Phil Hill didn’t seem like the type of guy who would become a successful race car driver. As he put it in The Cruel Sport, “I’m in the wrong business. I don’t want to beat anybody, I don’t want to be the big hero. I’m a peace-loving man, basically.” And despite that, he became America’s first Formula One World Champion — the only American Champion to have been born on U.S. soil. On this day in 2008, he died, leaving behind an incredible legacy.
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Hill was part of the burgeoning automotive culture in California, where it was almost second nature to race and work on cars. He was, though, one of the few American drivers who actually headed over to England to pursue a career in motorsport, where he signed on as a Jaguar trainee in 1949. By 1956, he was signing with Enzo Ferrari, and two years later he made his Formula One debut at Reims in France driving a Maserati. The next year, he was part of Ferrari proper.
It’s hard to argue that Hill wasn’t one of the most successful drivers of his era, let alone in the history of Americans racing in motorsport abroad. He won Le Mans overall three times with Ferrari. He won the 1961 Formula One World Championship, and while he only won three Grands Prix out of 49 starts, Hill was racing in an era where that was the norm for a successful career. He’s also one of the few drivers to actually win both the first and last races of his career.
After retiring from racing, Hill spent time collecting vintage cars, writing for Road & Track, and commentating on racing for ABC’s Wide World of Sports.