Remembering a Racing Tragedy

They began the race as friends and rivals, knowing that one of them was almost certain to be crowned world champion at the end: Phil Hill of Santa Monica, Calif., and Count Wolfgang Von Trips of West Germany. They were Ferrari teammates, each a master of speed. The date: Sept. 10, 1961. The place: the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

Two hours, three minutes and 13 seconds later, Hill had become America’s first Formula One champion. Von Trips was dead along with 14 spectators-killed when his Ferrari scythed into the crowd like a helicopter blade.

The last picture of Von Trips in his Ferrari before the start of the race.

“It’s all so unreal,” Hill said as fans swarmed him after the race.

As F1 motors into Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix, one of the premier events on the racing calendar, the last race of “Count Von Crash” will catch the spotlight again. The 1961 Italian Grand Prix turns 50 this year. The event remains one of the most storied and macabre sporting events of the 20th century.

Hill is still the only American-born driver ever to win the F1 title, the most coveted in motorsport. Von Trips is remembered as one of the 1960s most high-profile sporting fatalities, a superstar nobleman cut down in his prime.

Hill was a pioneering American racer in Europe in the 1950s. As the first American Ferrari driver and the first American to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, he played a major role in luring stateside fans from stock-car ovals to the twisty circuits overseas. The press called him “Mickey Mantle in a Ferrari.”

Von Trips came out of West Germany at the same time, a fractured nation still climbing out of the ruins of World War II, badly in need of its own champion. He was called Count Von Crash because he’d survived major accidents before.

Grand Prix was at the height of its glamour in Europe. It didn’t hurt viewership that, before the days of safety equipment and highly-regulated tracks facilities, the sport was spectacularly violent. Funerals were routine.

“The emotions are still right on the surface,” said Robert Daley, a journalist who covered Grand Prix at the time. “I was the same age as these guys and they were dying all around me.”

“I always felt like this was a proxy war,” said Michael Cannell, whose book on Hill and the 1961 Grand Prix season, “The Limit,” will be published in November. “The British, Italians, Germans—they were still in some way fighting World War II. They were putting their handsome young men in the most sophisticated machinery and sending them out to their deaths.”

No team was as haunted by tragedy as Ferrari. Between 1957 and 1961, six Ferrari drivers perished at speed.

The team reached the height of its domination in 1961. The championship came down to two drivers and one race: Hill, 34, and Von Trips, 33, at the Italian Grand Prix.

“It was tremendously stressful,” said Derek Hill, Phil Hill’s son. “My father and Von Trips were at the absolute edge, completely worried sick. Neither America nor Germany had ever had a world champion before.”

When the flag dropped, the TV cameras rolled. In those days there was nothing but a waist-high fence to separate spectators from the pavement.

Officials run toward the body of West German driver Count Wolfgang Von Trips at the side of the track after his fatal collision during the Italian Grand Prix on Sept. 10, 1961.

On lap two, Scotsman Jimmy Clark, driving a Lotus, dueled with Von Trips. Their wheels touched. The Count’s Ferrari spun and plunged into the crowd at well over 100 mph, tumbling back onto the track in a fury of disintegrating metal. The driver and 14 fans lay dead.

Hill knew there had been an accident but the race continued. After taking the checkered flag, he pulled into the pit and turned to his team manager.

“And Trips? Is he dead?”

“Come on,” said the manager. “They want you for the awards ceremony.”

In this new age of media, TV footage made its way around the globe. No racing accident was ever witnessed by so many so quickly.

The backlash was devastating. Authorities charged Clark with manslaughter. (The charges were later dropped.) Pope John XXIII issued a statement saying “it would be criminal to allow absurd performances of death like this to repeat themselves.”

Daley recalled sitting in a hotel the next morning with a crowd surrounding a TV. The footage aired over and over. Hill descended into the lobby.

“Are you going to quit, Phil?” Daley asked.

After a pensive moment, he answered, “When I love motor racing less, my own life will be worth more to me, and I will be less willing to risk it.”

Hill continued his career but he was never the same competitor. He never won an F1 race again. He retired in 1967 and lived quietly in California until his death in 2008.

“As time went by, my father was able to appreciate it for what it was,” said Derek Hill. “The accomplishment. Winning the title. I was with him at the last Grand Prix he went to, at Monza in 2006. He sat in the Ferrari pits during the race. They treated him with tremendous respect. It was great to see.”

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