Thursday, April 22, 2010

Phil Hill, The Unlikely Champion

In September of 1961 Hill went home to Santa Monica where the Grand Prix championship barely registered. He had the misfortune of devoting his life to a sport that Americans considered barely more than a rumor. Like the Tour de France, it was a European preoccupation that warranted only cursory notice in U.S. newspapers. If Americans cared about car racing at all it was the Indianapolis 500.

The Hill-von Trips rivalry was far eclipsed in America by a gripping contest closer to home: the summer long home run derby between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Hill had the misfortune of winning the Grand Prix title two weeks before Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs. It was clear who America’s hero was.

The part of the problem was that Hill did not look like a champion. He was slight of build and grim-faced, with none of the winner’s swagger. Plus, there was something fragile about him in those months after Monza. “Perhaps I am oversensitive,” he wrote in October, “but since returning to America this fall I have found that I am being treated with kid gloves.”

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