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.
March 22, 1976
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.
A perfectly restored violano lies under glass. An old Bible lies open on a book stand. Volumes with leather bindings and parchment pages edged in gilt are stacked in bookcases and propped on coffee tables. One wall from floor to ceiling is lined with faded cardboard boxes that contain the remnants of his once vast collection of player-piano rolls. Two perfectly restored player pianos stand side by side, their polished chestnut gleaming. The past is everywhere, in the smell of worn leather and in the burnished woods that lend each room the quality of an old, brown-tinted photograph.
Hill takes a slim volume from a shelf and props his bifocals on his nose. A multimillionaire, he is dressed in a plaid shirt and corduroy jeans. He has a creased and harried face, and yet, with tousled hair and small features, he resembles a boy. He looks slight, but he says, "I am not! I am 5'10", an average height."
He holds the book at arm's length as he turns the pages. The pages rustle. The book is an heirloom from his paternal grandmother, whose Dutch ancestors settled in New York State in 1685. It dates from 1837 and contains poems, stories, letters, exhortations and drawings. It is penned by a variety of hands in tiny, elaborate script. "Can you imagine the time it must have taken?" he says. "What kind of life enabled them to devote such time to this?"
He replaces the volume and withdraws a piano roll, inserting it into one of his pianos. The keys begin to move and the room is filled with The Enchanted Nymph as performed by composer Mischa Levitzki. Hill seems less enthralled by the music than by the moving keys. "A minor piece," he says. "Not one of his best. I got interested in restoring player pianos only partly because of the music. Mostly, I wanted it to seem as if the pianist was right here in the room, playing just for me."
The only part of the house that has undergone alterations is the garage which, by now, almost entirely devours the backyard in order to accommodate Hill's restored automobiles. His collection has grown so large, in fact, that he must quarter many of his cars in neighbors' garages. Only the favorites remain at home. Each one is restored to a state far superior to its original one. There is a silver 1947 MG-TC, identical to the one in which Hill captured his first trophy. There is also a 1931 Packard convertible coupe purchased from a film star. "You've got to see it!" Hill says. "You'll love it! It gives you such a feel for the '30s." He leads the way, moving on to his favorite, a 1912 Packard 30, blue trimmed in gray, aglow with brass trim. He reaches inside to the dashboard and flicks on the head lamps. There is an audible "poof" and a whisper of smoke as the gas-operated lamps ignite. The flames dance inside their glass cases. "It represents the end of an automotive era; it was the last year for the right-hand drive," he says.
He stops beside a black 1918 Packard Twin-Six Fleetwood town car. Hill has a particular fondness for this Packard because it is the first automobile he remembers, the one he believes sparked his passion for automobiles. As a youth during the Depression, he remembers driving it and also the humiliation he felt when he was taken to school in it by a chauffeur. He was given that car by his aunt, who owned it, and it has put in only 20,000 miles. During his racing years Hill purchased and restored old cars as a hobby, and after he left racing he and a partner, Ken Vaughn, turned the hobby into a lucrative business that they now operate out of a garage in downtown Santa Monica. The garage is clean and brightly lighted. The employees are young men except for the upholsterer, an elderly Italian with whom Hill invariably stops to pass time, always talking in the man's native language.
There are about a dozen cars in various states of restoration. Each job varies, but a typical restoration will take up to two years and cost more than $75,000. The restorers quote no estimates, relying instead on their customers' trust. In one corner sits a wine and buff 1931 Packard Club Sedan with 79,000 miles on its odometer and the nameplate of its original owner—Princess Jacqueline de Broglie—attached to its walnut dashboard. The car, restored at a cost of $50,000 and two years of labor, is in a state so pristine that before it leaves the shop Hill, who does much of the work himself, will even wipe any dust from the engine. What is holding up the car's return to a local ophthalmologist is an almost inaudible squeak in the dashboard. "It should not be there!" cries Hill. If necessary he will dismantle the dashboard again to eliminate the squeak.
Near the '31 Packard is the stripped frame of a '27 Packard that has just been sprayed with purple enamel, its original color. Every screw and bolt and color in a Hill-restored car will match the original. Once, admiring an old car at an antique-car show, Hill noticed a screw that did not belong. He lost all interest in the vehicle. He will purchase parts at a junkyard, an auction or an antique-car show or, if necessary, will reproduce them in his own machine shop.
"My cars must be sound mechanically," says Hill. "First, they must run right, as they were intended to. I drive all my old cars. I have this acquisitive streak. I love to go to car shows and mill around among the bolts and nuts—the parts, not the people—and search for some old bumper. It's symbolic, as if by possessing a thing you have a certain distinction. My old-car passions have changed, though. I can go to another collector's house now and enjoy his belongings without envying them. Mostly, though, I restore old cars because it is what I do well. I get tremendous gratification from taking something in a decayed state and returning it to its former state. It's as if by restoring an old car I lived in another time and contributed to that time."
Hill is as inquisitive as he is acquisitive. In the past that inquisitiveness was directed toward the automobile, racing and, finally, death. Today, his curiosity shoots everywhere, to the serious as well as the trivial. He takes apart his wife's hair dryer simply to see how it works. He reads himself to sleep with medical books because he is curious about the mechanics of his body. Hill is committed to the principle that an unexamined life is not worth living. He often tries to understand himself by returning to his childhood. He flashes back, reconstructing in order to understand. Why, he wonders, did he devote so great a chunk of his life to racing, an endeavor he now calls "meaningless" and whose practitioners he characterizes as "insane."
In the '30s, when most Americans were struggling, Hill's life was peopled with servants, chauffeurs, music tutors and his indulgent aunt, who bought him a car when he was 12. He was, however, deprived in less tangible ways. Like the offspring of many wealthy parents, he was overprotected. He was not permitted to play baseball or football—he still harbors a fear of catching a thrown ball—nor could he date girls as early as his less affluent contemporaries did. His mother, Lela Long Hill, was, according to Hill, an austere, pampered and domineering woman who wrote and published religious hymns (Jesus Is the Sweetest Name I Know) and contributed money to evangelical crusades. Often she forced her son to stand with her for hours in the rear of a revival tent, listening to fiery admonitions. She was a contradictory woman, however, and in her youth was said to have had "a serious flirtation" with a famous Cleveland Indians baseball player, whose name the family has conveniently forgotten. Hill remembers his father only as a serious, unloving man whose advice upon sending him off to military school was, "Be a good little soldier." His father also trained him to greet women with a bow and a click of his heels, a habit Hill retains, "a damned reflex!"
"It wasn't until the car thing that I felt any worth," Hill says. "I've always expressed myself via the automobile. I guess I sensed that I was in an insane environment and that my only escape was in something that had structure. Cars gave me a sense of worth. I could do something—drive—no one else my age could do. I could take cars apart, too, and when I put the nuts and bolts back together again and the thing worked, no one could prove me wrong. That kind of technology was fathomable, made sense in a way people never did. Cars are easy to master; they hold no threat; and, if you're careful, they can't hurt you like people can. I have been a 'thing' person all my life."
Hill was the first of his age group to learn to drive, and when others followed he outstripped them again by his daring on the city streets and subsequently on the racetracks of Southern California. Without planning it, he became a sports-car racer simply to remain a step ahead of his contemporaries. "As a young racer I was a nut-case," says Hill. "My own worst enemy. I drove on instinct, not intellect. I would go out and go too fast and sort of scramble around making sure to react to danger rather than doing a heady job."
Hill had been sports-car racing for almost five years when, in 1953, he began to suffer stomach pains that were diagnosed as caused by an ulcer. He feels now that the ulcer was brought on by a suppressed realization that he was engaged in a deadly sport. Under doctor's orders he quit racing for a year until the trouble subsided and then returned, determined to pursue his career to its ultimate conclusion. By then he had become ambivalent toward a sport that he could do so well and enjoyed on an instinctive level but which, on an intellectual level, he increasingly began to see as destructive.
His driving style changed drastically from one of reckless instinct to one of meticulous discipline. He formulated the theory that a driver affects his odds to such a high degree that he could learn to drive on the edge of disaster without ever going over that line.
By 1961 Hill's anxieties surfaced dramatically when, after the depletion of Ferrari's Formula I ranks through fatal racing accidents, he and Count Wolfgang von Trips found themselves the drivers with the best chance to win the world title. Hill became obsessed with winning it, partly from an urge to excel, and partly from a desire to get approval from Enzo Ferrari, whom he described as "a hard bastard whose ambition in life was to build the greatest racing machine," and yet "a man I respected and from whom I wanted more than anything affection and for him to be a good daddy."
Hill's relationship with II Commendatore was every bit as charged as the one he had had with his own father. Hill was repulsed by Ferrari's "pompous, patrician superiority" so similar to his father's and by Ferrari's attitude toward his drivers. "To this day I do not know if he had any genuine feelings for us as individuals," says Hill, "or whether we were just tools tolerated as necessary evils. When one of us did win it was more as if Ferrari felt the victory was doubly his—he had not only managed to build the fastest car but one that was good enough to foil his drivers' destructiveness."
To some degree, almost every driver in the Ferrari stable saw their leader as a father figure. Ferrari sensed this, cultivated it and used it to push the men to greater efforts. The results were sometimes tragic. Says Hill, "There was something about the mood at Ferrari that did seem to spur drivers to their deaths. Perhaps it was the intense sibling rivalry Ferrari fostered, his failure to rank drivers and his fickleness with favorites. Luigi Musso died at Rheims striving to protect his fair-haired-boy status against the encroaching popularity of the Englishers, Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn. And Collins, a favorite while living in the hotel within earshot of the factory, began to get a Ferrari cold shoulder when he got married and went to live on a boat in Monte Carlo. He was dead within the year. Time and again I felt myself bristling as Ferrari used Richie Ginther and Dan Gurney to needle me. And certainly Trips and I were locked in combat."
Ferrari fueled the rivalry between von Trips and Hill by refusing to name either as team captain during the 1961 season. He merely sat back and watched them fight it out for the championship that, in either case, would be his. Von Trips, the archetypical playboy-racer, was famous for a driving style as careless as his life-style. His compatriots called him "Count von Crash." Hill, however, was as disciplined and cautious on the track as he was off it. He talked about his fear of dying, a subject taboo among drivers. His fellow drivers dubbed him "Hamlet in a helmet." "I'm not sure I wasn't deliberately antagonistic," says Hill. "It was like my growing interest in piano rolls. I immersed myself in them so they would take away concentration from racing and prepare me for quitting. It was the same with my colleagues. I was painting myself into a corner with them and their attitudes so I would be forced into an action—quitting."
On Sept. 10, 1961, at the start of the Grand Prix of Italy, von Trips had his four-point lead over Hill for the championship. Midway through the second lap, von Trips tried to pass Jimmy Clark at 150 mph, nudged Clark's car with his own and plunged out of control into the crowd. Fourteen spectators were killed, as was von Trips. Still on the circuit, Hill was aware of the crash but ignorant of its extent, so he continued to drive an almost flawless race to victory and the world championship.
"My defenses were equal to the shock of his death," says Hill. "They were strained to the utmost, however, by the funeral. There were three services. The first was held in the Trips' castle near Cologne. A funeral mass was said and then a procession formed outside. It was raining, yet none of us wore raincoats or carried umbrellas. We walked a mile to the Trips' church. The pace was set by an old, old woman, dressed in black and carrying a symbolic brass lantern. There was a band, also dressed in black, which played Chopin's Funeral March. The casket was carried on Trips' personal Ferrari, an open model. It, of course, had to be driven very slowly.
"At the church another mass took place—this one was sung. Then the procession re-formed to go to the cemetery, perhaps another mile away. It was raining harder. The Trips' family chapel is situated on a knoll in the cemetery. The procession stopped at the foot of the knoll, eight of us clambered up the rise, slipping and sliding in the mud with the heavy casket. The last service was held and poor Trips was finally entombed. I have never experienced anything so mournful as that day."
During the first five years of his retirement Hill lived the kind of reclusive life to which he had grown accustomed during bachelorhood. Except for a maid and manservant, he was alone. Each day began like the one before. His manservant, Coakley, would knock on the bedroom door and, without waiting for a response, enter carrying a tea service. Coakley would deposit the tea service on the table beside the bed in which Hill slept. Oblivious to his sleeping master, Coakley would say "Good morning" and move to the window. He would fling apart the curtains, at which sound Hill would open a malevolent eye. Coakley would look out at the morning, sigh, and no matter what the weather—sun or smog—make the same response, "Well, Master, another dull day," and depart.
If Hill's life was no longer as stimulating as before, it was not dull. He immersed himself in activities. Some, like his piano rolls and antique cars, he had pursued while racing; others he had come to later. He undertook vigorous routines of weight lifting and calisthenics. He became an omnivorous reader of everything from medical books to East of Eden to articles on extrasensory perception, heredity and the continuity of human experience. He formulated labyrinthine theories on such topics as sleep ("An impossible reconciliation can exist in one's mind that amazingly can be smoothed over by sleep") and life ("a continual bleeding off of frustrations") and, naturally, death. He decided that death was a transcendence to a new state in which the dead become part of the cosmic unity of all creation, past, present and future.
Hill's most fascinating new toy was introspection. He used it unsparingly on himself in the hope that with enough time and distance, he would understand his past and his obsession with racing.
"If racers have one thing in common," Hill says, "it is a blind compulsion to race that transcends everything else. Such a man is turned on by the possibility that he is doing something that could kill him. It's an outlet for people whose lives and selves were inadequate. They try to put order and meaning into their lives by imposing their will on something potentially chaotic. A racer believes he makes his deadly machine safe. He plays God. He is one of the Blessed. His sport must be deadly so that in competing and surviving his skill takes on mystical qualities. The best way to anger a racer is to tell him his skill is just reflexes, eyes, an ability to see at 100 frames per second while the rest of humanity sees at 50 frames. They don't want to hear that. They want to hear that they are mutations, that they have a mystical gift transcending anything other mortals have. They prove they are blessed by surviving the ultimate challenge. It elevates them. The cliché is that racers have a death wish. Nothing could be further from the truth. They don't want to die, they just want the possibility of death. It's their way of reaffirming life, their life. Of course, the best way to reaffirm life is not to race at all. I couldn't say that until I quit."
On June 5, 1971, Philip Toll Hill married Alma Varanowski, a 33-year-old California divorcée who had an 11-year-old daughter. At the time of his marriage the bridegroom was 44 years old and a previously confirmed bachelor with a manservant who would shortly be given his notice. "I never thought I'd get married," says Hill. "I had seen what happened to my parents."
Hill's decision was influenced by an incident at once familiar to Hill and yet so different from any he had experienced. "Alma's father had died," says Hill, "and they had the funeral in their house in Phoenix. They had been displaced persons during World War II, and had fled Germany and the Nazis to settle in Arizona. They lived a kind of pioneer life. Her father, who worked as a laborer, built his small house with his own hands. You could see where he added a room here, and later, a bathroom there. It was a simple, beautiful house. At the funeral Alma's mother sat by her husband's casket while mourners passed by. They were mostly these big, truck-driver types who'd worked with her husband. They were crying and she was consoling them. She hugged and kissed these guys and, I remember, amid the tears there was laughter. She threw her arms around me and kissed me and I kissed her. I couldn't believe I did it! It was something I would never do. My family did not touch, never expressed affection like that. But here is the thing I will never forget. The casket was open and she was sitting beside it. You could see him lying there as if he were sleeping, and all the while she was greeting mourners she was absentmindedly stroking his forehead, soothing him in a way I will never forget."
Alma Hill, a striking blonde with a hearty, expansive nature, says, "Marriage was quite traumatic for Philip. After all those years! When Derek was born, Philip decided that the house had gotten too small and so he was going to sell his piano rolls. He didn't have to sell them. It seemed to be a symbolic thing."
"I had spent years acquiring them," says Hill. "I had the finest collection in the world, but when the baby came I impulsively sold them. I catalogued them for the new owner and one night I got this terrible panic. It was like racing—I was painting myself into a corner so I couldn't go back."
"I cried when he sold them," says Alma. "He was deliberately giving up a part of his life for us."
"All my life I have been a 'thing' person," says Hill. "My wife is a 'people' person. I have been learning from her."
"I look at those old pictures of my husband," says Alma, "and he looks so different now. Other racers, the ones that remained in racing, look the same. Oh, they look older, but basically you can recognize them because they are the same person. Philip is not. He has undergone a psychic change that has changed the way he looks. My husband has worked very hard to remake himself into another person. But in some ways he can't. He would never be able to divorce himself from guys like Dan Gurney and Graham Hill, or move from this house and his cars. My mother had a saying: "No matter what, you cannot cut blood.' "
Whenever Phil Hill was with Graham Hill, he addressed his friend as "Due Volte Campione" (two-time World Champion), while referring to himself as "Una Volta Campione." Graham delighted in such deference, but sensed something was amiss from the faintly mocking tone of condescension.
Hill would be the first to admit that on an objective level he has a distaste for the attitudes and pursuits of racing men. He fears that he may have lost some respect over the years by the ferocity with which he has lashed out against racing. He now seems intent upon restoring his image. He goes to races again. He circulates among race people, around whom he is deferential, as if consigned to a purgatory of mea culpas for past transgressions. They view him warily, as a curiosity whose behavior cannot be predicted. "I wonder what brings old Phil out of the woodwork," they think.
Ironically, Hill has again become proud of his racing achievements. Now, secure, he accepts them for what they were. He realizes that no matter what he wills himself to believe, or to be, there will always be a part of him he cannot deny. He will never excise that part, only make his peace with it.
Sept. 28, 1975, a blazing Sunday afternoon in Long Beach, Calif. Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Graham Hill are sitting in Gurney's pickup truck as it eases through a throng of spectators. Here are three of racing's most famous retirees. They are wearing metallic racing suits. Their helmets rest on their laps. Occasionally they wave at their fans as they make their way to Ocean Boulevard, the starting line for the race course laid out through the city streets. There, 30,000 fans and three identical Toyota sedans are waiting for them. They have agreed to a three-lap match race in those Toyotas as a promotional gimmick before the first running of the Long Beach Grand Prix for Formula 5000 cars.
Only Phil seems apprehensive. Dan, now a car builder, seems less preoccupied with racing his Toyota than with the F5000 car he has entered in the LBGP. Graham seems merely distracted.
"I asked the Toyota mechanic if he bled the brakes," says Phil. "He says, 'Don't worry, they should last three laps.' I started screaming, 'What the hell does that mean? I'm driving the Goddamned thing! Guys have got killed in this type of thing!' "
Gurney laughs. "Come on, Phil. Remember what Ferrari used to say? 'Not to worry. You get in, you drive, you win.' "
"But I don't want to win," says Phil. "I just don't want to stuff it and make an ass of myself. I should never have agreed to this."
"Well, why did you?" says Dan.
"I'll be damned if I know.... I only know we're gonna make fools of ourselves."
"Just one more time, Philip, that is all," Graham says.
"Oh, it's all right for you to say, Graham. You've only been retired a few months, and Dan's been practicing at Riverside! I'm an old man."
"Oh, Philip, you are not an old man," says Graham. "You are an old lady. You are an old lady exactly as you were years ago."
"Yes, I am," says Phil. "I haven't changed, Graham, and I'm proud of it."
When they reach the starting line, jammed with spectators, Graham says, "Well, chaps, I am simply going to put on my helmet, crawl out on all fours and hide behind a tire." The truck stops, and they get out to thunderous applause and the flashes of dozens of cameras. Gurney is the favorite. He turns, smiling, to wave at the shouts of his name. Graham poses for a pretty woman photographer who coos, "He's such a dreamboat!" Phil signs autographs on the back of LBGP programs that carry a biography of him. He says, "Graham, will you look at this! It mentions how I finished third at Monaco in '61! I finished SECOND in '62! Why the hell didn't they mention that?"
They pose for one last picture, standing side by side with their arms around each other's shoulders. Phil, in the middle, is dwarfed by the other two, each over six feet. Their racing suits are sleek-fitting while his is old-fashioned and baggy as if he has shrunk and no longer has the stature of the man who once wore it. The photographer asks them to put on their helmets. The helmets of Gurney and Graham Hill have dark Plexiglas spaceman visors that cover their faces. Phil's helmet looks like a beekeeper's hat. It has a small peak and a colorless Plexiglas visor that only covers his eyes. Inside the helmet is printed: "Herbert Johnson, 39 New Bond Street, London, West. By appointment hatters to the late King George VI."
The picture taken, they get into the Toyotas. They start the cars, whose open exhausts sound, according to Phil, "like a flatulent cow. What I wouldn't give for the sound of a Ferrari now."
The race is uneventful. Phil's fears are unfounded as all three conspire to cross the finish line together. When they return to the starting line, the F5000 cars are staggered on the grid. The three retired drivers emerge from their Toyotas and are given a brief cheer, but already the spectators' attention has turned to the sleek racing cars that will reach upwards of 175 mph through the city streets.
Gurney hurries to his F5000 car and crouches down to give his driver, Vern Schuppan, advice. Graham Hill vanishes. Phil Hill begins the long walk back to the paddock area. He is sweating and agitated as he walks, the F5000 cars on his left and the spectators, behind a wire fence, on his right. Occasionally, someone points him out and calls his name; the phrase "world champion" can be heard. Hill is oblivious to all. He is walking very fast and talking. "Well, I'm glad that's over. I wasn't kidding! You could get killed in this type of thing. I remember Mike Hawthorn. He was on his way to an awards dinner and his car hit a tree. He was killed instantly. He had only been retired for a couple of months!"
Hill is walking past car after car on the grid. The drivers, encased in their cockpits, are all perfectly still. Their hands are stretched out before them, gripping tiny steering wheels. They stare ahead, mindless of the mechanics hovering near them.
"It's just like I thought," says Hill. "It's the kind of thing you don't want to do. I could never just race a little. It's like an alcoholic taking one drink. It's possible to rid oneself of the psychopathic aspects of drinking and drink normally again, but it's not worth the chance." Hill's voice is strangely loud now, because suddenly there is silence. The spectators are standing, their attention directed to the start. A man in a powder-blue blazer and white slacks is walking between the race cars toward the first one on the grid, carrying the starting flag.
"It's like when I went to Europe," says Hill, his voice growing still louder. "I had been married only a few months when I went over to be with the guys. I lived a bachelor life again, and when I came back to Alma, all of a sudden I couldn't sleep. I had the shakes, this terrible panic that I was really married and it was all over. Who the hell wants to go 55 mph for the rest of his life?"
Hill is alongside the first car on the grid now but he does not even notice it or its driver, Tony Brise, a 23-year-old Englishman who is the protégé of Graham Hill. Two months later Tony Brise will be sitting alongside Graham Hill in his light airplane when it crashes on a golf course outside of London, killing them both.
To those who had never been involved in automobile racing, the death of Graham Hill so soon after his retirement would seem ironic. But it did not seem so to those, like Phil Hill, who had been in racing. It was the kind of death Phil Hill has come to expect, if not accept. "It was terrible weather the night he crashed," says Phil. "He should never have been flying. But that was Graham."
Now Phil Hill is busy with his next step back into automobile racing. He is the co-race director for the U.S. Grand Prix West for Formula I cars being run at Long Beach next Sunday. And he is going to participate in another promotional match race, not in Toyotas with a top speed of 105 mph but in vintage Formula I cars with speeds of over 175 mph. The competition will include such racing retirees as Gurney, Carroll Shelby, Denis Hulme, Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss, Rene Dreyfus and five-time World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio. Phil will drive a red Ferrari Dino Formula I car similar to the one in which he won his 1961 championship. He says of his race, "I just hope those other old-timers have enough respect for the historical value of their machines not to go out and stuff them into a wall."