The day, as I recall, was steamy for northern Italy in the late summer. We sat at a small table, shaded from the morning heat, watching fleets of Fiats rush through tiny Maranello on the way to the sprawling industrial center of Modena. The hotel, its yellow fascia cracked and fading, was called the Cavallino (Little Horse), and it had for years served as the final station for pilgrims seeking entry to the Scuderia Ferrari, the most revered automobile factory in the world.
Phil Hill sat across from me, his tanned, angular face contorted in a worried frown. "I feel like a little boy waiting outside the headmaster's office," he kept saying. "A little boy. This is ridiculous. Grown men waiting like this." But it had been ever thus: For decades, great men had waited patiently at the Cavallino for the summons to an audience with Il Commendatore, Enzo Ferrari, a man long grown beyond the status of simple legend and now elevated to a semi-deity among the cognoscenti.
In 1956, Hill had made his first visit to Maranello and had sat at the same tables in front of the Cavallino, directly across the street from the Scuderia Ferrari. He was then a 29-year-old hotshot sports-car driver from Santa Monica, Calif., who had been invited to join the fabled Ferrari racing team. Like so many rookies before him, Hill had been forced to undergo the slow, agonizing, brutally dangerous rites of passage to stardom.
Enzo Ferrari was a master manipulator, able to orchestrate the egos and insecurities of his drivers, pitting one against the other, goading them to race to their absolute limits. As if to remove himself from his actions at the last minute, Ferrari refused to attend the savage races where his surrogate sons bled and died. In his first few years on the team, Hill saw brilliant young drivers -- Eugenio Castellotti, Luigi Musso and Peter Collins -- crash to their deaths while trying to win for their dictatorial father figure.
Somehow the slight, high-strung man from Santa Monica thrived in this emotionally charged atmosphere. He won often for Ferrari, three times alone at Le Mans. He also was a frequent winner in Grand Prix races on the Continent. But it was Hill's greatest triumph that triggered the end of his career. The Italian Grand Prix of 1961 found him locked in a struggle for the World Driving Championship with his Ferrari teammate, Count Wolfgang (Taffy) von Trips. Both men had a chance to win the title, depending on the finish of the race.
Von Trips was a personal favorite of Ferrari. Hill was something of an outsider who had never curried favor with the boss. Phil Hill became the world champion on that September day at Monza, Italy. Taffy von Trips died. His Ferrari nicked Jim Clark's Lotus in a corner and pinwheeled into the crowd, killing six spectators and himself. This moment was a turning point for Hill. The next season, the race cars were outdated, and no one, including Hill, now the No. 1 driver, could make them winners. He became a lightning rod for Ferrari's frustrations, and at the end of the 1962 season, he stalked out of the factory at Maranello and joined a series of second- rate teams. His last race came in 1967 with a sports-car victory in England.
At age 40, suffering from a severe case of ulcers, Hill returned to Santa Monica to restore classic cars, collect exotic antique musical instruments, write eloquently about automobiles and, most important, marry and raise a family.
Now it was 1975, and Phil Hill had returned to Maranello. We were working on a film documentary that required a visit to Ferrari. Hill had gone reluctantly, concerned about a confrontation with the Great Man, then 77 years old but undiminished in power and Machiavellian skills. We had toured the factory a day earlier, walking through the high- windowed galleries, where Hill had embraced his old race-team mechanics, more gray, more weary and still wearing the same baggy coveralls that were a trademark at Ferrari. But there had been no evidence of Il Commendatore.
Then came a call that evening. The Old Man had issued an invitation for the next day. We were instructed to wait outside the Cavallino. The hours passed. Tension was building. "I don't know why I am doing this," groused Hill. "We left on bad terms. Maybe it's better it stays like that. Why resurrect things at this late hour?"
A small, squat figure crossed the road from the factory. It was Gozzi, Ferrari's secretary and number one assistant. He was dressed in a dark suit and looked uncomfortable in the heat. We shook hands and he began to lead Hill away. Then he turned and summoned me. This made no sense. I was an American journalist, little known in Italy. Moreover, I had recently written a story on Ferrari less flattering than the adulation he was accustomed to receiving in the chauvinistic Italian press. Baffled, I left the Cavallino and tagged along.
Hill and I were ushered through a series of corridors leading to a large oak door. Gozzi opened it, and we stepped into a long, dimly lit room. At the end was a desk the size of a billiard table. Seated behind it was a tall, white-haired man with a powerful jaw and a classic Roman nose. Enzo Ferrari. Suddenly, Hill and I were in a private audience with a man second only to the pope in terms of accessibility. He got up and came around the desk. He reached out his hand to Hill, then pulled him close in a great bear hug. Speaking only in Italian (Ferrari speaks no English), the two men talked for a while. Almost as an afterthought, Hill introduced me. Ferrari passively shook my hand and beckoned us to sit down. He and Hill talked some more. The tones seemed friendly.
Then Ferrari reached behind his desk and got out two copies of a book -- a big-format book with a red cover, imprinted with the Ferrari logo. It was his personal memoir of a career that had already spanned 50 years. He autographed both and handed them to us. More hugs and handshakes and we were out. Back at the Cavallino, Hill looked relieved. A rift in his life had been patched. A relationship with a man he had loved and hated, feared and trusted -- a gigantic, awesome, sometimes comical but always imposing man -- had been repaired and Hill seemed the better for it.
"But I still feel like a little boy," he said. "He made all his drivers feel that way. I suppose that will never change." And it never has. Ferrari is 89 years old, and he is still running his empire with the same iron fist. Hill, now 60, lives in serene retirement. As for me, the moments in Maranello remain fixed in my mind, with only the red-covered book and its inscription linking me to that unique reunion. ::