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Phil Hill
November 06, 1961
Phil Hill, 34, one of the most gifted yet least recognized of U.S. sports figures, has brought home the world automobile racing title. Turn the page for his candid self-portrait
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November 06, 1961

A Champion's Secret Thoughts

Phil Hill, 34, one of the most gifted yet least recognized of U.S. sports figures, has brought home the world automobile racing title. Turn the page for his candid self-portrait

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This is both an automotive age and an age of anxiety; I suppose it is only natural that the first American world champion driver not only should be a guy who has been pretty far out on cars for as long as he can remember but one who also has been described as anxious in four or five languages. Being that guy, I would be the last to claim that he is as relaxed as, say, the public Perry Co mo. But I take exception to the view, which seems to be widely held, that I am some kind of suicidal basket case who can't help exposing his raw nerve ends to the tensions and dangers of Grand Prix racing.

Let me say first of all that racing has been good to me. Winning the world championship was my highest goal. I am proud of having achieved it. Let me point out also that I have a healthy respect for the dangers of racing. My driving has almost always contained a high caution factor. I have had a few accidents, but in a dozen years of racing I have not so much as scratched a finger. Needless to say, I have been lucky. I want to go on racing, but I hope that I can retain my identity and at the same time, very frankly, diminish the danger to myself. I like being in one piece and having an unscarred face.

Perhaps I am oversensitive, but since returning to America this fall I have found that I am being treated with kid gloves. My friends and acquaintances apparently believe I went into a tailspin over the death of my Ferrari teammate and rival for the championship, Count Wolfgang von Trips, in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Followers of racing will recall that Trips had held a small but very important lead in the race between us and that by winning at Monza I also won the driving championship.

At the risk of seeming to be callous, I can only say that my emotional defenses are pretty strong. I can be stoical when I have to be. Every racing driver who has been around for any length of time has had to cope with the deaths of other drivers. Obviously racing goes on nonetheless. Trips and I were friends, but we had never been especially close. I was saddened by his death and I felt terribly sorry for his parents, who had wanted him to quit racing, but I was not shattered. Does that make sense?

In any case, I sleep at night, eat well enough and continue to take a keen interest in all aspects of racing. Sometimes I wonder what my ancestors would have made of all this. My family, of Dutch origin, has been in this country since well before the Revolutionary War-since 1675, in fact. I think I am the first male member of it not to attend Union College in Schenectady, New York since the school was founded in the late 1700s. We have been a family of respectable business and professional people. My father was at one time city editor of the Schenectady Gazette. He moved from Schenectady to Miami, where I was born, and then to Santa Monica, where he was postmaster from 1935 until the time of his death in 1951.

I was smitten by cars as a boy, and I stayed smitten. When I was 9 or so I began driving my parents' cars into and out of the garage and steering them from time to time out in the country. One day, when I was 12, I was walking past a used car lot in downtown Los Angeles with my aunt, and I saw this Model T Ford. It had only 8,000 miles on it and everything was original, but they wanted an outlandish price for it—$40. My aunt was partial to me, though, and she bought me the car. My father wasn't too happy about it, but he let me keep it. My father's main worry was that my studies would suffer from what he considered my excessive interest in automobiles, and I'm afraid his fears were justified. Every chance I had I drove the Model T on the private roads of a friend's place down in Santa Monica Canyon. Today I would have to say that I am against kids having automobiles, because I feel it detracts from other more important activities in their formative years.

However, if anyone had talked like that to me in those days, his counsel would have gone in one ear and out the other. I am just as glad that I had no communication on the subject with my parents or with any good, sensible mature adult.

I was enthralled with cars and power and speed, but I already had a certain saving caution. I did not, for example, "bicycle" that Model T—in other words, corner it on two wheels, as some characters I knew often did with their cars. Later on, one of my amusements was dragging away from stop lights on the streets of Santa Monica. This was in wartime, and the streets were not as crowded as they are now, nor were the police as strict. Any kid who was anybody had "pipes" on his car, meaning a muffler and tail-pipe system that picked up and amplified certain harmonics in the exhaust and made a sound like—well, a better sound.

There was no problem in finding out whether a driver who pulled up beside me wanted to drag. We had our little signals. If one guy revved his engine in a subtle way, and that was returned, then the drag would be on. My left foot would be trembling on the clutch in anticipation as I waited for the moment when I let it in and took off.

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