The Time I Drove the World Driving Champion
Remembering time spent with Phil Hill, Stirling Moss, and Parnelli Jones.
A friend was over one evening for cocktails, and as usual, eventually the conversation rolled around to cars. He mentioned that in a few months he planned to make his first-ever pilgrimage to the annual Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, and knowing that I'd attended the August "Oscars of classic wheels" many times, he asked me to reminisce a little.
Between sips of martini, I rambled through a few among countless memories: Ralph Lauren's beauteous 1938 Bugatti 57SC Atlantic coupe on the Pebble Beach lawn being carefully inspected for errant atoms of lint by a crew of similarly beauteous, Lauren-attired models; Jackie Stewart blitzing around Laguna Seca in one of his original, 1970s-era Tyrrell Formula 1 cars during the Monterey Historic Races; my daughter, then just five years old, getting to climb behind the wheel of the real 1951 Fabulous Hudson Hornet race coupe shortly after falling in love with the Paul Newman-voiced Doc Hudson cartoon version in 2006's Cars.
A smile crossed my pal's face as he began imagining all the wonders that awaited him soon on California's Monterey Peninsula. Then he leaned forward. "On one trip to Pebble, didn't you end up having to drive a world driving champion somewhere?"
Now it was my turn to smile. "Ah, yes," I thought to myself. "That trip."
I'd brought my girlfriend, and on Saturday night of that memorable 1998 weekend, we were invited to a grand dinner hosted by Ford. As guests began to arrive and gather around the bar, I scanned the place cards on the tables, looking for mine. Not wishing to waste time, I started at a table way off in Siberia and, sure enough, quickly found our names. Ah, well. At least we'd see the food coming from the kitchen before anyone else.
Then the PR guy working the room met my girlfriend. Suddenly, as if blasted by a leaf blower, the place cards began to fly around the tables. By the time dinner was served, our names had landed on Table No. 1, also occupied by then Ford CEO Jacques Nasser and racing legends Stirling Moss, Parnelli Jones, and Phil Hill. The conversation was so boisterous the dinnerware trembled, the racing stories so vivid and colorful I felt naked not wearing fireproof underwear. The dinner (I still have the menu) featured Dungeness crab cakes, merlot-glazed hanger steak, and 1995 Stag's Leap cabernet. I tried to order dessert four times to keep the evening going. It was like a real-life version of "If you could have dinner with anyone you wanted . . . " And I, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with it.
After coffee, we were presented with a series of books focusing on the drivers in attendance. Each tome was passed around the table to be signed by its appropriate racing luminary. My books received the expected dry inscriptions: "To Arthur St. Antoine—Phil Hill" inside one; on the cover page of another, simply, "Stirling Moss." My girlfriend had been sitting next to Jones, the winner of the 1963 Indianapolis 500, all night. When he handed her a copy of Indianapolis Racing Memories, 1961-1969, her book was signed, "With love, Parnelli Jones."
She had to fly home the next day (but not before we'd walked among the priceless wheels on the storied Concours lawn that morning), then—and here my memory fails me—either that night or the night after, I found myself among a small group heading to the airport to catch a flight back to Los Angeles. We were to drive ourselves and leave the car (a Jeep Grand Cherokee, I think) at the rental agency. Somebody tossed me the keys. And then I saw Phil Hill: three-time winner of Le Mans, three-time winner of the 12 Hours of Sebring, Formula 1 world champion in 1961 for Ferrari, the first American ever to win the world driving championship. Hill climbed into the middle of the back seat and belted in.
I could feel the master's eyes behind me recording my every move. It was like trying to draw a bull with Pablo Picasso breathing down your neck. Finally, after a half-hour or so sweating on the witness stand, I pulled into the airport. As I climbed from the driver's seat, I was well aware that a damning verdict might be on its way. We all gathered at the rear gate to collect our bags. Then Hill turned to me. I just stood there, waiting. Suddenly Hill nodded. "Have a good flight," he said with a smile, shaking my hand. And with that he headed off on his own to check in.
I had not impressed the former driving champion of the world. Wasn't possible. But it did appear that I at least hadn't inspired any undue grinding of his teeth. I had just won my own sort of Grand Prix. I headed to the airport lounge to collect my trophy.
An unexpected postscript to the Pebble dinner: Almost exactly a year later, my girlfriend having become my wife, my bride and I were on our way to Tanzania for our honeymoon. We had a one-night stopover in London and found a cozy Lebanese restaurant in Mayfair for dinner. We'd barely tucked into our falafel and tabbouleh when my wife looked up, her eyes wide. "Hey! There's Stirling Moss!" I lifted my head, and sure enough, the near-mythical driver who'd won almost half of the races he ever competed in was coming through the door. "We should go say hello!" my wife said, utterly unburdened by meekness.
"Oh, honey." I rolled my eyes. "That's Stirling Moss. Do you have any idea how many fans he meets on any given day? Besides, we only met him for a few hours over dinner, and that was a whole year ago and—" My wife's smile cut me off. I looked over, and across the room was Stirling Moss. He was looking at my wife, and he wasn't just beaming—he was standing on his toes and waving "Hi!"