Vivid biography of a fast-and-furious competitor on the Grand Prix racing circuit.
Former New York Times editor Cannell (I.M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism, 1995) freely admits to not owning a car nor considering himself a particularly “impassioned driver,” yet his biography of Phil Hill, a California mechanic who became the only American-born driver to win the Formula One Drivers’ Championship Grand Prix, is a passionate, ambitious work. The author retraces Hill’s youth, eager to escape the grip of his domineering, argumentative parents as a kid maturing in Depression-era Southern California. An early infatuation with cars found him tinkering with engine parts rather than playing team sports. An indifferent college student, Hill soon dropped out to work as a mechanic and international motor salesman, a livelihood that financed his first flashy European sports-car purchase. Time spent as a Jaguar trainee spawned some accomplished racing of his own throughout his eventful mid 20s, a time when both of his parents died within months of each other and the racing enthusiast became plagued with anxiety spells. Cannell astutely draws on a wealth of sports publications, memoirs and magazines to convey Hill’s distinctive passion for the raceway and his competitive nature that belied a reputation for being kindhearted, timid and prone to severe stress. Hill climbed the ranks as a Ferrari rookie driver and meticulous automotive diagnostician, and was soon joined by crash-prone German nobleman teammate Count Wolfgang von Trips. Winning the Italian Grand Prix in 1961 proved to be the bittersweet pinnacle of Hill’s career as von Trips died in the same race in a tragic spinout that also killed 15 spectators. Cannell doesn’t lean on the crutch of exposition to convey Hill’s intrepid, sporty story, demonstrating great talent as a biographer.
A crisply written, effectively compelling chronicle.