Doug Murphy never dreamed he would be out front.
The ultimate low-buck underdog of the Thunder Road Late Model division is the only full-time racer in the class that tows his car -- a well-used, ex-Jamie Fisher chassis -- behind a pickup truck on an open trailer. The members of his crew that aren't his father, Adrian, or mother, Gloria, are strictly at the track on a volunteer basis. The Yipes! Auto Accessories sponsorship on the #4 car is well-displayed, but the monetary value of the partnership, or that of Diversified Landscape Maintenance or Majestic Auto Body, is minimal at best.
But the combination works, and the Tunbridge driver is now officially a contender. At last week's double-points Times Argus Mid-Season Championship, Murphy shocked the Thunder Road crowd by leading twice for 34 laps and scoring a career-best third-place finish behind champions Jean-Paul Cyr and Dave Pembroke. On Thursday night, Murphy one-upped himself by leading the first 45 laps of the Casella Waste Management feature and finishing second to three-time track champion Cris Michaud after getting pinned behind a lapped car late in the race. The back-to-back performances have vaulted Murphy into the top-15 in points, just 51 points out of the top-ten.
"We're just running good. All of a sudden we're just clicking," Murphy said Thursday. "Unfortunately, the right-rear tire gave up at about lap 35. It really loosened up on me and I backed up to Cris. I kept looking up in my mirror when the car was good, and he was there but he wasn't gaining leaps and bounds on me."
That feeling alone must have been gratifying for Murphy. Eric Williams, the 2008 Thunder Road champion, has long been heralded as the low-buck racer making it big against the well-funded teams of the northeast. Murphy's budget, though, makes Williams' small potatoes look like a five-course dinner.
"ACT called [asking] me to run Beech Ridge, and I called them back [Wednesday] and I said, 'You know something, I have a hard time pulling a dime out of my pocket to race on Thursday nights.' explained Murphy.
"And that's where we're at. We have one spare shock in the race car trailer, and that's the only spare part we have with us other than our wheels and tires. We have no spare springs, the setup in the car is what we run every week. When I watch these guys beside us that are just throwing shocks and springs at their cars to make them go better, it's like, man, why do they do all that? We can do it with just what we have."
Murphy began racing twenty years ago in an eight-cylinder Street Stock at Thunder Road in Barre. After a few so-so seasons, he moved up to the Flying Tiger/Sportsman class. The first win came in 1994, followed over the years by victories at Thunder Road, Riverside Speedway in New Hampshire, and Airborne Speedway in New York, and several championship-contending runs. Murphy purchased the Late Model in 2007, running 11 times and finishing inside the top-15 just twice. He earned a single top-ten finish last year, but was limited by his budget to just eight races and often ran near the back. It's different this season.
"It was just a matter of time," says Michaud. "Doug's a good driver. He was good in the Tigers and stuff, and I think it was just a matter of time with him. He's underfunded and he doesn't have the help that other people do, but his dad is smart, and Doug is smart. He had a good car tonight, and quite honestly, if there wasn't that lapped car I don't know if I would have gotten by him. I think we could have gotten to the outside of him, but I don't know if we could have gotten by him."
Murphy knows that if he had pushed the issue, he likely could have held Michaud off with a three-wide move around Kyle Caron's lapped car on lap 46 of the Casella race, and might have carried his first Late Model checkered flag.
"Looking back on it, should I have tried it? Yeah, probably," he said. "My spotter didn't say anything to me and I said, 'Well, maybe he just wants me to hold my ground.' He didn't say 'go high' or whatever. You know, I was looking for a little coaching at the same time and I didn't get it, so I said, 'Well, I'm gonna sit here and hopefully the 22 (Caron) will either move down and get out of the way that way, or..."
Murphy suddenly interrupts himself, perhaps realizing his accomplishment. "I'm very happy with second," he said. "You know, two weeks ago I would never have dreamed that I'd be in this position and get one top-three, let alone back-to-back top-threes. It's rewarding to get top-threes against the competition with all the money they have. We have nothing, I can't emphasize that enough. I mean, we really shouldn't be here. And we're here and we're running good.
"Being a Tiger driver for a long as I was, I always dreamed of running a Late Model, and I'm getting to live my dream. I've been running good to boot, and that just ups that a little bit further."
Murphy looks over at his open trailer and smiles. It's not hard to figure out what he's thinking.
"Now I've just got one more trophy to add to the case and it'll be complete."
(PHOTOS: 1. Doug Murphy (#4) leads Heat 3 on Thursday night over Tony Andrews (#1), 2009 feature winner Grant Folsom (#81), and former Thunder Road champions Jamie Fisher (#18) and Dave Whitcomb (#25); 2. Murphy (left) on the podium a week ago with Jean-Paul Cyr (center) and Dave Pembroke; 3. Cris Michaud (#6) said Murphy successes were "just a matter of time." Photos 1 and 3 by Leif Tillotson; Photo 2 by Dave Heath/courtesy Thunder Road)