Phil Hill is the greatest American champion that Americans have never heard of.
That's author Michael Cannell's simple yet indisputable description of the California-reared racing car driver who memorably nabbed Formula One's European-dominated crown, fifty years ago this fall.
But Cannell hopes to change Hill's relative anonymity with the release of his new book, The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit, out Nov. 7 from Twelve ($25.99). And he well could have an ally in actor Tobey Maguire; he bought the screen rights to The Limit in 2009, before Cannell even started writing, and has signed on to executive produce and star as Hill in the planned project for Sony Pictures.
"The fact that it may become a movie makes sense to me as I've always thought of this story cinematically, partly because I was inspired to write about that age of motor racing when a book of photos (The Cruel Sport: Grand Prix Racing 1959-1967 by Robert Daley) crossed my desk when I worked at The New York Times," says Cannell, a former Times editor whose first book was about architect I.M. Pei. He admits that as a sidewalk-bound New Yorker he had little interest in cars, but the faces in those black and white photographs spoke to him.
"What captured me wasn't just the full-bodied beauty of the cars but the overall dolce vita atmosphere," he says. "If you think about the Monte Carlo Grand Prix of 1961, there was no more glamorous or more deadly time and place. Glamor and death are a very combustible pair."
The Limit refers to the phrase that racers feel best characterizes their brass ring: pushing the limits of both their cars and abilities. Just under, you lose the race; just over, you die. With appalling frequency it turns out.
"It was clear to me right away this was a sport that was distinct from the racing we know today," says Cannell, who notes that scores of drivers died over the course of Hill's decade-long career. "This was a time before sponsors and television coverage, when men drove not for money so much as for the love of the sport and even patriotism. And the heroics and guts involved in getting to the podium in those times is beyond my powers of description."
Nonetheless, Cannell does a compelling job recreating Formula One's glamorous highs (globe-trotting gentleman racers trailed by movie stars as they bounce from bars to pit lane) and crushing lows (the horror of the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans race when Pierre Levegh's Mercedes launched into the stands killing 83 although the race was not stopped). Cannell paints unflinching portraits of legends such as Enzo Ferrari, who cared more about damage to his cars than drivers, and puts the reader inside crude, seatbelt-less machines that seem like balky deathtraps when compared to the safety-wrapped road rockets of today.
But his best literary trick is in setting up the contrasting images of Hill — a fastidious mechanic-turned-driver from Santa Monica, Calif., who harped on safety issues and drove with care — and his freewheeling rival, the floridly named Count Wolfgang von Trips, a boy of noble German roots who grew up to exemplify that era's fading, post-war belief that to race was to tempt fate and cheat death, and in that was life.
"Hill and Von Trips had a racing rivalry that gripped Europe at that time, but it was really about a philosophical debate as well," says the author. "Hill the engineer believed in eliminating danger wherever possible, sort of like the Mercury astronauts did. Von Trips on the other hand had that Nietzschian view that facing danger ennobled the soul."
In fact, a half century back most drivers subscribed to Von Trips' view, particularly "the British drivers (including Mike Hawthorne, Peter Collins and the legendary Sir Stirling Moss), who were particularly stoic because often they had older brothers who just a few years earlier had been Spitfire pilots or had fought and died at Dunkirk," says Cannell. "So car crashes just didn't convey the horror to them that they do to us today."
Precisely because those Grand Prix races of middle 20th-century were so fraught with drama and death, this story of Hill's mastery of the limit in 1961 reads like a tale from the days of the Colosseum's gladiatorial battles. Little surprise actor Maguire couldn't resist.
As for Cannell, he's convinced that despite our airbagged, On Starred, Brake Assisted automotive age, the spirit of those four-wheeled gladiators lives on within us. "Simply put," he says, "we all remain enthralled by risk."