When you ask about American racing car
drivers most people will speak of Dale Earnhardt
or a few other NASCAR
stars. A few may mention Danica Patrick
. Few today remember Phil Hill
. They should. He won the LeMans
three times. Same with the 12 Hours of Sebring. Twice he won the 1,000 kilometer South American race, and 1,000 km at the Nurburgring
. He helped initiate the Can Am
racing series as a factory driver of Jim Hall's Chapparal
In 1961 he became the only native born American able to call himself World Champion, when he won the F1 championship for Ferrari.
Phil Hill was born in Miami, Florida on April 20, 1927 to middle class, and later alcoholic parents. His family upbringing was not pleasant, and his better-off aunt took him in when he was twelve. Initially, Phil never aspired to be a racer. He befriended on of William Randolph Hearst's grandsons, and learned driving racing around San Simeon. Fear of polio led to him being tutored at home, and he grew into an introverted child. His outlet was a love for automobiles. He became a mechanic, built a hot rod and cut his teeth in drag racing.
He spent the war building nose turrets and collecting racing memorabilia, and later studied business. But he left in a heartbeat when he heard that a sprint car driver needed an assistant mechanic. He later worked at an MG dealership as a mechanic, and in 1950 he was sent to Britain to take a course on SU and Weber carburetors. It was in Britain that he discovered road racing. He returned and began in the SCCA as a club racer. Immediately he drew notice for his speed and precision. By 1953 people were paying him to drive.
Many consider the 1953 Carrera Panamerica to be the event that brought him international notice. With navigator Ritchie Ginther (who later gave Honda its first Formula 1 victory) he finished second driving a Ferrari in the face of factory teams. Ferrari invited him to LeMans in 1955. By 1956 he was a factory driver. In 1958 he won LeMans, a feat repeated in 1961 and 1962, each time with favored co-driver Olivier Gendebien. He won Sebring three times, once with the great Dan Gurney as his co-driver. Hill brought Gurney to Europe where he became the only American to win a Grand Prix using a car of his own design. (Gurney later won LeMans with co-driver A.J. Foyt)
In 1961 he was the top formula 1 driver along with the German Count Wolfgang Von Trips. Von Trips was the ideal driver in the eyes of Enzo Ferrari. Fast and fearless, von Trips took enormous risks for victory. Hill himself said "We all knew Von Trips would be killed sooner or later". Driver protection was virtually non-existent in the days of Phil Hill's prime. He had several teammates killed while driving for Ferrari, including Peter Collins. Formula 1 claimed at least one driver every year. Hill was regarded as a careful, thoughtful driver who took good care of his car. Perfect for endurance racing. But not for F1.
Yet in the seven starts in 1961 Phil Hill took five poles, three fastest laps and won at the very fast circuits at Spa-Franchampcorps and Monza. Von Trips was his closest competition, but was killed at Monza after contact with the great Jim Clark in an incident that killed fourteen spectators. Phil Hill won the race and the World Championship. It was a sad championship, particularly as Ferrari chose to skip the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, which meant Hill could not compete in his home country as reigning World Champion.
In 1962 the Ferrari V-6s, so good in 1961, were outclassed by newer British machinery. Phil finished 2nd after a brilliant drive at Monaco, but the team wasn't in it and Ferrari blamed Hill. He moved to the ATS team in 1963, which featured Ferrari designer Carlo Chiti. The ATS was a good looking machine, but the team was underfunded and underdeveloped. Reliability issues doomed any hope of competing and effectively ended Phil Hill's time in Formula 1.
From there he returned to sports cars, and was the primary driver of Jim Hall's radical Chapparal cars. The Chapparal 2E driven by Phil Hill was the car that introduced the downforce producing wing to racing, as well as the pre-selector transmission. At that time the Can Am cars, and not Formula 1, were the fastest road racing cars on Earth. He took the 2F to Brands Hatch to win the 1967 six hour race there. Immediately after the race Phil Hill retired as a professional race car driver, one of the few to survive that most dangerous period of racing.
Phil Hill then married and began a business restoring vintage cars, serving as a commentator for ABC television, and writing articles on automobiles for Road & Track Magazine. Later in life he was active in promoting the growing vintage racing hobby, and his son Derek's racing career.
Phil Hill died on August 28, 2008 from complications of Parkinson's Disease. He leaves behind his wife Alma and son Derek. He is regarded by everyone as the epitome of the gentleman racer. Deeply competitive but unfailingly polite and kind spirited, a very rare combination at the top levels of this most competitive sport.