Americans have long been fascinated with the 24 Hours of Le Mans and runners and riders from the continent have marked some of the finest hours of the race’s history. Among them, conquering pioneer Phil Hill (1927-2008).
Phil Hill was unlike any other American driver. He forsook the oval circuits of his homeland and spent most of his career racing in Europe. He was also a great music lover and always had some kind of tune playing at races. When he joined Ferrari, he became an avid opera-goer, visiting the Scala in Milan or the Bayreuth Festival.
Hill lined up at the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ferrari eight times between 1955 and 1962. He competed in the French endurance classic 14 times in all but only saw the chequered flag three times... but with three wins! In 1958, he became the first American to win at Le Mans. He shared the top spot on the podium with Belgian teammate Olivier Gendebien each time (1958, ‘61 and ‘62).
In 1961, Hill became the only driver ever to have won the Le Mans 24 Hours and the F1 World Drivers Championship in the same year. Yet Hill’s triumph came in terrible circumstances. His only rival for the title was his Ferrari teammate Wolfgang von Trips, but during the second lap of the Italian Grand Prix, von Trips’s car collided with Jim Clark’s Lotus. The Ferrari careered into the crowd, killing its driver and 15 spectators.
In the sixties, Hill had a hand in two American ventures at the 24 Hours of Le Mans: first, driving Ford on the Blue Oval’s first two appearances (1964-65), then racing the Chaparral prototypes (1966-67). Hill retired at the end of 1967 and began restoring classic cars. He could frequently be seen at vintage events.
Since Hill the pioneer, ten other American drivers have won the 24 Hours of Le Mans: Carroll Shelby, Masten Gregory, Dan Gurney, AJ Foyt, Hurley Haywood, Bill and Don Whittington, Al Holbert, Price Cobb and Davy Jones.
Another American – a multimillionaire adventurer this time – rose to prominence in La Sarthe at the time of Hill’s Le Mans triumph. Find our more in the next instalment of this series.
Other instalments in our Le Mans and America series:
Photo (Copyright ACO Archives): In 1964 and 1965, with fellow Americans Richie Ginther, Masten Gregory and Ken Miles, Phil Hill was one of the first drivers called up by Ford for its assault on Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This is the Ford GT40 that he shared with Kiwi Chris Amon in 1965.