With death and glamour sitting side by side in Grand Prix racing during the 1950s and ’60s, it’s not surprising that the sport attracted young men from noble European families. They saw risking their lives behind the wheel as a way to become modern-day knights. Count Wolfgang von Trips, the last of a 700-year-old noble line and so reckless that he was dubbed Count Crash, was one of these knights of the racetrack. He drove to win glory and help restore Germany’s battered pride.
Noting that the essence of any great sports story is the “pairing of opposites,” Michael Cannell, a former editor at the New York Times, has chosen to pair the fearless count with a cautious Californian named Phil Hill. Uncharacteristically for an elite driver, Hill fretted publicly about safety, leading the English driver Mike Hawthorn to nickname him “Auntie.” Despite their different personalities, von Trips and Hill were friends before the 1961 Grand Prix drove them apart.
Although that competition supplies a plot line, “The Limit” is really about men who loved speed and were willing to die for it. The book depicts Grand Prix racing in an era before sponsorship deals, when drivers attained great speed without seat belts or fireproof clothing and knew “odds grimmer than those their older brothers had faced in the war.”
Nobody personified this mystique better than Alfonso de Portago, the 17th Marquis de Portago, whom Hill regarded as “a Spanish James Dean without some of the brooding.” When Portago died driving Italy’s Mille Miglia in 1957 — at age 28 — in a horrific crash that sliced his body in two and claimed the lives of nine spectators, pictures of the actress Linda Christian giving Portago a final kiss at his last checkpoint made front pages around the world.Portago had spent most of his last day on Earth philosophizing with von Trips about racing. The two noblemen agreed that it was “beautiful and necessary.”
Racing was necessary, too, for Hill, who grew up the son of two abusive alcoholics in Santa Monica. Hill found refuge in tinkering with engines, starting with his aunt’s Pierce-Arrow. Unlike von Trips, who knew nothing about engines, Hill had the heart of a mechanic, having spent a year working in English auto plants.
Von Trips’s aristocratic family lost almost everything in the war, and as a young man he frequently had to borrow money from his friends. Hill tended to be solitary, while von Trips was a ladies’ man who had a lengthy affair with Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy, the daughter of Italy’s last king.Hill visited the moated von Trips castle and bonded with the count’s mother over a shared interest in classical music. Both von Trips and Hill were on Enzo Ferrari’s team, and Ferrari notoriously goaded his drivers into bitter — and sometimes fatal — rivalries.
Throughout the summer of 1961, von Trips and Hill had “traded checkered flags” on the Grand Prix circuit. Both desperately wanted to be first at Monza, the Italian race that closed out the European phase of the Grand Prix. Hill won, but his victory was eclipsed by von Trips’s death after he lost control of his car that day. Feeling guilty to be alive while his friend and rival had perished in the competition, Hill was a pallbearer at von Trips’s “Gothic death pageant” of a funeral.
Hill’s concern for safety paid off: He retired to California, where he found the contentment that had long eluded him in a late-in-life marriage. He died in 2008. Although there were times when I wished for a bit more panache in the writing, this book is so thoroughly absorbing that I’d recommend it even to readers who don’t have a driver’s license.
Hays is the author of “The Fortune Hunters: Dazzling Women and the Men They Married.”
Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit
By Michael Cannell
Twelve. 318 pp. $25.99