• Phil Hill 1927-2008

Much more than the only American-born F1 champ

Dan Knutson
August 30, 2009
Phil Hill: the first and, to date, only US-born F1 champion © Getty Images
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Phil Hill's love for speed and cars began at a very early age. It is fitting that Hill's last public appearance was at the Monterey Historic Automobile Races in mid-August. He died of complications from Parkinson's disease on Thursday at age 81.

"I don't have any memory of where [my love for racing] began, but it seemed like I always had it," Hill is quoted as saying in Tom Considine's book, American Grand Prix Racing. "To go faster was always a big deal," Hill told Considine. "When somebody else was driving, I would always egg them on to see how fast they could go. I remember once my father - I would've been about 2½ or 3 when we first came out [to California] -- had a 1928 Packard. The [Pacific] coast highway had just opened up and we drove to Oxnard on a picnic. I remember going down one of those hills and seeing 80 on the speedometer. And stuff was blowing out of the car and my mother was screaming bloody murder - and I loved it."

Like many kids of that era, Hill learned to drive in a Model T Ford. Unlike many kids, Hill's first car restoration project was the family's 1918 Packard. That started a passion for classic and historic cars that lasted the rest of his life.

Born in Miami on April 20, 1927, Hill moved to Santa Monica with his family in 1929. In California he absorbed stories of the Santa Monica Road Races that took place up until 1919. "I am certain beyond doubt that my attraction to road-racing was due to living next to the old Santa Monica circuit," Hill wrote in the forward to American Grand Prix Racing.

His first exposure to racing, however, was with ovals and midgets. And his first win came in an MG TC sports car on a half-mile oval in July 1949. By the early 1950s, Hill -- driving Jaguars, Alfa Romeos and Ferraris - was one of most successful sports car racers on the West Coast and across the rest of the country. In the 1955 Sebring 12 Hours, Hill and Carroll Shelby, driving a privately entered Ferrari, finished a close second.

As the national sports car champion in the U.S., Hill got an invitation to visit icon Enzo Ferrari. As was his custom, Ferrari kept Hill kicking his heels in a waiting room before finally summoning him to his office. That marked the beginning of a successful racing partnership but a cool personal relationship between the two men.

In his book Enzo Ferrari, 50 Years of Motoring, published in 1980, eight years before Ferrari's death, Piero Casucci quoted Ferrari saying of Hill: "He was not at the top of the class but a safe and competent driver, especially on fast circuits."

A man and a champion who gave so much to Ferrari and who has always greatly represented the company's values inside and outside the racing track
Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo
Enzo Ferrari viewed all of his drivers merely as employees who drove his winning cars. "With great skill, and clearly speaking from the heart, Phil Hill has described the wrath and fury of Ferrari when one of his cars failed to finish a race because of mechanical problems," Casucci wrote. "The American has stated without hesitation that Ferrari always considered his cars to be the essential elements in the races he has won. He has invariably given little credit for the success of the driver, about 10% according to Hill.

"No one has been better to grasp than Phil Hill the greatness and weakness of Enzo Ferrari: the influence he has wielded and has continued to wield over the empire of which he is the hub, the dubious advisors by whom he is surrounded, the conspiratorial climate which has always reigned over Maranello, and to which he, above all, has fallen victim, a climate which has pushed him into hasty decisions, and then changes of mind dictated by regret."

That a Ferrari driver was always at fault riled Hill considerably, but he later mellowed and compared Ferrari to automotive legends like Henry Ford and Ettore Bugatti. In later years, Hill became a treasured alumnus of the Ferrari racing team. "I, as well as all employees of Ferrari are extremely saddened by the news of the passing of Phil Hill, a man and a champion who gave so much to Ferrari and who has always greatly represented the company's values inside and outside the racing track," Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo said.

Hill won three championship F1 races for Ferrari: the 1960 Italian Grand Prix (which was also the final victory for a front-engined F1 car), and the 1961 Belgian Grand Prix and Italian Grand Prix. He also earned six poles, five second-place finishes and eight thirds during his F1 career with Ferrari that ran from 1958 through 1962.

Hill became the first US-born driver to win the F1 World Championship when he clinched the title at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix. Sadly, his team-mate and championship rival Wolfgang von Trips died in an accident during the race. In a twist of tragic irony, when the Italian-born, naturalized American Mario Andretti won his championship at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, his Lotus team-mate Ronnie Peterson also died in an accident during the race.

"I had so much respect for Phil Hill," Andretti said Friday. "When I was at the beginning of my racing career, he was already world champion. I watched him with a mixture of envy and admiration - dreaming that I would someday have half the command of the race car that he did."

In 1963, Hill joined the new breakaway ATS F1 team that enjoyed little success, and his F1 career ended with Cooper-Climax at the close of the 1964 season. In all, including his F1 debut in a private-entry Maserati 250F in the 1958 French Grand Prix, Hill competed in 48 F1 championship races. Honda approached him about racing for its F1 team in 1965.

"But, God, even by the time that 1964 season was half over, I had had it," Hill told Considine. "I had been on the tail end of Cooper's last gasp and the beginning of ATS, both of which were horrible. I just didn't really need another year of it. Of course, in retrospect, I would have loved it. There is nothing like a good car to get you going." One F1 journalist described Hill as a "bundle of nerves and indecision." He certainly brought a deep level of intensity to his racing.

Besides F1, Hill had a tremendous career in top-flight sports cars: His résumé included three wins in the Le Mans 24 Hours (1958, 1961, 1962) and three in the Sebring 12 Hours (1958, 1959, 1961). He also co-drove to wins twice in the Buenos Aires 1,000-kilometer race and twice in Germany's Nurburgring 1,000.

"I really consider my career richer for the fact that I raced against him, particularly my most vivid memory of him at Sebring in 1967," Andretti said of the race he won with Bruce McLaren in a Ford GT 40. "How sweet it is that I have that memory."

Hill leads team-mate Wolfgang von Trips on his way to victory at the 1961 Belgian Grand Prix © Sutton Images
While most of his sports car victories came in front-engined cars, Hill, as in F1, successfully made the transition to rear-engined cars. He was involved in the early development of the renowned GT 40. Co-driving a Chaparral, he gave Jim Hall's car its first international victory at the Nurburgring in 1966. Hill's last major race win came co-driving a Chaparral in the 1967 BOAC 500 at England's Brands Hatch circuit. "Phil was an excellent race car driver with a unique feel for the car, and his real expertise was in long-distance racing," Carroll Shelby told the LA Times.

Hill retired at the end of the 1967 season, but continued to compete in a variety of vintage and classic car events. After he and business partner Ken Vaughn sold their classic-car restoration business in 1984, Hill kept close links to the vintage car arena. A quiet man, Hill had a love for classical music, player pianos and other musical instruments. He also worked as a commentator for ABC and contributed to Road & Track magazine.

"He was at the top of his game and I'm very happy that I was able to enjoy and appreciate his skill, respect his achievements, learn from his wisdom and digest his thoughtful analysis for major automotive magazines when he would do test driving later in life," Andretti said. "And what I cherish most is that we became friends." In recent years Hill would regularly attend the Italian Grand Prix at the Monza track where he won the championship in 1961.

He is survived by his wife, Alma, and children Derek, Vanessa and Jennifer. Derek also raced, working his way up to the International Formula 3000 in 2001 to 2003 before stopping when his father was diagnosed with Parkinson's.

That Hill won an F1 World Championship, and is to date the only US-born driver to do so, would be more than enough to put him among the great drivers. But add in his triumphant sports car racing career and his lifelong devotion to classic cars, and Phil Hill will be remembered and credited for much more than his F1 accomplishments.