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Friday, August 29, 2008

American F1 champion Phil Hill dies at 81

MONTEREY, California — Phil Hill, the first American to win the Formula 1 world driving championship, has died at age 81, but he'll be remembered for far more than his driving exploits. Hill popularized sports car racing in the U.S. during the 1950s and '60s, was instrumental in the rise of vintage car restorations in America, and had been an influential part of American car culture for more than 50 years.

Hill passed away on Thursday morning in Monterey, where he had been hospitalized following the Pebble Beach weekend August 16-17. He had been suffering from Parkinson's disease for some years, but had insisted on attending Monterey this year because his long-time racing friend Dan Gurney was being honored at The Quail. He enjoyed a long and storied career — culminating in the Formula 1 World Driving Championship in 1961 — during the most dangerous era of motorsports without suffering a single serious injury. He was 81.

Phil Hill was the first American to win a Formula 1 race, the first American to conquer the 24 Hours of Le Mans and one of only two Americans — Mario Andretti being the other — to be crowned F1 champion. Yet this glittering record was hardly the measure of the man. Hill also co-founded one of the country's most reputable restoration shops for vintage cars, regularly contributed stories to Road & Track and served perennially as a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. He was both a legitimate player and an influential observer, and from his singular vantage point, he was uniquely able to instill in successive generations of Americans an appreciation for racing and the historic cars that were his lifelong passion.

Those who met him late in his life would find it hard to believe how handsome and powerful he'd been in his heyday, and the nervous agitation he customarily exhibited belied the courage required to brave the perils of the Carrera Panamericana, the Nürburgring Nordschleife, and the banking at Monza. In an age when Formula 1 is everything in the road racing world, Hill's three Grand Prix triumphs may seem paltry. But he also won three times at Le Mans. And don't forget the victories at Sebring and Daytona, in Can-Am and on the original Pebble Beach road course, not to mention the land speed records he set at Bonneville. And how many drivers can say they won their first race (in a supercharged MG TC on a half-mile oval) and their last race (at Brands Hatch in the Chaparral 2F)?

Raised in Santa Monica, Hill was one of the young, speed-happy Californians who discovered imported sports cars after World War II. But to Hill, a racecar was more than a mere mechanical contrivance. As a boy, he'd learned to love the majestic American classics of the prewar epoch, and he never lost his appreciation for how they worked and what they represented.

A few years after Hill retired from racing, he teamed up with Ken Vaughn to create what was then the nation's most prestigious restoration firm. During the next decade, Hill & Vaughn established the template — and set the standard — for the shops that proliferate to this day. Two of Hill's own cars won Best of Show honors at Pebble Beach. It's no coincidence that Hill served as a judge at this, the country's premier concours, no fewer than 40 times.

Hill also collaborated with his great friend John Lamm to write scores of articles for Road & Track about the most memorable cars of the past century. Like Hill, these stories were honest without ever becoming accusatory, erudite without ever seeming pedantic. And as often as not, the cars he wrote about were analogues for Hill himself — rare classics never to be made again, but never to be forgotten.

What this means to you: One of the most respected and well-liked drivers of the classic era, Phil Hill had much to do with the American car culture we know today. — Preston Lerner, Correspondent