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Monday, November 17, 2008

phil hill’s last laps

phil hill sits in the passenger seat of a maserati mc12 stradle

throughout last winter and spring, i was instrumental in the organization of an event for the western automotive journalists, the organization of which ron is president, called: waj media days.

it’s a conclave where waj members have the opportunity to drive the newest and best the world’s auto manufacturers have to offer.

for the last few years those events have been taking place here on the monterey peninsula.

not only do the members get to drive the vehicles – this year ranging from fords to chevys and kias to a bentley continental gt speed (only $220,000+) – on a designated route on public roadways, they also get to drive many of them (not the bentley) on mazda raceway laguna seca.

in addition to securing many of the vehicles the various manufacturers made available for the event, i was also instrumental in bringing several aftermarket companies so they can show off what they have to present.

besides pitching manufacturers to bring their products we were also working with many of them to sponsor lunches, dinners and cocktail parties.

one of the companies that we pitched to sponsor one of the cocktail parties was maserati, which was very eager to be a sponsor of the wednesday night cocktail party.

our contact with maserati, deb pollack, became very involved in organizing their party.

within a few days of all-but-inking the deal, deb asked if it would be ok if they could bring with them america’s only formula one champion: phil hill (yes. you’re right: mario andretti was a f-1 champion. but, mario was born in montona d'istria, italy! phil was born in miami, florida.).

phil’s first grand prix season was in 1958 and in that year he was driving for, you guessed it: maserati.

how could we refuse?

but, who in their right mind would want to refuse the opportunity to have a legend the likes of phil hill attend their soiree?

while researching phil for the party and trying to help deb and jeff ehoodin, also of maserati, find pictures of the great legend, i discovered that phil’s 81st birthday was going to be on the sunday, (april 20, 1927) before the wednesday (april 23, 2008) maserati cocktail party.

what could be better?

how about maserati convincing doug magnon, the head of the california chapter of “the maserati club” and owner of the riverside international automotive museum, to bring his maserati mc12 stradale (one of only 3 ever made) and having phil’s son, derek hill (an accomplished racer in his own right) drive it with his legendary father “riding shotgun” around the track (laguna seca) he helped to make famous?

this, my first media days, was surely set to be the best media days event waj, or any other automotive journalistic organization, ever staged!

even up to a couple of days prior to the party itself, we were not sure if phil would be able to attend because he was in an advanced state of parkinson’s disease.

because of phil’s ill health we did not even announce that he would be the guest of honor for what was shaping into the most memorable media days in waj history.

certainly, phil’s health was of the utmost importance. but you can imagine how apprehensive ron and i were in the days leading up to affair.

that anxiousness was dashed, however, on tuesday afternoon when i got a call from deb asking me to find a birthday cake.

phil was going to make it!

not that the news afforded me the time to worry about whether he was coming or not: i had a luncheon to organize, including a hyundai video presentation and sound system to arrange and set up. i did, however, have the luxury of taking a couple of drives across laureles grade, a wonderfully curvy road between california scenic highway 68 and carmel valley, with my new friend, alan galbraith, in a 2009 – very fast – (don’t ask me what model) corvette and a new dodge challenger.

why, with all my driving experiences and ability, was i not behind the wheel?

despite that fact that i write everything that ron issues as president of waj and performing more work than any other person – including ron – to make media days a success, i do not qualify to be a member of waj. so, as a non-member, i am not “qualified” to drive any of the cars.

not qualified!?!?

irony can be so ironic.

after catching a few rides with alan and breaking down the a/v equipment, i headed into monterey to retrieve phil’s birthday cake and get our ballroom at the embassy suites prepped for the maserati party.

maserati reception invitation

before long our hosts, deb and jeff, and our guests began to arrive.

soon thereafter, our guest of honor joined us.

phil hill, guest of honor

i’ve been fortunate to have met many racing legends in my life. not only have i shaken the hands of every person who has set land speed records over 500 mph (no. stan barrett was not one of them since the budweiser rocket car was a stunt conducted without official sanctioning, timed with inaccurate radar guns and was “timed” at a terminal velocity instead of over a timed mile!) and have met several other racing legends including: mickey thompson, dan gurney, al unser, don garlits and befriended several others who are renowned institutions at bonneville.

but, phil hill’s accomplishments and reputation of being “the gentleman racer” felt to me like a very special occasion.

after jeff made welcoming announcement and gave a special presentation to phil on the 50th anniversary of his first formula one season, i had an opportunity to briefly speak with our guest of honor.

l-r: deb pollack and jeff ehoodin of maserati

despite his poor health phil, still the gentleman racer he was always known to be, graciously spoke with several of us in attendance. he even indulged me in signing his picture in a 2005 bonneville nationals program.

in 1959 phil drove the mg ex181 streamliner powered by a 1506cc, 300 horsepower engine fueled with 86% methanol laced with nitrobenzene, acetone and sulfuric ether to a speed of 254.91 mph, which qualified phil as a member of the bonneville 200 mph club.

l-r: mg ex181 streamliner (phil's ride into the 2-club); socal speed shop lakester; the redhead streamliner (my ride into the 2-club) at 2007 goodwood festival

phil’s picture in the 200 mph club roster appears on page 50 of the program, top row, second from the left.

2005 bonneville nationals program, page 50

conversely: my picture in the roster appears on the facing page – 51 – bottom row second from the right: directly opposite of phil’s picture.

2005 bonneville nationals program, page 51

i love symmetry!

phil’s widow, alma, said if he can sign a check he can sign an autograph.

but, since he spent 30- to 45-seconds just signing ‘phil’ i said, “mr. hill that works for me. thank you very much for this honor!”

phil hill signs my 2005 bonneville nationals program

the following morning we all convened at laguna seca for track day.

except for a few very minor duties, i was able to just enjoy the day!

i may not have qualified to drive any of the cars on the track, but stuart langager of page one automotive – the company that provided most of the vehicles for media days and many of the test vehicles that ron gets on a weekly basis – allowed me to drive one of the mini coopers on the autocross course. i have to tell you: i was very impressed with my 6 laps on the short track and would seriously consider owning a mini despite its diminutive dimensions.

the first laps i was able to take in a passenger seat (with one of the “hooked on driving” instructors behind the wheel) on the track itself was in the audi r8.


what a ride!

the first time we dropped down the world famous “corkscrew” turn was like taking a ride in a rollercoaster, while the following turn – turn 9, one of the fastest turns on the track – was flat and fast because of the all-wheel-drive and general stability of the car.

i took a few more laps in an audi s5, a bmw m class and even took a docile 3 lap stint with ron in a lexus hybrid.

before the day was over i took an exciting few laps in a griggs racing mustang and 3 really fast laps in a roush 427r trak pak mustang with the owner of “hooked on driving”, david ray. these laps would prove to be the fastest of all the laps i took on that day as david really put the mustang through its paces.

after lunch, doug magnon brought his maserati mc12 into the paddock and phil took his place in the right hand seat.

as derek took his place in the driver’s seat and warmed up the engine, i quickly walked out to the flagstand at the start/finish line to get pictures of the duo on track, which in and of itself was a thrill.

phil hill, with son, derek, behind the wheel of the maserati mc12 stradle leaving pit row at laguna seca

three short, fast laps later, according to deb pollack, phil took his last checkered flag and he and derek returned to the paddock.

little did i know at the time just how historic the moment would be.

a couple of hours later, i was lucky enough to sit in the same seat phil was in earlier while doug drove me around the track in his mc12.

a few minutes later the track was closed and waj media days came to an end.

# # # # #

for the waj party during the pebble beach concours d’elegance, ron commissioned a friend of his, academy award nominated art director (raging bull) kirk axtell, to draw a commemorative poster for media days to be used as a means to collect donations for the group’s scholarship fund.

“captain” kirk did the artwork and i added the text, including the title, all of the logos for each of the manufacturers involved in media days and an acknowledgment that we “saluted” phil hill.

waj 2008 media days commemorative poster

in just a few days following concours (august 28, 2008) phil lost his battle with parkinson’s disease in a hospital here on the monterey peninsula, adjacent to pebble beach, where he won the pebble beach road races in 1950, 1951 and 1953.

he is survived by wife his alma, son derek, daughter vanessa, stepdaughter jennifer and four grandchildren.

phil hill’s memory, however, will live on for many of us as being the gentleman racer and one of the greatest drivers in history!

phil hill's final checkered flag

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow Greg! This gave me goosebumps! What a wonderful tribute to Phil! AND....i now have a screensaver of a much younger YOU who are famous in your own right having set the land speed record! xo Kat