"the AC COBRA ... a way of living"
During his illustrious racing career in the 1950s and '60s, Phil Hill never suffered a serious injury - a feat all the more notable because the safety features on race cars then left much to be desired.
"I had an amazing amount of luck to race for 22 years and not a drop of blood or a broken bone," he said. Then he quipped: "Maybe I wasn't trying hard enough."
Hardly. Hill, who grew up in Santa Monica, to this day is the only American-born driver to have won the Formula One championship, which he accomplished in 1961.
He also was the first American to win the 24-hour race at Le Mans - a race he would win twice again - and he won the Sebring 12-hour race three times, among many other victories.
Hill, now 78, and Carroll Shelby, another racing icon and legendary sports car builder, will receive the seventh annual Eagle One-Shav Glick Award for distinguished contributions to motor sports in California.
The awards will be presented at the NASCAR Auto Club 500 at California Speedway on Sunday.
"Phil set the standard" for other American drivers who competed overseas, such as Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti and Shelby, said Shav Glick, the longtime racing writer with The Times, for whom the award is named.
"He also was a great representative of the sport," Glick said. "He's quiet and not given to self-promotion. A very gracious man."
Shelby, in turn, is "a flamboyant Texan who migrated to California" and who also won the Le Mans race, in 1959, Glick said. "He's a very gregarious, fun-loving guy and great storyteller. He's one of my favorite people in racing."
The son of a mail clerk, Shelby started racing in his late 20s after trying other businesses, including chicken farming. And he got behind the wheel despite having heart problems.
"He used to drive with a nitroglycerin pill under his tongue to protect his heart," Glick said, until doctors finally convinced him to stay off the track.
Shelby, now 83, then went on to create a series of celebrated specialty cars for Ford, Dodge and his own company, including the Ford-powered Cobra sports cars and a series of Shelby Mustangs for Ford. He's currently working on a new version of the Mustang, the Shelby GT 500.
"I'm very honored to be receiving this award, and to be sharing it with Phil, who has been a friend for 60 years," Shelby said.
He always kept a piece of paper and a pencil near his bed, in case he woke up with an inspiration. Early in his career, he woke up one morning to find the word "Cobra" written on his pad, and decided it would be one of his signature models.
Shelby said one of his best memories is of his team winning the world GT championship in the early 1960s with the Cobra.
"We were a bunch of hot rodders from Venice, California, and to beat Ferrari the way we did, well, I'm still proud of it for all of them," he said.
"I had a lot of fun driving race cars, but it wasn't my No. 1 priority," Shelby said. "Driving race cars was an avenue for me to learn how to build my own car, and that was my ambition all along."
He's still building exotic vehicles, and his Ford Shelby GR-1 concept car dazzled the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last year.
Shelby also needed a heart transplant in 1990, and the donor was a Las Vegas gambler.
"He always figured that was the perfect heart for him," Glick said. "Shelby wasn't a gambler with money, but he gambled on building cars and gambled on his life, racing with a nitro pill."
Hill, whose willingness to test the odds on the racetrack was no less intense than Shelby's, retired from driving in 1967 at 39. In later years he focused much of his attention on his collection of antique automobiles and musical instruments.
Asked which achievement stands out, Hill said, "My Formula One championship is the most satisfactory one for me. I'm still the only American who has won it." (The Italian-born Andretti, whose family emigrated to the United States when he was a teenager, won it in 1978.)
Hill also said that, even though he and Shelby have different personalities, "we are both rabid car lovers, and we have a love of racing."
Glick, who retired in January after 36 years as a racing writer and 70 as a sportswriter, will serve as grand marshal of Sunday's race.
The singer Jewel will lead the pre-race entertainment at the Auto Club 500, and it will be the first time that the California Speedway's pre-race festivities have been televised.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Busch series driver Mark McFarland are scheduled to fly with the Blue Angels, otherwise known as the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, on Monday at the Naval Air Facility in El Centro. The Navy is one of the sponsors of McFarland's No. 88 Chevrolet, which Earnhardt owns.
Last Saturday's USAC/CRA sprint car race at Perris Auto Speedway, which was postponed because of wet grounds, was rescheduled for April 1. The racing program originally scheduled for April 1, including super stocks and street stocks, was rescheduled for April 8.
Bank of America has signed a five-year agreement for NASCAR sponsorship at four tracks, including California Speedway, with the tracks' owner, International Speedway Corp.
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