Capable, talented, hard working and a survivor in an era where open-wheel racing was taking lives all around him.
He was the original American ambassador, a guy as famous around the world as a Kennedy with the kind of swagger that would rival Frank Sinatra.
There are few men who can say they took on the competition of Formula One with all of its bizarre legions of paparazzi, the dangers of the high speeds and the strangely political maneuverings and then walked away a winner.
Even fewer Americans can say they were a true champion.
Quiet, dashing Phil Hill, the kid from coastal and quiet Santa Monica, Calif., certainly can.
Forty-five years ago he was the first American to win the open-wheel F1 World Drivers Championship.
For 17 years his record was unchallenged and today is only shared with one other American named Mario Andretti. But Hill is still the only American-born F1 champion.
It wasn’t easy. There was plenty of tragedy. But Hill stood out as one of racing’s best.
What made him unique? What made Hill special?
He was unquestionably one of the most adaptable, capable and hard-working drivers in the business. He was an engineer at heart, spirited racer and a lover of all things mechanical.
He won the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans, France, endurance race three times. He won the 12 Hours of Sebring three times and the Argentine 1,000 kilometer race . . . three times.
Hill won the first race of his career and the last race, persevering when others met a grueling fate.
In between he was masterful and multi-talented, a kid who once raced because it was an obsession, then because it was a hobby, then a business but always a passion.
“Even before I got to drive anything serious I was completely captivated by the romance of everything I’d read about it,” Hill once said. “Everything about all of it. I was a pure fan.”
Philip Toll Hill Jr. was born in Miami, Fla., on April 20, 1927 and took his first drive just nine years later in his father’s brandnew 1936 Oldsmobile. By then the family had already moved to Santa Monica where Hill’s father was a postmaster. Hill’s early “obsession” was the family car and motor racing. He devoured every racing magazine he could get his hands on and as a teen became one of the first dozen members of the California Sportscar Club.
At university he studied Business Administration, but his love of cars took him away from school to the greasy garages as a car mechanic. He was the owner of an MG TC, which he drove to his first race win 1948, at just 21, at Carrell Speedway in Los Angeles, Calif.
Within a few years he was driving when he could while working as a mechanic in Mexico in return for “sponsored drives” where he could practise driving in endurance races in Mexico and Argentina.
A series of moves that happened at the right place and the right time led Hill to a position in the garages with Ferrari in Modena, Italy in 1956. He was committed to learning the language and loved the culture of Ferrari.
Hill worked as a test driver for the Italians and spent most of his time in endurance races until 1958 when Ferrari’s star driver, Luigi Musso, crashed and died in a race.
It would be the first tragedy that, ironically, would push Hill higher in his career.
Then following Musso’s death, Ferrari asked Hill to drive a Formula 2 entry in the German Grand Prix where the team’s other star driver, Peter Collins, also crashed and died.
Again, in the middle of this misery, Hill received a new life.
He was promoted to the F1 team with instructions to do his best and help protect Mike Hawthorn’s slim World Championship lead over Stirling Moss.
Officially, Hill’s first ride in the Ferrari F1 team took place at Monza for the 1958 Italian Grand Prix and finished third after the Ferrari team told him to slow down and not take championship points from Hawthorn. In the second race he was asked to obey team orders again, pulling over to allow Hawthorn to pass.
Within two years, Hill was the one driving the team.
In 1961, Hill and the powerful Ferraris blew away the field, dominating the competition.
Hill won the title in a dramatic final race in Monza, Italy, on Ferrari’s home turf when Hill led the entire race and ultimately won when Wolfgang von Trips fatally collided with a young Jim Clark, killing 14 spectators in the process.
Hill became a grief-stricken World Champion, but America’s first.
“An honor and an affirmation of my talent I will never forget,” Hill said.
But things would substantially change after that. In 1962 the British cars routed the Ferraris and a second-place drive at the race in Monaco was Hill’s sole highlight.
He left Ferrari at the end of the year to drive for Porsche and Aston Martin and became an engineer on the Ford GT program.
He won one more time, at his final race of his career in the Six Hours at Brands Hatch, England, in 1965.
In retirement Hill built a fine classic-car restoration business and worked as a TV commentator for ABC’s Wide World of Sports and wrote articles for “Road & Track” magazine.
As biographer Doug Nye once said: “In nearly 20 years of racing, Phil Hill won the World Championship, the Le Mans 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours as well as several other races. And he never once hurt himself. No one can reasonably ask for more than that.”
Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a note on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.