Phil Hill, America’s First Formula 1 World Champion – Vile Gossip

We have lost THE great Phil Hill, America’s first Formula 1 world champion (1961, for Ferrari), an erudite and genteel but complex man who won his very first competitive race (1949, in an MG TC) and his last (1967, in a Chaparral). He was the first American to win a postwar Grand Prix (1960, at Monza) and the first American to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1958, in one of Scuderia Ferrari’s three 250 Testa Rossa entries). He died on August 28 of complications from Parkinson’s disease. Phil was 81 years old, a feat in itself, considering that four of his eight Ferrari teammates had been killed in the five years leading to his championship. As Pat Jordan wrote in a 1976 Sports Illustrated article, “By the fall of 1961, most of the great Formula 1 drivers of the ’50s had been killed, twenty of them in races in which Hill had been competing.”

He leaves behind the irrepressible Alma, his wife of thirty-seven years, who decisively ended forty-four years of confirmed bachelorhood; stepdaughter Jennifer; daughter Vanessa; son Derek; and four grandchildren. Phil also leaves behind a world far less interesting without him, to racing colleagues, countless friends, and legions of fans who never met him but felt they knew him. Fans like our associate editor Sam Smith, who sent me this poignant e-mail:

“Does it ever get any easier to watch your heroes die? When I was young, I was leafing through a Jesse Alexander book and stumbled across this distinctly American face smiling back humbly from beneath a wreath and a trophy. He looked like my parents’ neighbor or the man who cut my hair-entirely ordinary. You could tell that he was at least a little uncomfortable with the spotlight. That was the best part about having Phil as a hero-he seemed both extraordinary and ordinary at once. Reachable. Normal.

“I read my dad’s copy of Phil Hill: Yankee Champion so many times in middle school that pages began to fall out. I got entirely too excited watching Grand Prix when I realized that the nobody who spoke up in the drivers’ meeting was, in fact, a young Phil Hill-him! The man! The details always kept me interested: How Enzo Ferrari actually liked him. How his only driver’s championship -and the race that decided it-came about under the shadow of his teammate Wolfgang von Trips’s death. How, in the deadliest-ever era of motorsport, he never broke a bone or shed a drop of blood. How he was a talent in Formula 1 but a genius in sports cars, a man who won at night, in the rain, in the craziest of conditions, when everyone else backed off. The guy had to stop racing for a year in the mid-’50s because the stress was giving him ulcers.

“If Dan Gurney was the grinning all-American rock star, then Phil was the everyday dude with everyday neuroses. Gurney was who I wanted to be; Phil Hill was who I actually am. I never met him. I never even saw him in person. All I know is that he meant something to me.”

Well, I knew nothing about Phil Hill or sports car racing when I met him early in my career, drawn like a moth to the flame of his bigger-than-life wife, with her Big Hair and infectious laugh. Phil the yin, Alma the yang. We spent a week on the road in the 1996 Tour de France Auto, he in the Ferrari 212 Touring Barchetta that won the 1951 race, and me riding shotgun with car collector Bud Lyon in a 1959 BMW 507. After that, Phil decided I was someone he liked. I looked for Alma and Phil every year at Pebble Beach and the Monterey Historics, where I once found him hiding between a couple of racing trailers, overdosing on fan love.

“These people are driving me crazy,” he barked. At that moment, a fat guy in a racing suit spotted him, grabbed his hand, and pumped it, shouting, “Phil Hill! Fellow racer! It’s a pleasure to race against you!” Phil was sweet, the guy finally left, and Phil looked ready to cry. “They’re making me nuts!” he said, stalking off to find Alma. Journalist racer Denise McCluggage told me, “Phil was so much fun to be with. He had no defenses. He was equally available to everyone. It was very wearing on him.”

Road & Track editor-at-large John Lamm was as close to Phil and his family as anyone I can think of. He was with Phil at Community Hospital in Monterey, where Phil was taken by ambulance from the Lodge at Pebble Beach late Friday evening before the Concours d’Elegance at which he’d served as judge for a record thirty-eight years. Lamm sent us this comforting note: “In the end it was all quite beautiful, Phil surrounded by family and friends. I’ve never experienced anything like it . . . gives you hope. We all cried and laughed and had great memories . . . and then retired to the Tap Room at the Lodge. Where better to again sit and tell wonderful stories? If you write something, don’t forget to tell everyone that in addition to all his wins, he was simply a great guy.”

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