The only reason Peter Murphy is standing here today is because of how he sits inside a sprint car.
“Almost like a cartoon character, the way I sit in a car,” Murphy says with an accent that certifies his Australian roots. “I lean forward.”
Because Murphy leans forward, his seat adjusted in a slightly forward tilt, the 1,400-pound sprint car that plowed into his exposed cage at 80 mph as Murphy’s own car lay helplessly on its side glanced off his helmet just enough.
Just enough to avoid killing him.
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It took paramedics five minutes to find a pulse in Murphy’s limp, bloody body and another 50 to extract him from the wreck. The Clovis resident was then airlifted from Antioch Speedway to a nearby hospital, where it was touch and go whether he’d live or die.
“Most of the time when someone in those cars gets helicoptered, you’re not going to see them again,” Murphy says. “I kind of lucked out.”
Only part of Murphy died on that evening of July 20, 2013, the part that raced sprint cars for a living on dirt ovals across the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
His whole life, every weekend since he was a little boy, has revolved around racing.
Stephanie Murphy, Peter’s wife
The rest of him remains very much alive, though the last four years have been a challenge and a struggle in so many ways.
“All things considered, he’s doing amazing,” wife Stephanie Murphy says. “Given the accident and what happened he shouldn’t even be here. It’s a miracle.”
Valley racing fans can see for themselves this weekend at Tulare’s Thunderbowl Raceway, site of the fourth annual Peter Murphy Classic. The two-day show begins with the Sprint Car Challenge Tour on Friday night, followed by the King of the West/Northern Auto Racing Club feature on Saturday.
Now retired from racing, Murphy serves as promoter. Besides raising money for the event’s larger-than-usual purses – which has been difficult despite a $30,000 pledge at last year’s event from Tachi Palace General Manager Willie Barrios that no one matched – the 49-year-old helps orchestrate races and makes sure everything runs smoothly.
Why call it the Peter Murphy Classic? “Well, they couldn’t call it a memorial, could they?”
During his racing career, Murphy was popular with fans and fellow drivers for his friendly, outgoing nature and wry sense of humor. (An example: Why call it the Peter Murphy Classic? “Well, they couldn’t call it a memorial, could they?”)
Things are no different now even though he’s no longer behind the wheel, something that still gnaws at him once in awhile, and serving in a support role as crew member and mentor for young drivers.
“Everybody loves Peter. It’s great for him and great for the sport to have him involved,” says Tommy Tarlton, Murphy’s friend, fellow driver and former car owner.
“This would be a big race if the purse wasn’t big. Just because Peter is involved in it and it’s honoring him.”
He puts a lot of effort into this race. He goes above and beyond the normal promoter.
Paul Baines, Peter Murphy’s longtime friend and crew chief for Tarlton Motorsports
The office inside a southeast Fresno industrial park serves a dual purpose. In the front Peter and Stephanie Murphy operate their family owned business, Pro Signs. In the back is a large warehouse that used to house Peter Murphy Racing.
Even though the Murphys are in the process of moving to a smaller location two doors down and things are getting packed away, the place still retains the feel of a race shop. Helmets, trophies and banners cover the walls, and most of the floor space is taken up by sprint cars, equipment and parts.
Parked in the center of the room, bent and twisted out of shape, sits the green-and-white sprint car Murphy was driving on that fateful night 45 months ago.
You might think that keeping such a visual, graphic reminder of the crash that nearly killed him would make Murphy uneasy or serve as an needless reminder.
That would be the wrong assumption.
“There’s no emotion involved in it, mate,” Murphy says while looking over the wrecked car. “It doesn’t mean nothing to me. I’m standing here, so it couldn’t have been that bad. Know what I mean?”
Only in the most extreme degree. The accident left Murphy with a traumatic brain injury; compression fractures in his upper spinal column; torn ligaments, tendons and cartilage in his neck, shoulders, knees and hamstrings; a bloody chin; and five or six broken teeth.
My head did take a bit of a beating.
Murphy has no memory of the accident, or of the seven weeks that followed. When he regained consciousness the following morning in the intensive care unit of John Muir Medical Center, he recognized Stephanie and their two sons but not where they lived. He thought he still lived in Australia.
“Everything soon came back,” Murphy says. “Well, most of it.”
The road to recovery necessitated more than just neurologists and orthopedists. He needed a speech therapist to talk without slurring words, a cognitive therapist to relearn how to tell time and a psychologist to help get him over the depression of having his career as a sprint-car driver come to a sudden end.
Racing sprint cars, after all, is the reason he left Australia for the U.S., first settling in the Midwest as an underling to sprint car legend Steve Kinser before moving to Fresno in 1997.
Racing sprint cars was the only thing Murphy had ever done and the only thing he wanted to do.
Racing sprint cars was the only thing Murphy had ever done and the only thing he wanted to do, even as retirement age approached.
“He ate, drank and slept the sport like no one else,” Tarlton says. “That’s why it has been so difficult for him to walk away, because he wasn’t able to make his own call.”
Technically it was Murphy’s call to retire because no one, neither the doctors nor Stephanie, forbade him to race again.
However, it’s clear to him the risks are just too great. One more accident or one more concussion, and he might not be so lucky.
“I wish I could drive, but I can’t,” Murphy says. “As a race car driver you have to be selfish. It’s required to do what you do. But I’m at a point in my life where I can’t be selfish anymore.”
Peter Murphy Classic
- What: Fourth annual event coordinated by Peter Murphy of Clovis, who was forced to retire as a driver after a 2013 crash
- When: Friday and Saturday nights. Friday’s racing features the Sprint Car Challenge Tour and Western RaceSaver sprint cars. Saturday’s racing features King of the West/Northern Auto Racing Club sprint cars and U.S. Auto Club West Coast sprint cars. Legends of Kearney Bowl exhibition both nights.
- Where: Thunderbowl Raceway in Tulare
- Details: www.tularethunderbowl.com, 559-688-0909