sized — 145 lb of crude, aggressive and cocky racer. Without Milton he would probably have been nothing. He owed everything to Milton’s extraordinary generosity. Where Milton was born to wealth the early orphaned Murphy knew privation in childhood, and as a bi-product of his upbringing he was notoriously close with a dollar, He only raced for five years and literally came from the shadows (of other drivers) as he started out a riding mechanic.
He should have made his debut in that role at Corona in 1916, riding with Omar Taft, but Taft’s car was disqualified. Bitterly disappointed, Murphy was stooging around when Eddie O’Donnell offered him a ride as his own mechanic had been sidelined. They won. He stayed with O’Donnell, and over the next three years he also ran with Milton and Eddie Ricken backer. As often as possible he told Milton of his burning desire to drive. He once trailed 3000 miles and raced in five cities in eight days, to earn $35. That would change. In the end he badgered Fred Duesenberg into letting him drive at Uniontown at the end of 1919, where he crashed, injuring his riding mechanic Lyall Jolls.
Duesenberg said there and then that he would only ever be a mechanic. Murphy got his second chance purely because Milton had taken pity on him and gave Duesenberg, for whom he was a star driver, an ultimatum. ‘Let the kid race, or I quit.’
This time, at Beverly Speedway in 1920 when O’Donnell hurt his arm and couldn’t race, Murphy stunned everyone by taking pole position and then dominating the 250-mile race as he conquered established names such as ‘Smiling’ Ralph Mulford, loe Boyer, Cliff Durant and another driver that Milton detested, Ralph de Palma. He kept driving after that, and was only narrowly beaten to the 1920 national title. Appropriately enough, Milton took that crown.
The legend of Jimmy Murphy really took off in 1921 when he scored his famous victory for Duesenberg in the French Grand Prix, despite a practice crash which had left him with a cracked rib. The Americans entered late but thrashed the might of Europe. So incensed were the French that they openly snubbed the Duesenberg team at the official prize-giving. After a while manager George Robertson, winner of the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup race on a Locomobile, quietly stood up at the post-race dinner and, with great dignity, led his team out of the room. Subsequently they dined on ham and eggs in a local cafe!
Murphy used the same chassis, equipped with a Miller engine, to take the pole at Indy the following year, and his ensuing victory effectively launched Harry Miller’s fabulous reputation at the Brickyard. Milton had the pole in 1923, Murphy again in ’24. Milton was third in the 1920 500, seven minutes adrift of winner Gaston Chevrolet but an equal distance ahead of Murphy, which doubtless afforded him a measure of satisfaction. He won the 1921 race, and triumphed again in 1923 with Howdy Wilcox driving brief relief. That year Murphy finished third in the Italian GP at Monza in a Miller.
Like Milton, Murphy was a technical driver. He was wary at first but then became a champion of front-wheel drive, and Harry Miller’s first fwd car was intended for him. It was ready to be shown to the press a month after his death. Either Riley Brett or Miller himself are generally accredited with coming up with the concept for the boards, but they and Murphy kicked it around with Miller’s right-hand man Leo Goossens. His successes made Murphy tremendously popular. He was lionised like Lindbergh would be, appeared in Hollywood movies and had a foxtrot named after him. His public called him Gentle Jimmy.
Milton was probably the one man in racing who actually disliked Murphy, but then he probably knew him best and certainly had good reason. . . Their feud had its roots in Milton’s desire to break the Land Speed Record. In 1920 he set about largely designing a car for himself which was powered by two straight-eight Duesenberg engines mounted on a common crankcase to form a VI6. That year. however, he burned his left leg very badly when his engine blew just before the finish at Uniontown, where he had looked set to win.
Part of the time he spent recuperating was invested in the ‘Double Duesie’. It was while he was recovering that he also bullied Fred Duesenberg into letting Murphy have that second chance at racing. Murphy duly got to race and started winning, but to help him make ends meet Milton offered him the chance to work on the Double Duesie. When the car was finally ready racing commitments had taken Milton to Havana, so Murphy and Fred Duesenberg accompanied it to Daytona, where Murphy was scheduled to shake it down.
But the testing went so well that Duesenberg actively encouraged Murphy to try for the record. That presented an ironic twist, given that it was Fred who was so opposed to giving Murphy his initial chance. and then so dead set against another, until Milton, who had paid for the Duesie, made his ultimatum. . .
As he arrived from Havana a shocked Milton learned of the ‘treachery’ when he read the newspaper headlines. His protégé had stolen his car and his thunder with a speed of 152mph.
It’s not hard to sympathise with Milton’s feelings. He had conceived the idea in the first place, sunk a lot of his own money into the project, and was paying Murphy’s salary. And he’d also gone way out on a limb to get him his big chance in the first place…
“I don’t think the world ever looked so black.” he said. “I could have killed him.” Perhaps sensing that this might be the case. Murphy made himself scarce when Milton went straight to Daytona Beach to sort things out. He then immediately tried to better Murphy’s time, but to his chagrin the car had already ingested Daytona’s fine sand and the salt in the atmosphere, and refused to perform properly.
To make the situation doubly frustrating, press reports began to ridicule his efforts, suggesting that Murphy had the surer touch. Milton, unsurprisingly, was outraged.
Not a man to surrender without fighting back, he built a makeshift tent and stripped the engines down. During the work his good eye was irritated by a sliver of metal, but he shrugged off the pain and eventually succeeded in upping the mark to 156. To add to his trouble the car caught fire briefly during the run, but Milton calmly drove it into the sea to extinguish the flames. Sadly, the AAA’s affiliation with fellow timing body the MACR would not be effected by the diplomatic Henry Segrave for another seven years, so Europe refused to recognise the effort as an official Land Speed Record.
After the incident Milton and Murphy barely spoke with one another, but even on the tracks their duels were clean and sporting. Milton had a measure of consolation when he won the national championship back-to-back in 1920 and 1921, the first man ever to do so. Murphy won it in 1922 and ’24, having been edged out of a third title in 1923 by Eddie Hearn.
Despite everything Milton was deemed dour and quick tempered by the public. Certainly, he came out worse from the feud. Jimmy Murphy Gentle limmy was the public’s darling, but events suggest that this scenario was at variance with the truth. Milton was the honest star. Murphy the rags to riches scratcher who didn’t mind how he got to the chequered flag first and who stole Milton’s glory at Daytona. Fred Duesenberg was certainly an accomplice in that act of treachery. but without question Murphy must have known what he was doing.
Yet something within him could not prevent him from betraying the open-handed generosity and encouragement his mentor had so freely bestowed upon him.
On September 15 1924 Murphy was driving the narrow-frame Miller 122 on the horse track dirt at Syracuse, but while challenging ‘Cowboy’ Phil Schafer for the lead late in the race he slid on oil and crashed. It wasn’t a big accident; indeed, he’d walked away from something similar there only the previous week. But by a twist of Fate, this time a splinter from the shattered fence pierced his heart, and he died instantly.
Ironically he hadn’t wanted to attend as he disliked the dirt. As usual, with the superstition of the day, he had also tried to refuse return rail tickets but was for once prevailed upon to accept them against his better judgment. As Jochen Rindt would be 46 years later, he would be crowned the posthumous champion. His funeral was more like that of a movie star. The train carrying his body back to the west coast was besieged by mourners at every stop.
After the tragedy Milton’s enthusiasm for racing waned. He turned down the chance to buy the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but acted as Chief Steward fora while at the 500. Behind them, Gentle Jimmy and One-Eyed Tommy left a glittering legacy. Milton was national champion in 1920/21. Murphy in 1922 and ’24. Of the drivers who started more than 10 races, Murphy’s winning percentage of 36 was bettered only by the mercurial Frank Lockhart on 36.3. Milton headed the top 20 for miles driven with 10,988.3; Murphy was seventh on 7238.5.
Of the top 20 laps run Milton was again top with 8547; Murphy was sixth with 5851. Milton raced the most with 85 starts; Murphy was seventh with 50. They also featured highly in the money stakes, Milton winning the most with $134,185 between 1916 and 1926 and Murphy listing third on $123,170 between 1919 and 1924. Adjusted to 1990 rates, the figures read $954,941 and $857,871 respectively. Milton was shattered by Murphy’s death, and in private wept for him. He then sought permission to accompany his body on the train taking it from New York state to California. He paid for all the funeral expenses, and wept again as Murphy’s body was lowered into the grave. Finally, in death, in the year that MOTOR SPORT was founded as the Brooklands Gazette, their feud had ended. — D T