Graham Hill was a key member of a wave of international drivers who tested their skill at the Indianapolis 500 in the 1960s. He holds the unique distinction of being the only driver who has won the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Formula 1 world championship.
By modern standards Hill started racing late in his life. Born in London in 1929, Hill didn’t even acquire a license for driving on the street until he was 24 years old. He began racing in 1954 and shortly thereafter started working as a mechanic for Lotus, on both production and racing cars. He also raced Lotus sports cars on the weekend, and by 1958, Lotus founder Colin Chapman selected Hill to drive for the Team Lotus Formula 1 effort.
Hill joined BRM in 1960 and in 1962 he won the first of his two F1 championship crowns. Meanwhile, Lotus began competing in the Indianapolis 500 and won the race with Jim Clark in 1965. That success - the first at Indianapolis for a rear-engine car - prompted a wave of copycat designs, including the Lolas entered by oil magnate John Mecom and prepared by legendary crew chief George Bignotti.
Hill was brought in as a last-minute replacement by Mecom when contracted driver Walt Hangsen was killed in testing at Le Mans. He was teamed with Jackie Stewart (then an up-and-coming F1 star and the other major international rookie at Indy) and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rodger Ward.
In his autobiography, Hill admitted that he had to overcome some mental hurdles before getting up to speed at Indianapolis, which was his first oval racing experience. He qualified 15th, on the outside of the fifth row, and just managed to miss out on one of the biggest start-line accidents in the history of the Indianapolis 500.
“There were cars in pieces all over the place, bits tumbling out of the sky and all hell was let loose,” Hill recalled in Graham. “Eleven cars were demolished and I just managed to get through this whirling mass of destruction with one other car on my tail. We were the last two cars to get clear.”
The accident took out many top contenders, including AJ Foyt and Dan Gurney; pole winner Mario Andretti retired early with a blown engine. Lloyd Ruby was the last of the American contenders, but engine trouble eliminated him at three-quarters distance.
Stewart emerged with a clear lead, but there was doubt about whether Hill or Clark was running second. Clark had spun on two occasions earlier in the race, causing confusion among the scorers. When Stewart’s engine lost oil pressure and he parked with eight laps to go, Hill was designated the leader and he crossed the line 41.13 seconds ahead of Clark.
Hill wrote: “While I was on the winner’s dais one of the officials came up and suggested that it was possible that I might not be the winner. I knew I’d beaten Jimmy - so I just looked at this questioning chap deadpan and said: ‘No way, mate -- I drank the milk!’ Then blow me if Jimmy didn’t come in half a lap later and drive into the winner’s circle thinking he’d won.”
A known raconteur, Hill brought down the house at the Victory Banquet. Poking fun at the number of contingency sponsors, he quipped: “Jimmy and I are thinking of sponsoring an award for the top finishing American next year!”
And while he enjoyed the winner’s check for $156,297, an Indianapolis 500 tradition that peaked in that era made the biggest impression on him.
“The incredible thing is that within minutes they presented me with a newspaper with the headline --GRAHAM HILL THE WINNER -- across the front page complete with photographs,” he wrote. “I don’t know how they managed it but I was terribly impressed. When the prize-giving came round they capped it by giving me the actual metal printer’s plate of that front page and it’s something I have treasured ever since.”
Hill rejoined Team Lotus in 1967 and joined Clark in the team’s Indianapolis 500 lineup, but both men finished at the pack of the field after losing engines. Hill returned with Lotus in 1968 driving the wedge-shaped STP Turbine car, but a suspension failure caused him to crash out of his last Indianapolis 500 on the 111th lap.
Hill won the 1968 F1 World Championship for Lotus but suffered severe legs injuries when he crashed at Watkins Glen during the 1969 U.S. Grand Prix. He returned to Formula 1 in 1970 as an owner/driver and transitioned into full-time team ownership by 1975. The most notable achievement of the latter part of Hill’s career was his victory for Matra-Simca in the 1972 24 Hours of Le Mans teamed with Henri Pescarolo.
Hill died in November 1975 when the plane he was piloting crashed in fog on its landing approach. His son Damon went on to win the F1 championship in 1996.
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