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Remembering Phil Hill

It’s been nearly a week since the Italian Grand Prix run at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, in Monza, Italy – and already, I miss Phil Hill. As the first American to win the Formula One Driver’s Championship in 1961, Hill, who died of complications from Parkinson’s Disease August 28, 2008, in Monterey, California, was an important influence on the world of automobiles, racing, and International relations.


Even as recently as this year, Hill was a constant, loyal attendee at races all over the world and as such, was an influence on the culture of things automotive and served as an American ambassador of good will. When I think about the risk that drivers faced in F-1 and other forms of racing in the 1950s and ’60s, it’s amazing Hill even lived to tell the tale.

Today, driver’s run in technically sophisticated machines that, while demanding, are in the same category technically as fighter jets. Competition is fierce and in recent memory, championships are won by drivers who not only score lots of points, but win lots of races in reliable equipment. Hill, who raced from 1958 to 1966, ran in far more rudimentary racing cars, although advanced for their time. Death and injury was a common occurrence and multiple drivers might perish in a single season.
He won only three races while driving in Formula One, yet his championship set in motion more than 46 years of delight, loyalty, and respect for one of the sport’s most interesting and thoughtful ambassadors.
Hill actually stopped racing at one point, as the stress on his body and mind physically sickened him, but he resumed and said there was something remarkable about the ability to become “one with the car” when it was performing up to snuff. He retired early in 1967 with a mantle of trophies won in nearly every form of motorsport. In those days, drivers would compete in a wide range of skills, and Phil loved cars of all types, sizes and styles.
Hill used his success to build a highly respected automotive restoration company, Hill & Vaughn, and most importantly, spent his time around cars and people, all over the world. He tested cars for magazines, setting lap times that blew his younger automotive scribes away even into his seventies. As the years took away some of his mobility, his mind continued to be as sharp as a tack – and he did everything in his power to continue to make appearances. In fact, he was attending the Monterey Historic Races this August when he took ill and was hospitalized for the last time.
Phil Hill was not a friend of mine, but like so many people, I knew him. More than twenty years ago, I was close with a man actively involved with Ferrari and Formula One. He introduced me to racing and helped me with my first driving schools. He owned a restaurant in Santa Monica, where everything was imported from Italy, from the dishes to the glass in the windows and the staff. On Sundays, the restaurant would be closed and the owner would cook for his friends. Hill and his wife Alma would be at these dinners and the three of us were often the only non-Europeans at the table. Hill would help translate some of the Italian jokes that were directed at me, and made everyone laugh with his tales of motorsport yore and the personalities and drivers he spent his life with.
One day, Hill and I talked a bit about the race where he won his Championship in 1961. He was racing for Ferrari and it was the end of the season. The track was the famed Monza circuit and Hill was not pleased with his car during practice or qualifying. He was locked in a battle with another Ferrari driver, Wolfgang Von Trips who was leading in the points to Hill. Trips would have become Germany’s first Formula One champion by finishing the race in third place or higher. But during the race, his Ferrari collided with the Lotus of Jimmy Clark and literally flew into a side barrier, throwing Von Trips from the car, fatally injuring him and killing 15 spectators. Hill went on to win the race, and became the first American F-1 Champion, but he also had to deal with the emotions one has when a teammate is killed.
Ferrari decided not to attend the final F-1 race at Watkins Glen out of respect to Von Trips and as such, Hill was denied the opportunity to celebrate his Championship in his home country. It was also to be his last victory in a Formula One car. I don’t think he liked to talk about it, actually, but he was always ready to please others. As such, he endured the questions from me and countless others, about that race and about everything racing. He was a man who created life-long friendships wherever he went.
On another day, I asked Hill how many people had purchased Ferrari sportscars after learning about his career and he laughed, saying, “I don’t know, but please call them and have my commission check sent!” I don’t own a Ferrari currently, but I have driven and enjoyed many, and I cannot get into one without thinking of Hill. His efforts and those of the team over the years are what have made that mark of interest to me. It’s a key reason why any team races and why winning with the right driver is so critical to the success of the brand. It should be noted that Ferrari have always welcomed him, both to test their road cars and at their events.
My wife and I last saw Hill and his wife when we attended the 2001 Formula One Grand Prix in Indianapolis. We were waiting for our plane and there was Phil and Alma, sitting in plastic chairs and reading magazines. We spent several evenings together that September – it was only two weeks after the 9-11 attacks on the U.S., and many people were nervous. As always, Phil seemed completely as ease and spent his time at Indy signing autographs, talking about racing, and making people fall in love with him, Ferrari and with Formula One.
It was an unusual podium at Monza this past week. The former Minardi team (now Toro-Rosso), minnows in the world of F-1 and with a great eye for talent, but little money to run up front, beat the likes of McLaren, BMW, and Ferrari. It was the first time a non-Ferrari Italian team won at Monza since the year before Hill started racing. And so, several chapters closed this past week, as Hill was laid to rest on Wednesday in his native Santa Monica, California. And just as the Toro Rosso team celebrated their first-ever victory, I cannot help but smile as I think of a quiet and talented American driver, representing his country in a match of wits and skill. A driver who overcame adversity, weather, and on occasion an ill-handling racing machine to win a Championship for not only himself and his team, but for Americans all over the world. And he used that victory to bring people together, of all races, nationalities and backgrounds. Phil Hill was a gentleman and a racer. And he will be missed.

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