Racing at 'terrifying speeds' he shattered records, won Indy 500. Two years later he died.

INDIANAPOLIS -- He was A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Al Unser before they were born. He was the Arie Luyendyk of the 1920s. With a shy smile, humble demeanor, and dreams he concocted as an abandoned orphan, Jimmy Murphy shattered records at tracks throughout the United States.

He was the first American to win the French Grand Prix in 1921. He set the world record time for a 250-mile race that same year in San Carlos. He set a track record for 150 miles. He set the world record for 50 miles.

"Talk about speed, Jimmy Murphy hits 120.3 miles an hour," read an Indianapolis Star article on the race at Beverly Hills Speedway May 17, 1922. "He negotiated two laps at the speed, according to six stopwatches, the fastest pace ever on a circular course."

Murphy was in the midst of a brilliant racing career, driving at what analysts of the time called "terrifying speeds."

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And on May 30, 1922, he conquered Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Murphy was the Indy 500 victor, clocking in at an average speed of 94.48 miles an hour, a track record, crushing the previous speed of 89.6.

The next day, the racing world lavished praise on Murphy, the first pole winner to win the Indy 500. They proclaimed him a racing legend in the making, untouchable on the track.

They talked about the 28-year-old unmarried, dog lover who had two German Shepherds, lived in Los Angeles and took home $26,100 from his Indy 500 victory -— equivalent to more than $400,000 today.

But next to those triumphant headlines about Murphy was somber racing news.

"One driver killed, another injured in 6-mile auto race" in Kansas City, Missouri, the May 31, 1922, Indianapolis Star reported.

On the same day Murphy won the Indy 500, W.M. Reynolds was killed when his car crashed in the sixth lap of the race. Reynolds and another driver swerved to miss a board on the track from a fence that had been hit by another driver.

Reynolds' car was demolished. He died beneath the wreckage with a crushed skull. That tragedy on the same day Murphy won the Indy 500 was an eerie foreshadowing.

Two years later, Murphy would die racing on a dirt track at the age of 30, when he was impaled in his chest after he crashed into a wooden fence.

An orphan turned 'The King of Speed'

When Murphy died in September 1924, he was a household name. He was called the "King of the Boards," the "Speed Demon" and "The King of Speed."

It was all surreal for a boy who grew up wondering whether he would ever become anybody at all.

Murphy was born in San Francisco on Minna Street in September 1894. He was the son of Irish immigrants who owned a fuel and feed store behind the family home.

He was raised in what was called "South of the Slot," an area made up of factories, slums, laundries, machine shops and homes of the working class.

When Murphy was 11, tragedy struck. His mother died during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, estimated at close to 8.0 on the Richter scale. The quake toppled buildings and killed 3,000 people.

After his mother's death, Murphy's father abandoned him. Murphy was sent to live with a cousin, San Francisco firefighter Tom Murphy, and his wife Catherine.

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A year later, another relative took Murphy in, a divine intervention of sorts. That relative bought Murphy a motorcycle and, as a teen, Murphy would ride from morning until sunset. He became an expert mechanic. He fell in love with speed.

Months before his high school graduation, Murphy opened a garage with a friend. The venture led to Murphy meeting racing enthusiasts -- people who knew people who knew people in the racing world.

At 22, Murphy got his start as a riding mechanic. In those days, racing cars carried a driver and a "mechanician."

It was then Murphy got his first taste of real speed. As riding mechanic with winning driver Eddie O'Donnell at the 1916 Corona road race, their car recorded an average of 85 miles per hour, "an unheard of speed," newspapers reported.

Jimmy Murphy (right) dubbed "a famous race car driver" is shown in a 1924 Indianapolis Star photo four months before his death.
Jimmy Murphy (right) dubbed "a famous race car driver" is shown in a 1924 Indianapolis Star photo four months before his death.

Murphy went on to ride with some of America's greatest drivers of the time: Ralph DePalma, Peter DePaolo, Harry Hartz, Eddie Rickenbacker and Tommy Milton.

But soon Murphy's own career as a driver showed promise and Milton noticed.

With Milton's help, Murphy was given a factory car to drive in the inaugural race at the Beverly Hills Speedway. Murphy won that February 1920 race. He went on to win races nationwide, to drive unprecedented speeds, to become a popular champion.

He went on to become a racing superstar, a superstar who agreed to drive a race as a favor to a friend. And that race would be his demise.

'Greatest race driver of all time'

Dirt tracks weren't Murphy's thing. But those who knew him best said he would give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it. He had a kind, giving spirit.

So when a friend was promoting the 150-mile AAA championship at the Syracuse, New York state fairgrounds and asked Murphy to drive in it -- he was a racing celebrity, after all -- Murphy agreed.

On September 15, 1924, as Murphy rushed to the lead on lap 138 of 150 of that dirt track race, going 80 miles an hour, his car slid sideways and crashed through the inside wooden rail. A large piece of wood was pushed through Murphy’s chest.

"Jimmy Murphy, favored to win the national racing championship of the American Automobile Association for 1924 ... met his death on the state fairgrounds here this afternoon," the Indianapolis Star article read.

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"The car he was piloting crashed through a wooden fence on a curve. Murphy survived the accident only a few minutes. He never regained consciousness."

The news struck the racing world. Their 30-year-old superstar had been killed.

Murphy had no parents to mourn his death. But he had his beloved racing circle. The next day, Murphy's body was sent to Los Angeles with his mechanic, Riley Brett. A group of race drivers, mechanics and friends accompanied the body.

Milton stayed back to "settle Murphy's affairs and arrange for the shipment of his wrecked car to Los Angeles," the Star reported.

It was a tragic end to a career that, had it continued, race historians say could have put his name among the greatest racers of all time.

Instead, Murphy "gets maybe a couple of paragraphs in most automobile racing history books," Dick Ralstin writes in an article on Historic

"Most say, simply, winner of the 1922 Indianapolis 500 and first U.S. driver to win a Grand Prix race. Period." Ralstin writes. "That's all for one of the most brilliant, but brief, careers of a driver whose name should rank along side DePalama, DePaolo, Mays, Meyer, Shaw and even Foyt, or the Unsers or Andrettis."

Murphy was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles. His funeral was attended by most of the great drivers, racing businessmen, engineers and promoters of the time.

The American Automobile Association's Competition Board awarded the 1924 National Championship posthumously to Murphy, who had enough points, 1,595, before his death to earn the honor.

A photo of Jimmie Murphy that ran in the Indianapolis Star in 1921 after he became the first American to win the Grand Prix.
A photo of Jimmie Murphy that ran in the Indianapolis Star in 1921 after he became the first American to win the Grand Prix.

"Jimmy Murphy, as no other, possessed the quality of 100% sportsman," Fred J. Wagner, chief starter for the AAA's contest board, said in Murphy's eulogy at the funeral. "Invariably, when he won, he attributed his success to the goddess of fortune. He carried his honors more blithely than any other man I have ever come in contact with in my 30 years as an official. He accepted victory without a sneer or a strut, and defeat without a whimper. He was one in a million."

Few race drivers in the 98 years since Murphy's death have realized such success in so little time. Murphy raced only four years and nine months.

"Based on his short career," Michael J. Kollins wrote of Murphy's 1998 induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, "he might even be considered the greatest race driver of all time."

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This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indy 500: Jimmy Murphy died 2 years after winning Indianapolis 500