In THE LIMIT, Michael Cannell tells the enthralling story of Phil Hill-a lowly California mechanic who would become the first American-born driver to win the Grand Prix-and, on the fiftieth anniversary of his triumph, brings to life a vanished world of glamour, valor, and daring.
With the pacing and vivid description of a novel, THE LIMIT charts the journey that brought Hill from dusty California lots racing midget cars into the ranks of a singular breed of men, competing with daredevils for glory on Grand Prix tracks across Europe. Facing death at every turn, these men rounded circuits at well over 150 mph in an era before seat belts or roll bars-an era when drivers were “crushed, burned, and beheaded with unnerving regularity.”
From the stink of grease-smothered pits to the long anxious nights in lonely European hotels, from the tense camaraderie of teammates to the trembling suspense of photo finishes, THE LIMIT captures the 1961 season that would mark the high point of Hill’s career. It brings readers up close to the remarkable men who surrounded Hill on the circuit-men like Hill’s teammate and rival, the soigné and cool-headed German count Wolfgang Von Trips (nicknamed “Count Von Crash”), and Enzo Ferrari, the reclusive and monomaniacal padrone of the Ferrari racing empire.
Race by race, THE LIMIT carries readers to its riveting and startling climax-the final contest that would decide it all, one of the deadliest in Grand Prix history.
Author Q&A with Michael Cannell
First off, what is the “limit” in Formula 1 racing?
Fifty years ago drivers talked obsessively among themselves about a threshold known as “the limit.” They believed that in any given car, on any given turn, they could go only so fast before their tires lost adhesion to the road and the car spun or flipped. Their great challenge was to identify that perimeter of speed–the limit–and stay close to it for as long as possible without surpassing it. Racing amounted to a deadly game of brinksmanship. In their desperation to win, some drivers knowingly exceeded the limit, often with fatal results.
Drivers measured their proximity to the limit in tenths. A team manager might order them to practice at no more eight-tenths of the limit, meaning fast but not reckless. If they accelerated to nine-tenths they pushed the edge of control. At ten tenths they were on the limit, where even the most stoic drivers trembled and sweated. And with good reason. There was a lot more at stake in the days before seatbelts and rollbars.
What drew you to this chapter of Grand Prix history?
My absorption began with photographs. I was working as an editor at The New York Times five years ago when I saw a book by Robert Daley, a former Times correspondent who covered the Grand Prix in the 1950s. The circuit of that era was preposterously glamorous, like La Dolce Vita with car fumes. Many drivers came from prominent European families. Wives and groupies sat in the pits wearing Capri pants and tight cashmere sweaters. But the glamour was closely accompanied by a dark aspect. The sport was dangerous to a degree that seems unthinkable today. For example, in 1955 a Mercedes sports car somersaulted into the grandstand at Le Mans, killing more than 80 spectators. The organizers didn’t even stop the race.
The photographs express the range of emotions, from giddy to heartache. First I was seduced, then obsessed. It wasn’t very long before I stumbled on the rivalry at the heart of my story. I remember thinking, “This is a story that needs to be told.”
Nineteen sixty-one was a glamorous time, made popular recently with the success of Mad Men. How does Grand Prix racing fit into the mystique of the early 1960s?
Like Mad Men, The Limit shines with mid-century optimism but one senses an undercurrent of dread. The drivers played poker in first-class cabins of Alitalia flights. They danced at El Morocco in New York and drank in Havana dives. All the while they knew that at least a handful of their companions would die by season’s end.
Who is Phil Hill? Why do you think his remarkable story is not well known today?
Phil Hill is the greatest champion you’ve never heard of. He was a Santa Monica mechanic and hot rodder who worked his way up the dusty ranks of California oval racing and, implausibly enough, joined the Ferrari team in 1956. At first he drove sports cars, then forced his way into Grand Prix where he managed to win, and win consistently, as his friends and teammates died around him. When he wasn’t on the victory podium he was attending funerals. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of his championship season.
Hill never received much recognition, in part because he didn’t seem like a champion. He was often too anxious to digest solid food. As a result, he traveled with boxes of baby food. In the hours before a race he paced the pits, smoking and compulsively polishing his goggles. A correspondent called him “Hamlet with goggles and gloves.”
At its core, The Limit can be seen as an unlikely love story. How does that occur?
Phil Hill’s parents were abusive alcoholics. He gravitated to car mechanics as an escape to an ordered world, a reassuring realm where every action had a predictable reaction. As a driver he kept his distance from women. He did not want relationship issues clouding his mind while he drove at 170 mph, and he considered it unfair to wed while engaged in a dangerous sport. In truth, I don’t think he every expected to marry. The impression of family life left by his parents was too distasteful. He attended their funerals, and the funerals of dozens of drivers, with steely restraint. He had always lived in a state of cold detachment, which served him well as a racer, but not as a person. But at age 44 he wed Alma Svendsen, a spirited blonde teacher. They had met when she visited his house with some students. She unlocked something in him. For the first time, he unclenched and opened himself to the prospect of love and family. He became an entirely different person.
Hill’s main competition for the 1961 Grand Prix title was fellow teammate German Count Wolfgang von Trips. What can you tell me about him?How was his style different than Hill’s?
Like all great sports stories, this was a pairing of opposites. Hill and von Trips were teammates and friends, but they differed in every imaginable way. Hill was a California mechanic; von Trips was a German nobleman raised in a moated castle. Hill had an uncanny understanding of the car’s mechanical life; von Trips cared little about what lay under the hood. Von Trips may not have grasped the engineering subtleties, as Hill did, but he had something arguably more valuable: an instinctive mastery of speed and cat-quick reflexes. To put it another way: Hill drove with his head, von Trips drove with his nerves.
For all their differences, the two men shared something fundamental: Each came to racing from traumatic upbringings. Hill’s parents were alcoholics. Von Trips was a teen when Nazi Germany collapsed. As a member of the Hitler Youth, he was recruited to pull bodies from the rubble. He was determined to be the smiling, handsome face of a new Germany.
Enzo Ferrari is an enigmatic figure who in many ways is at the heart of The Limit. What kind of hold did he have on the drivers on the Ferrari team? Why did the drivers put up with it?
Enzo Ferrari resembled a James Bond villain. He was rarely seen without dark glasses, even in restaurants. He was a shadowy, enigmatic figure who bullied and manipulated the drivers. He had a genius for recognizing a person’s weakness, and he was not afraid to exploit it.
The defining event of Enzo Ferrari’s life was the death of his son Dino of muscular dystrophy at age 24. Every morning he went to Dino’s tomb and spoke aloud to him, as if they were seated at lunch. Every time a driver died he relived the trauma and mourning. And yet he deliberately put his drivers at particular risk by pitting them against each other. He believed that an insecure driver was a fast driver. The drivers stomached it all for a chance to drive the fastest cars in the world. “With Ferrari you not have to worry,” a Ferrari manager told Phil Hill. “You get in. You drive. You win.”
Formula 1 racing was such a deadly sport in this era.What changes in the sport–technological and otherwise–happened during Hill’s tenure and shortly thereafter?
Today we live in a safety-conscious culture. It’s hard to fathom the dangers routinely faced by drivers in the late 1950s. They drove without flameproof coveralls and roll bars. Their helmets were flimsy cork constructions. Believe it or not, they did without seat belts; the drivers wanted to be unconstrained to leap from the car if necessary. Worst of all, they often raced with brakes so depleted that they would hardly have stopped a bicycle. All of that changed after Hill’s retirement in 1967. Within a few years racing became much safer with the introduction of crash barriers, seat belts and the cockpits designed for quick evacuation.
The Grand Prix circuit took drivers all over the world, making it a truly global sport the way soccer is today. What is the state of Formula 1 racing today?
Fifty years ago racing was still in a state of innocence. The cars were painted national racing colors — red for Italian teams, green for Great Britain, silver for Germany–with no corporate logos to obscure them. Spectators were free to mingle in the pits, snapping photos and chatting with drivers. Everything changed when the races became televised. Media handlers and sponsorship deals inundated the sport, setting it on its course to becoming the formidable industry it is today.
After Phil Hill took home the championship, what happened to him? Did he race anymore?
The death of Wolfgang von Trips hung like a curse over the Ferrari empire. Eight key managers and engineers walked out before the 1962 season, leaving the Grand Prix team ill-equipped to compete with the resurgent British marques. Hill stayed on for one lackluster season, followed by forgettable stints with other teams. It was a humiliating endgame for a former champion. Shortly before retiring, in 1967, he played an advisory role in the production of Grand Prix, a John Frankenheimer movie partially based on his career. In a case of art imitating life, a main character, played by Yves Montand, spun off the Monza track and died, just as von Trips had five years earlier. Later Hill returned to his first love: the restoration of vintae cars. Then he met Alma, and that changed everything.