Phil Hill, a reserved Californian who became a gifted race-car driver and the only U.S.-born driver to win the Formula One international auto-racing championship, died Thursday. He was 81.
Hill died at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula of complications from Parkinson’s disease, said John Lamm, a close friend who is also editor-at-large of Road & Track magazine.
“It’s a sad day,” said Carroll Shelby, a close friend of Hill’s who became a celebrated sports car builder after retiring from racing. “Phil was an excellent race-car driver with a unique feel for the car, and his real expertise was in long-distance racing.”
Hill won the Formula One title for Ferrari in 1961. He also was the first American to win the 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans, France -- a race he would win twice again -- and he won the Sebring 12-hour race three times, among many other victories.
“Phil set the standard” for other American drivers who competed overseas, such as Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti, Shav Glick, the longtime motor sports writer for The Times, wrote in 2006.
(The Italian-born Andretti, whose family immigrated to the United States when he was a teenager, won the Formula One title in 1978.)
Hill “also was a great representative of the sport,” Glick wrote, adding that he was “quiet and not given to self-promotion. A very gracious man.”
Shelby, who won Le Mans in 1959, recalled Hill as a man with “multiple talents.”
“Phil tuned pianos, he could take anything apart and put it back together, and he loved opera,” Shelby told The Times.
Gurney, another friend of Hill’s, said Hill “had pride in his accomplishments and abilities, but he didn’t overwhelm you with it. He also loved the history and the allure of the automobile.”
Hill won his Formula One championship in the season’s penultimate race in Monza, Italy, after he had swapped the series lead all year with his Ferrari teammate Wolfgang von Trips of Germany.
In the same race, Von Trips died in a crash that also killed 14 spectators. As a result, Ferrari did not participate in the season’s final race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Hill was unable to celebrate his championship in his home country.
Hill, despite driving with safety gear that paled by today’s standards, never suffered a serious injury in his career. He retired from driving in 1967 at 39.
“I had an amazing amount of luck to race for 22 years and not a drop of blood or a broken bone,” Hill once said. Then he quipped: “Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough.”
But racing was not always easy for Hill. According to Formula One’s website, Hill was “profoundly intelligent and deeply sensitive,” a driver “always fearful and throughout his career he struggled to find a balance between the perils and pleasures of his profession.”
At one point in the early 1950s, he stopped racing for 10 months because of stomach ulcers, but then returned and “by the mid-1950s he had become America’s best sports car racer,” the website said.
Philip Toll Hill was born in Miami on April 20, 1927, and was raised in Santa Monica.
His love of cars began at an early age and, when he was 12, his aunt bought him a Model T Ford that he would drive on private roads in Santa Monica Canyon.
He studied business administration at USC from 1945 to ’47 but eventually dropped out because his passion was race cars.
Hill worked as a mechanic on other drivers’ cars and, in the early to mid-1950s, drove in races in Santa Ana, Pebble Beach, Mexico and Europe and eventually joined the Ferrari team.
In September 1958, Hill finally got the ride he wanted in a Ferrari Formula One car, which would culminate with his world title.
The first of Hill’s Le Mans victories also came in 1958, when he co-drove a Ferrari with Olivier Gendebien.
After retiring, Hill focused much of his attention on his lifelong love of classic automobiles, as well as his collection of player pianos and other antique musical instruments.
He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1991.
Hill is survived by his wife, Alma; a son, Derek, of Culver City; a daughter, Vanessa Rogers of Phoenix; a stepdaughter, Jennifer Delaney of Niwot, Colo.; and four grandchildren.