We traveled to Tulare, California, on June 8th for the make-up rain date for night two of the Sixth Annual Peter Murphy Classic. This race is getting very popular at the Merle Stone Chevrolet Thunderbowl Raceway. The event was a double-header for winged Sprint Cars.
Unlike the first attempt that was washed out, this day was very warm and dry. Concern for track conditions was the talk heard in the pits among the teams before the races. Peter Murphy was all over it, as he was with virtually every aspect of the annual race that bears his name. He worked diligently with an amazing track staff to provide a three-groove, super-racy surface that provided intense racing action throughout the evening.
On this night, we saw him infuse some fan-friendly additions to the program influenced from his racing experiences “Dun Undah.” From subtle changes to the racing format, extended driver introductions, and an Aussie-style “Pole Shuffle” to determine the top starting spots, this former champion introduced a combination of old tricks and refreshing new ideas to make the evening a real treat for ticket holders.
A native of Australia, Murphy has had his share of success driving winged and non-wing Sprint Cars. At the peak of his racing career, Peter suffered a near-fatal injury while competing in a 410 winged Sprint Car race in Antioch, California.
Running second at the time, contact with a lapped car caused his car to overturn, leaving him in a vulnerable position on the racetrack as another competitor slammed into his parked race car. The oncoming car slammed into Peter’s exposed roll cage, making direct contact with his helmet and causing a traumatic brain injury. The severe concussion, combined with serious damage to his neck, shoulder, knees and vertebra forced his premature retirement from the cockpit.
No longer able to compete as a driver, his tremendous love for Sprint Car Racing has not diminished. Instead, he redirected his passion for the sport and the people involved in it to create this event. Watching this man in action, we wanted to find out exactly where that fire within him comes from, and what his vision is for the future of Sprint Car Racing from a promoter’s point of view.
One Dirt – Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get involved in Sprint Car Racing?
Peter Murphy: I grew up racing Three-Quarter Midgets, or what they call “Compact Speedcars” back home. Then I raced Midgets for a year, then I moved on to Sprint Cars. This is just what I wanted to do. This is what my goal was, you know. I never had any aspirations to go to Nascar or anything like that. I just wanted to be a Sprint Car driver.
OD: A lot of fans around the globe are aware of Peter Murphy the Sprint Car driver and promoter. We’re not sure too many people know that you wrenched on Steve Kinser’s Sprint Car. How did that come about?
PM: Well, I met him in 1985, in Australia. They came over and built their cars over there. They had a four-car team…the John Player Specials. Steve and Karl were there working on the cars for Steve, Randy, Mark and Kelly (Kinser). That’s where I met him.
OD: You also helped Kinser during his attempt at the 1997 Indianapolis 500?
PM: Yeah. I got to spend the entire month of May there with him, which was amazing. You know, when they push him off on the front straightaway there, there are three guys that get to move the car. I got to be one of the three guys that pushed him up there. I was like from me to you [motions with his hands] away from Jim Neighbors while he was singing. It was just good, y’know.
OD: Through that experience came a great friendship that still exists today, right?
PM: Oh yeah! Right after my crash, he tried pretty hard to get a hold of my family. He finally got a hold of my wife, and he was just beside himself. He started telling her what she needed to do and asking her if she needed help. He was asking what he could do and whatever else. Then later when I couldn’t race anymore, the people I raced for in New Zealand needed someone to race their car for them. We took Steve over there and he drove [their car]. He had a replica of my suit, a replica of my helmet, and a car that looked just like mine.
I’ve always liked working for him. The last time we were together in Australia, he won the 50 Thousand. It was a tribute [race] for him. He was on fire at Western Springs on the last night, and he won. I’m not sure if that was his last win, but it was pretty close to it. In the end, I’ve basically become family with Steve.
OD: Would you say having experience as a mechanic and a chassis guy helped you in your driving career?
PM: Oh yeah. I was never wealthy. I’m still not wealthy. So, if I couldn’t race, I would work on people’s race cars. There was no one better to work with than Steve [Kinser], Scott Gerkin, and obviously Karl [Kinser]. When I went back there to work on the green team, Scott was around a lot. You’ve got to pick up all their good habits.
OD: Was it an easy transition getting used to the tracks in the U.S. or did you struggle at first?
PM: Um, yeah, I guess. I mean my twelfth night [in a Sprint Car] over here was at Knoxville [Iowa]. I didn’t win or anything like that though. California conditions are a lot more similar to home. But it doesn’t matter really. If you enjoy racing and you have a goal and a passion for racing, you need to be well-versed on changing and adapting.
OD: How would you say the competition in the States stacks up against the boys Down Under?
PM: It’s tough down there in Australia. They’ve got some heavy hitters. They’ve got some money behind their teams down there. It’s not as simple as thinking you’re just going to get over there and win, that’s for sure. It’s pretty good though. I like going home every now and then.
OD: During your career, you’ve wheeled TQ’s, midgets, winged Sprint Cars, non-wing Sprints, 360’s and 410’s. Was there one type of race car that appealed most to you, or were you willing to strap into anything that had four wheels and an engine?
PM: Anything that was a Sprint Car.
OD: You had picked up the New Zealand Sprint Car title in 2013, and later in the summer you experienced a career-ending crash. What, if anything, do you remember about that night?
PM: I remember getting there. I remember bits and pieces before the crash. But then anything that I remember from that point on is from what I’ve seen [in videos]. You know there’s some pretty good footage of it in different places. That’s where my knowledge of it comes from.
OD: How have you managed to get past the physical and emotional toll that you had to endure and come back even stronger?
PM: I was told that I couldn’t drive anymore, because I’ve had too many concussions – and the last one was a good one. I had blood on the brain and compression fractures [to the spine]. I had a traumatic brain injury. There are three different versions of traumatic brain injuries. I had the middle one. I had to see a psychiatrist because I got depression when I was told I couldn’t race anymore. That didn’t sit well with me. But the best thing that ever happened to me through any of that was a phone call from Brad Doty.
You know, the first race I ever went to [in America] was the Kings Royal in 1988, and Brad got hurt in that race. If you read his book, there’s a part in there where he’s in the hospital and the doctor comes into his room. All the racers are there, and his family is there, and the doctor tells him he’s never gonna walk again. I was in the room when that happened. I was actually holding the door open, because it was so hot.
Then 20-or-so years later, he is calling me and telling me what I need to do. He says don’t drive again. He said you need to do this, that, and this. So, I came back and took a couple of laps [in a Sprint Car] and I got out and I retired. It made a big difference. Not to say that I don’t still get depressed from time to time, but that just cleared a lot of things up right there. It was MY decision. Brad Doty was a big influence on that.
OD: Things still were not easy for you after that though. You’ve had a long road to regaining what you had before the accident, haven’t you?
PM: Yeah. There are so many things I had to learn. I had to learn how to shower. I didn’t know how to have a shower – I had to be taught. I had to learn how to do mathematics. I had to learn how to read a clock; I couldn’t tell time. So many things just took forever to figure out.
But I am fitter now than I ever was, because I do CrossFit. I do it six days a week. Not that I’m any good at it. Before I would lose balance 20-30 times a day. I would feel like I was going to fall over. When I would lose balance that many times, I would also lose vision. When I got hit in the head [during the crash], both of my [inner] ear crystals were knocked out. They got put back in, but they’ve fallen out again. One five-times and the other four-times now.
I had my left-to-right balance checked. They did some tests on me for that. If you were 0 to 10-percent off [from left ear to right ear], you were okay. If you were off 15-percent, there is something wrong with you and they would try to work something out. I’m 42-percent different, so you have to learn how to adapt to things that aren’t quite right.
When my physical therapy was done, I started working out [at CrossFit] to help. Every now and then, I’ll wake up and my head hurts really bad. You just have to work through it. There’s still the balance issues. The other thing was this arm was pulled out of the socket, so there’re bone damage and cartilage damage and everything else that comes with it. They had to put all that stuff back in there y’know. Also, my knees hit the bottom side of the steering wheel and tore the meniscus on the front and the back. One was down to the bone, the other was just torn. My jaw was slammed shut during the hit, and I broke six teeth. There was just a lot of damage.
OD: The 2019 Peter Murphy Classic is the 6th running of this event. What was your motivation for creating this race as your namesake?
PM: Well, you know, we finished [the crash race] on lap 14, because the drivers didn’t want to continue. Y’know how they are when they’re not sure if they’re going to see someone again. So, we figured we ripped some people off by not finishing. I figured we need to change that. Things just went forward from that.
Now, we’ve got the Benevolent Fund, so we can make money for them too. Then I decided, “let’s not do it normal, let’s change this and let’s change that.” No offense to any track or promoter, but on any regular night there might be only 500 people in the stands. I wanted to make some changes to turn things around a bit.
OD: What are your goals and realistic expectations for this show in years to come?
PM: I don’t know. I’ve got some stupid ideas, but my goals are very high. If we got to do what we intended to do [before rain cancelled the first date], we were gonna have a band come around, with big drums, just to give you goosebumps. Then they’d sing the National Anthem. Then there would be two fighter planes come in [makes rumbling airplane noises and moves his hands in a swooping motion]. You know … just make it an event. But, then it got washed out and I couldn’t get everybody back out this time. I have so many ideas that I want to do. We’ll see what I can get done.
OD: Since the accident, you’ve become a local hero. Looking back at everything that you’ve done so far, what are some of your fondest memories?
PM: The people. All the people you get to meet. Like I said before, I’m not wealthy. I’m not rich, but I’m rich in all these people that I have as friends. I’ve got a lot of friends. If you have a flat tire in Pennsylvania and need someone to come and help you…or even if you’re on the South Isle of New Zealand…I could call someone to come help you. Even anywhere in Australia, you’d be golden. So yeah, it’s all good.