How many names become legends, ones that need no further explanation ?
Phil Hill lived a life that showed anything was possible.
If anything, the memorial service held for Phil last week at the Santa Monica
Catholic Community Church reinforced those feelings in the expressions of so
many who attended. Phil Hill was something special from start to finish.
Phil Hill April 20, 1927 - August 28, 2008
For those of us who are growing older by the moment, the recent death of
Phil Hill has once again reminded us of our own mortality. Currently, there is
a commercial running on American television whose message is that the
generation of 1960ís and Ď70ís Americans who believed they would never grow
old, didnít. Regardless of its ultimate truth, the message of never ending
youthfulness and immorality espoused by the commercial itself is one that
has been passed down throughout the ages. Never has belief in that message
been more true than the generation that is now dying at an ever faster rate:
the folks who fought in and survived the Second World War.
The rationale that ďif we lived through the war, we canít be killed in the
aftermath of peaceĒ is what allowed those who strapped themselves in race
cars during the dangerous years of the sport immediately following the
conflict. Men such as John Fitch, who has worked to promote automotive
safety both in racing and on the highway, were among those who ignored the
perils to pursue their competitive passions, in Fitchís case despite the fact
that at Le Mans in 1955 his co-driver, Pierre Leveigh, crashed costing the
greatest number of spectator lives in the history of racing.
The problem with the notion of immortality is that it isnít real; we do die, and
there is nothing we can do about that. And dying is what is claiming our
American racing heroes of that early post World War II era. The latest of
these is Californian Phil Hill, who became in 1961 the first Formula One
Champion from the United States, and only one of two US citizens to
accomplish that feat. That alone would mark Hill as a person to be
remembered. But, the 81-year-old should be celebrated for more than that
because he was a thinking manís competitor with not only a passion, but with
a compassion for the consequences of what the dangers of the sport could
In short, Phil Hill was a thinker, who might not have been a high profile public
voice advocating for improving the safety of both participants and the public
alike, but, who nevertheless worked to keep those goals from being forgotten.
Moreover, Hillís life extended well beyond the automotive world, including
such things as a life long interest in the world of player piano music, and not
just the kind made by the old fashioned player piano rolls of the late 19th and
early 20th century, but high tech discs capable of reproducing the exact
strokes made by the concert pianist during a performance.
Hillís interests also led him to the classic car universe, a world in which he
made a second career as one of the top restorers in that industry, and a
collector of classic automotive history himself. Yet, ultimately if Hill must be
viewed as a complicated individual, his achievements as a driver are bold and
simplistic: he was, in brief, one of the most talented racers this country has
ever produced, those talents translating into countless victories, including
three at Le Mans, and an equal number in the 12 Hours of Sebring,
complementing his resume in single seaters.
Indeed, complicated or not, Hill is representative of a generation of US
drivers, a generation that numbers among its members Dan Gurney and
Carroll Shelby, who started in the ranks of the Sports Car Club of America
and finished as top ranked international professionals. Like his
contemporaries, Hill early on found himself racing Ferraris for the wealthy
owners whose ranks filled the SCCA membership lists. Unlike them, though,
Hillís career was largely spent behind the wheel of various Ferraris on a nearly
exclusive basis. Ironically, Hill was first noticed in 1954 when he nearly beat
the factory entry in the last of the famous Mexican road races, officially
known as the Carrera Panamericana IV in a year old 340MM that had been
driven by Ferrariís North American importer Luigi Chinetti, Sr., in 1953.
Although another fellow American would go on to international fame, Richie
Ginther beside him, it was Hill alone who pushed the 340MM to its limit, and
beyond in his pursuit of victory. And, while he had to eventually settle for
second, his performance was noticed by Enzo Ferrari, who eventually hired
him as an official factory team member. It turned out to be a more than wise
choice, as Hill scored his three 12 and three 24 hour triumphs in Enzoís cars.
Still, while some have tried to characterize Hill as ďa sports carĒ specialist, he
was every bit as good in open wheelers, a fact which caused Ferrari to make
him a part of his Formula One squad (which would also have both Gurney and
Ginther on its roster.)
In 1961, the first season for the 1.5-liter F-1 engine regulations, Ferrariís 156s
ruled the World Championship. In large measure that domination could be
found in the 156 itself, but it also could be found in the abilities of Wolfgang
von Trips, Ginther, and lastly Hill. As was the case in 1978 when Mario
Andretti and his Lotus teammate, Ronnie Petersen fought a fratricide battle
for the World Title, so too did Von Trips and Hill in 1961 In a terrible, tragic
set of ironies, both contests were decided in exactly the same fashion with
the deaths of Von Trips and Petersen in the Italian Grands Prix of í61 and í78,
their respective accidents handing the Formula One crown to Hill and Andretti
as a result.
Even so, Hill was a victor in 1961, winning both the Belgium and
Italian rounds of the Formula One title chase, which, with a consistent set of
top three finishes, gave him the highest honor in the single seat universe. Yet,
his complex personality was not necessarily capable of dealing with the
equally complex personality of Enzo Ferrari and the often embittered politics
it spawned in its wake. In 1962 after a less than successful year (other than
his third win at Le Mans) Hill left Ferrari as part of an attempted palace coup
and wound up racing with the renegades at the newly form ATS team whose
fortunes were nearly nonexistent once one weeded out the bad ones. Even
so, Hill found a home with Jim Hall at Chaparral.
There he claimed Chaparralís first international triumph in a 2D coupe at the
Nurburgring 1000 in 1966. Later that year he found himself in the hunt for the
first ever Can-Am championship driving a 2E in the seriesí inaugural season,
garnering the Laguna Seca round of the SCCA title battle along the way. In
1967 he concluded his racing career with a win at the Brands Hatch World
Manufacturers event in a Hall entered 2F. There are many today who might be
too young to remember Hill and his achievements. After all, it has been more
than four decades since that Brands Hatch celebration. However, the grace
and class he brought to his profession, not to mention his curiosity and
sensitivity when it came to the world around, will always make him an
individual to be recognized and remembered. He will remain as one of this
countryís most important contributions to motorsport, and he will be missed.