Before there was Mario Andretti, Michael Schumacher, or Dario Franchitti there was Phil Hill. In his new book The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit, author Michael Cannell tells the story of the man who in 1961 became the first American-born racer to win the Grand Prix Championship. Bill Littlefield spoke with Cannell about the book and the history of auto racing.
At the center of The Limit is the rivalry between two drivers, Phil Hill and Count Wolfgang von Trips. Both were employed by Enzo Ferrari, for whom winning races was “an endless, insatiable need.”
Author Michael Cannell maintains that the rivalry can legitimately be compared to Borg-McEnroe and Ali-Frazier, and nobody who reads The Limit is likely to argue with that.
But the book does more than present a rivalry. The Limit describes a culture in which the deaths of drivers and the mutilation of spectators unfortunate enough to be in the path of cars that sailed or tumbled off the road were commonplace.
“They came for the spectacle, and for the ghoulish prospect of witnessing a crash,” Cannell writes. “They were rarely disappointed.” Unless they were carried away on stretchers.
According to Cannell, nearly everything about the sport of auto racing has changed since Hill and von Trips roared through the Grand Prix courses in their Ferraris. He characterizes Hill as “among the last drivers of his breed to leave the sport.” Even to the author, the “episodes” he describes “seem unthinkable from the perspective of today’s risk-free culture.” An exploration of history would be reason enough to read about the Grand Prix drivers of half a century ago, even if Cannell wasn’t such a good story-teller.