Phil Hill

Phil HillI learned this morning of the passing of Phil Hill. Tributes are coming in from around the world.

He is being remembered as a great racer and a thoughtful and gracious gentleman. A knowledgeable man possessed of broad interests and many friends. In all, quite a remarkable person. It prompted me to write this little story about my personal encounter with Phil Hill.

When I was twenty-one, I was employed as a sales rep for the Champion Spark Plug Co and worked weekends as a race tech rep. Our services consisted of “reading” plugs for carburetion and ignition settings and giving away spark plugs to competitors in exchange for allowing us to use pictures of the winning cars in our ads.

In the sixties the F1 races were being held at Le Circuit Mont Tremblant, north of Montreal, in Quebec. Formula One cars were experimenting with new ignition systems, and Champion was providing product for Ferrari. They were using new and powerful Magnetti-Marelli ignition systems. The other winning teams were using Ford Cosworth engines and had Autolite plugs. We needed Ferrari to win so that we could advertise our product as an F1 winner. The Marelli systems were putting out 100 KV and tearing our fancy silver centered electrodes apart. They worried, and so did we, that these plugs may not last a whole race. The Ferrari people didn’t speak English but they did speak French. I was the only Champion person who spoke French, so I was working with Ferrari engineers and senior Champion Race Techs.

Thirty years later I was with my wife at Laguna Seca for the Monterrey Historics. We were wandering through the vendor area and happened by the Road and Track tent. Inside was Phil Hill. He was signing 4’ X 5’ pictures of himself driving the Ferrari TR that Pete Lovely restored. I loved that John Lamm picture when it was a centerfold of R&T and got in line to buy one. Part of the process was having your picture taken with Phil Hill. I’m not big on that so instead I just reminded him that I was once with Champion and that I had worked with the Ferrari F1 team in the sixties. He looked at me for a second and said that he remembered me. I was somewhat taken aback because I didn’t remember meeting him and God knows that the 30 intervening years had changed me considerably and I mentioned that. Anyway, we talked about people we both knew and he made me feel that I had reconnected with a long lost friend . I also told him that I was looking for his friend, the racer and writer, Denise McCluggage. He explained that her booth was complicated to find and since he was getting ready to race in one of the vintage cars, he offered to take me over to her. We walked over, chatting all the way, and he introduced me to her as a racing acquaintance from the old days. He then told me how nice it was to see me again, warmly thanked me for coming by and excused himself.

When I got home, I dug out my old programs from the races I had covered and discovered that I was correct; I had never before met Phil Hill.

That 4’x5’ picture hangs less than eight feet from me as I write this. A reminder of an unnecessary kindness graciously proffered.