Overshadowed by his fellow Americans Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt it was Phil Hill who became America’s first World Champion after the death of the popular German driver Wolfgang von Trips.
Born in Florida his family would soon move to Santa Monica, California. Hill soon immersed himself in things automotive and became quite adept at the mechanical side of cars. He was soon assisting local racers and when one of them was injured he was chosen to replace the driver. He continued to race cars some of which he had built himself. His first major win came at the inaugural Pebble Beach road race in 1950, Winning the race despite losing his clutch and the majority of his brakes. Having come to the attention of the long-time U.S. Ferrari distributor Luigi Chinetti he began racing Ferrari including the one sold to him at half price by the distributor. For the next four years he continued to race sports cars, sometimes teamed with Carroll Shelby. In 1956 after racing private Ferraris he was promoted to the works team.
Driving for Ferrari in Formula One in 1960 meant driving one of their last front-engined cars against their rear-engined British rivals. At Spa in Belgium he managed to qualify on the front row and despite a cockpit fire managed to finish fourth. At Monza the race would include part of its old banking which led to a British boycott. Without their main rivals the Ferraris qualified one-two with Hill on pole. After an exciting duel the race was won by Hill, becoming only the second American to win a European Grand Prix after Jimmy Murphy 39 years earlier.
In 1961 a new 1.5 liter formula was introduced and Ferrari was ready with a new engine powering a rear-engined car. Hill and Ginther were joined by the German Wolfgang von Trips. As was custom at Ferrari there was no definitive number one. The championship season began at Monaco and only a tremendous drive by Moss in a Lotus Climax prevented a Ferrari 1-2-3. At Zandvoort the front row was all Ferrari. The race belonged to von Trips while Hill struggled with an ill-handling car. After victory at Le Mans, Hill continued his winning ways at Spa. Belgium. Now leading the championship chase over his teammate, the next race, Reims ended in failure for both drivers. Von Trips scored the next victory at the British Grand Prix but the following race was on the German’s home track at the Nurburgring.
Hill qualified on pole but the race belonged to Moss in a Lotus. Von Trips came in second and now led Hill by four points. The next race was at Monza and Enzo Ferrari declared that should a Ferrari win the team would not make the expensive journey to the United States. This put the pressure on Hill’s shoulders and he duly qualified the slowest of the four Ferraris entered including an older model driven by teen-age sensation Ricardo Rodriguez. After complaining about his car, Enzo Ferrari was reputed to ask if the problem was rather in Hill’s foot. The race was a different story as a determined Hill hurtled into the lead. Shortly thereafter tragedy struck when Clark and von Trip touched, with the Ferrari crashing into the crowd.
The result was the death of von Trips and13 spectators. Only after the race, with the championship his, did Hill learn the enormity of the accident.
After leaving Formula One, Hill continued to race sports cars including Ford’s GT40 and later Jim Hall’s legendary Chaparrals. Racing in the United States and in Europe. He scored Chaparral’s first international victory at the Nurburgring. Today he continues to be involved in motorsports and classic cars.