Philip Toll Hill is a 49-year-old businessman with a vivid, if selective, memory. He can recall the make, model, color, year and gearshift pattern of every automobile he has ever been in, and he can recall minute details of every funeral he has attended. He remembers, for instance, that as an 8-year-old he and some friends were driven home from a birthday party in a green 1933 Chevrolet sedan whose gearshift had a sloppy neutral and a spongy feeling when the gears were changed. He remembers the feel of that gearshift because he was permitted to sit beside the driver and shift, but only after he had paid each of his friends 25�. His friends laughed at him and, for the first time, he wondered if his fascination with the automobile might somehow be unnatural. About the only things Hill cannot remember from that childhood incident are the names of his friends and the driver.
Hill also remembers another moment, when, at 24, he stood over a casket and scrutinized his mother's features. He grew disturbed, not from emotion but by her looks. He summoned the undertaker. "Those aren't my mother's lips," he said. "That is not the way they were." Then, in precise detail, he described how his mother had painted her lips so that the undertaker could repaint them.
For a good many years and almost to the exclusion of all else, Phil Hill's life was devoted to mastering automobiles and outwitting death. He has owned, driven, raced and restored more automobiles, and he has attended more funerals, confronted and contemplated death more often than most men would in a dozen lifetimes.
Throughout the 1950s and early '60s, Hill was the most successful American racing driver, and he remains the only American ever to win the World Driving Championship. He began his career as a mechanic for midget cars around his hometown of Santa Monica, Calif., graduated to driving an MG-TC roadster in 1947, won his first competitive event in Gardena in 1949 and his first major U.S. sports-car race in 1950 at Pebble Beach. He was 23. He drove a new XK-120 Jaguar. It was long, low and hump-fendered, and as sleek as its namesake, but by the time Hill finished punishing it at Pebble Beach it was merely another muddy, dented, brakeless and clutchless racing hulk. Hill's driving technique at the time consisted of plowing his car into each turn too fast, bracing himself as the car bounced off the track's protective bales of hay and then jerking the steering wheel until the car straightened out and proceeded to the next turn—with his foot nailed to the gas pedal. It was a technique that showed neither style nor fear, and one that would change.
Hill built a reputation as the premier sports-car racer in the States during the early '50s and then went to Europe to enhance that reputation. Ultimately he became a Grand Prix driver for Enzo Ferrari. A Formula I car is the quickest, flimsiest and most dangerous of all racing machines. Hill approached it with caution. As a Formula I driver, he was never the fastest in the world—that distinction belonged to Stirling Moss—but during the early '60s he was the best. Whereas Moss had a talent for driving the fastest laps and sometimes even the fastest races, he also had a propensity for disastrous crashes and for punishing his car beyond its breaking point. He led a great many more races than he ever finished, while Hill, having learned discipline and restraint, finished an extraordinary 80% of the time. Hill was never in an accident for which he had to be hospitalized, nor did he have a reputation for breaking cars. He was a perfectionist, about cars and the tracks over which he drove. Before each race Hill toured the track in a sedan, slowly, stopping to pick up wet leaves. He made mental notes of every tree whose branches might drip morning moisture on the track, and of every building that might create cross-winds which would lighten his car at high speeds. He was equally fastidious about the preparation of his car. On the night before he won the world championship he forced his Ferrari mechanics to install a new engine simply because the existing one did not sound right.
Hill seemed to see things before they happened. While other drivers often found themselves in trouble and had to use every bit of their skill to extricate themselves, Hill anticipated such situations and avoided them. Intuition saved his life in 1955, when he was standing on a bench in the pits during the 24 Hours of Le Mans. "I had always worked out what I would do if a car got loose in the pits," Hill says. "When the cars came down the straightaway I heard this unfamiliar sound...pttt...pttt. I didn't think, I just jumped backward off the bench and crouched down." A Mercedes 300 SLR hurtled into the crowd at about 100 mph, killing 83 and injuring more than 150, and although Hill could see a gendarme lying nearby, legless, on the track, he was unscratched.
For years Hill accepted death as inevitable in his profession. When he signed on with Ferrari in 1956 he was the ninth driver on a nine-man team, but by the time he won his championship in 1961 four of those teammates had been killed in crashes. By the fall of 1961 most of the great Formula I drivers of the '50s had been killed, 20 of them in races in which Hill had been competing. Among the dead were his Ferrari teammates von Trips, Hawthorn, Collins, Castellotti, Musso, Portago, and others like Lewis-Evans, Behra and Schell.
The death of von Trips most affected Hill's career because it came in a fiery crash during the Grand Prix of Italy, the race in which Hill cinched his championship. Had von Trips lived, Hill might never have become world champion, because at the time the German was leading Hill for the title, 33 points to 29. This knowledge weighed heavily on Hill during the winter of 61, when he should have been savoring his title. He grew obsessed with the attrition rate of his fellow drivers, and with his own mortality.
Within three years Hill would leave Grand Prix racing without approaching his 1961 success. He returned to safer sports-car racing for a few years and then in 1967, at the age of 40, left the sport altogether. His retirement was not brought about by injury or by age, since many racers drive through their 40s. And Hill retained no contact with his former profession. He gave up the sport, he says, because "I had a premonition I was ultimately going to kill myself and, more than anything, I did not want to be dead."
Today Hill lives with his wife and three children in an old Spanish-Mediterranean-style house in a quiet neighborhood in Santa Monica. The house is surrounded by newer homes, but when his parents bought the place in 1929 it was one of only two houses on the street. He has tried to preserve the house exactly as it was then—white plaster walls, exposed beams and dark wood floors. When he was a child the house was meticulously kept by servants, and the only brightness was the colorful mosaic tiles embedded in the stairwells leading to the second floor. Now the house is comfortably rumpled with his children's plastic toys and stuffed animals and highlighted with ancient objects of his own.