AUGUST 29, 2008
Why Phil Hill was important
Phil Hill is the only native-born American to have won the FIA Formula 1 World Championship, although naturalised US citizen Mario Andretti would follow Hill to the title in 1978. Hill's importance was as the trailblazer. In the late 1950s there were a number of Americans who raced in Formula 1 with lesser or greater success, led by Harry Schell and then Masten Gregory, Herbert Mackay-Fraser and then in the summer of 1958 Hill and Carroll Shelby, to be followed by Dan Gurney, Richie Ginther and even the American-funded Scarab team, led by Lance Reventlow. In the summer of 1960 Hill became the first American to win a proper Grand Prix (a number had won the Indy 500 when it counted to the World Championship). In the same period the US hosted its first real Grand Prix at Sebring and the event became a regular fixture on the F1 calendar until the 1990s. Hill's World Championship in 1961 and his three Le Mans 24 Hours wins (the first American to achieve victory in the French classic) helped to create interest in European racing which resulted in the movies Grand Prix (1966) and Le Mans (1971), which help to make motor racing a much more global sport.
A modest man, Hill remained a great ambassador for racing, spreading the word to Americans who cared to listen that there was a world outside the borders of the US and that Americans could be good enough to compete and to win at international level.