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The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit Hardcover – November 7, 2011

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Product Details

  • Series: AWARDS: Louisiana Young Reader's Choice Awards 2013 Grades 6-8
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve; 1 edition (November 7, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0446554723
  • ISBN-13: 978-0446554725
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (95 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #456,655 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Photos from The Limit
(Click on Images to Enlarge)

Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips share the laurel wreath after von Trips finished first and Hill second at the 1961 Dutch Grand Prix. (Credit: Associated Press)

The 156 Sharknose was Ferrari’s answer to the nimble British cars of the late 1950s. Built in secret with the flared nostrils of a predator, the Sharknose returned Ferrari to dominance. (Credit: Klemantaski Collection)

Phil Hill leads a procession of Ferraris on the notorious banking at Monza, site of the 1961 Italian Grand Prix. "This was a duel in the sun," a correspondent wrote, "and the pace was too hot to last." (Credit: Cahier Archive)

At the 1955 running of Le Mans, Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes spun into the grandstand, killing 83 spectators. For Phil Hill, it was a barbarous introduction to the European circuit. (Credit: Credit: Getty Images)
Author Q&A with Michael Cannell

First off, what is the "limit" in Formula 1 racing?

Fifty years ago drivers talked obsessively among themselves about a threshold known as "the limit." They believed that in any given car, on any given turn, they could go only so fast before their tires lost adhesion to the road and the car spun or flipped. Their great challenge was to identify that perimeter of speed--the limit--and stay close to it for as long as possible without surpassing it. Racing amounted to a deadly game of brinksmanship. In their desperation to win, some drivers knowingly exceeded the limit, often with fatal results.

Drivers measured their proximity to the limit in tenths. A team manager might order them to practice at no more eight-tenths of the limit, meaning fast but not reckless. If they accelerated to nine-tenths they pushed the edge of control. At ten tenths they were on the limit, where even the most stoic drivers trembled and sweated. And with good reason. There was a lot more at stake in the days before seatbelts and rollbars.

What drew you to this chapter of Grand Prix history?

My absorption began with photographs. I was working as an editor at The New York Times five years ago when I saw a book by Robert Daley, a former Times correspondent who covered the Grand Prix in the 1950s. The circuit of that era was preposterously glamorous, like La Dolce Vita with car fumes. Many drivers came from prominent European families. Wives and groupies sat in the pits wearing Capri pants and tight cashmere sweaters. But the glamour was closely accompanied by a dark aspect. The sport was dangerous to a degree that seems unthinkable today. For example, in 1955 a Mercedes sports car somersaulted into the grandstand at Le Mans, killing more than 80 spectators. The organizers didn’t even stop the race.

The photographs express the range of emotions, from giddy to heartache. First I was seduced, then obsessed. It wasn’t very long before I stumbled on the rivalry at the heart of my story. I remember thinking, "This is a story that needs to be told."

Nineteen sixty-one was a glamorous time, made popular recently with the success of Mad Men. How does Grand Prix racing fit into the mystique of the early 1960s?

Like Mad Men, The Limit shines with mid-century optimism but one senses an undercurrent of dread. The drivers played poker in first-class cabins of Alitalia flights. They danced at El Morocco in New York and drank in Havana dives. All the while they knew that at least a handful of their companions would die by season’s end.

Who is Phil Hill? Why do you think his remarkable story is not well known today?

Phil Hill is the greatest champion you’ve never heard of. He was a Santa Monica mechanic and hot rodder who worked his way up the dusty ranks of California oval racing and, implausibly enough, joined the Ferrari team in 1956. At first he drove sports cars, then forced his way into Grand Prix where he managed to win, and win consistently, as his friends and teammates died around him. When he wasn’t on the victory podium he was attending funerals. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of his championship season.

Hill never received much recognition, in part because he didn’t seem like a champion. He was often too anxious to digest solid food. As a result, he traveled with boxes of baby food. In the hours before a race he paced the pits, smoking and compulsively polishing his goggles. A correspondent called him "Hamlet with goggles and gloves."

At its core, The Limit can be seen as an unlikely love story. How does that occur?

Phil Hill’s parents were abusive alcoholics. He gravitated to car mechanics as an escape to an ordered world, a reassuring realm where every action had a predictable reaction. As a driver he kept his distance from women. He did not want relationship issues clouding his mind while he drove at 170 mph, and he considered it unfair to wed while engaged in a dangerous sport. In truth, I don’t think he every expected to marry. The impression of family life left by his parents was too distasteful. He attended their funerals, and the funerals of dozens of drivers, with steely restraint. He had always lived in a state of cold detachment, which served him well as a racer, but not as a person. But at age 44 he wed Alma Svendsen, a spirited blonde teacher. They had met when she visited his house with some students. She unlocked something in him. For the first time, he unclenched and opened himself to the prospect of love and family. He became an entirely different person.

Hill’s main competition for the 1961 Grand Prix title was fellow teammate German Count Wolfgang von Trips. What can you tell me about him?How was his style different than Hill’s?

Like all great sports stories, this was a pairing of opposites. Hill and von Trips were teammates and friends, but they differed in every imaginable way. Hill was a California mechanic; von Trips was a German nobleman raised in a moated castle. Hill had an uncanny understanding of the car’s mechanical life; von Trips cared little about what lay under the hood. Von Trips may not have grasped the engineering subtleties, as Hill did, but he had something arguably more valuable: an instinctive mastery of speed and cat-quick reflexes. To put it another way: Hill drove with his head, von Trips drove with his nerves.

For all their differences, the two men shared something fundamental: Each came to racing from traumatic upbringings. Hill’s parents were alcoholics. Von Trips was a teen when Nazi Germany collapsed. As a member of the Hitler Youth, he was recruited to pull bodies from the rubble. He was determined to be the smiling, handsome face of a new Germany.

Enzo Ferrari is an enigmatic figure who in many ways is at the heart of The Limit. What kind of hold did he have on the drivers on the Ferrari team? Why did the drivers put up with it?

Enzo Ferrari resembled a James Bond villain. He was rarely seen without dark glasses, even in restaurants. He was a shadowy, enigmatic figure who bullied and manipulated the drivers. He had a genius for recognizing a person’s weakness, and he was not afraid to exploit it.

The defining event of Enzo Ferrari’s life was the death of his son Dino of muscular dystrophy at age 24. Every morning he went to Dino’s tomb and spoke aloud to him, as if they were seated at lunch. Every time a driver died he relived the trauma and mourning. And yet he deliberately put his drivers at particular risk by pitting them against each other. He believed that an insecure driver was a fast driver. The drivers stomached it all for a chance to drive the fastest cars in the world. "With Ferrari you not have to worry," a Ferrari manager told Phil Hill. "You get in. You drive. You win."

Formula 1 racing was such a deadly sport in this era.What changes in the sport--technological and otherwise--happened during Hill’s tenure and shortly thereafter?

Today we live in a safety-conscious culture. It’s hard to fathom the dangers routinely faced by drivers in the late 1950s. They drove without flameproof coveralls and roll bars. Their helmets were flimsy cork constructions. Believe it or not, they did without seat belts; the drivers wanted to be unconstrained to leap from the car if necessary. Worst of all, they often raced with brakes so depleted that they would hardly have stopped a bicycle. All of that changed after Hill’s retirement in 1967. Within a few years racing became much safer with the introduction of crash barriers, seat belts and the cockpits designed for quick evacuation.

The Grand Prix circuit took drivers all over the world, making it a truly global sport the way soccer is today. What is the state of Formula 1 racing today?

Fifty years ago racing was still in a state of innocence. The cars were painted national racing colors -- red for Italian teams, green for Great Britain, silver for Germany--with no corporate logos to obscure them. Spectators were free to mingle in the pits, snapping photos and chatting with drivers. Everything changed when the races became televised. Media handlers and sponsorship deals inundated the sport, setting it on its course to becoming the formidable industry it is today.

After Phil Hill took home the championship, what happened to him? Did he race anymore?

The death of Wolfgang von Trips hung like a curse over the Ferrari empire. Eight key managers and engineers walked out before the 1962 season, leaving the Grand Prix team ill-equipped to compete with the resurgent British marques. Hill stayed on for one lackluster season, followed by forgettable stints with other teams. It was a humiliating endgame for a former champion. Shortly before retiring, in 1967, he played an advisory role in the production of Grand Prix, a John Frankenheimer movie partially based on his career. In a case of art imitating life, a main character, played by Yves Montand, spun off the Monza track and died, just as von Trips had five years earlier. Later Hill returned to his first love: the restoration of vintae cars. Then he met Alma, and that changed everything.

From Booklist

Cannell opens this exciting account of auto-racing history with a sobering statistic. Between 1957 and 1961, 20 Grand Prix drivers were killed during races. The battle for Grand Prix supremacy in 1961 was between American Phil Hill and German Count Wolfgang Von Trips. Of course, the press framed the competition as one between a blue collar and a blue blood, but labels don’t do the competitors justice. Cannell, working from secondary sources, provides fascinating biographies of both, interspersed among accounts of their careers leading up to the 1961 season. He also includes a context for the deadly appeal of the sport. Drivers did not wear seatbelts, and the cars had no roll bars. Essentially, they had no protection at all. Sadly, in the final race of the season, the Italian Grand Prix, with Von Trips needing only a third-place finish to win the championship, he crashed on the second lap and died along with a number of spectators. Oh, and “the limit”? Go too slow and you lose. Too fast and you die. A fascinating history of an almost-forgotten auto-racing era. --Wes Lukowsky

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Customer Reviews

Cannell is a master story teller.
Merlin Douglas Larsen
I knew the basic history of Phil Hill and Wolfgang Von Tripps' 1961 Grand Prix season and I've read much about the deadly nature of racing in that era.
Mark Savage
If you love F1 history and appreciate a good read, then you will enjoy Michael Connell's book.
Mark clark

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Chris Owens on October 31, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Books like this can easily be pretty stodgy, or seem like you've read them before. When a friend gave me this book (knowing that I'm a car guy), I wasn't expecting much. I mean, if you've read one sports biography, you've read them all. But I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by "The Limit". In fact, once I started reading, I couldn't put it down.

Essentially, "The Limit" is the true story of the main people involved in the 1961 Gran Prix season: Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and Enzo Ferrari (plenty of Stirling Moss, and Fangio too). That was all interesting to me, as I knew little about them or that the '61 season was sort of the "Golden Year" in racing. But what made it more interesting is that this isn't a textbook. "The Limit" blends the non-fiction with a narrative flow that makes it more enjoyable to read.

The book begins with a young Phil Hill, his home life, and how he began racing. Then it tells of how he entered into the professional racing world. It's all told in such a way that you care about him - he's not just some robot racer, as those guys sometimes seem. You get excited for him as he is invited to race for Ferrari, and all that that entails - both in his relationship with Enzo Ferrari, and Ferrari's development of the race cars - particularly the Sharknose Ferrari. Fascinating stuff.

It also tells the parallel story of Count Wolfgang von Trips, Hill's future teammate at Ferrari, who is equally likeable as Hill. They are both interesting people, but the writing never makes it seems like they are Gods or something. They are just guys who opted out of their "rich" lives. They bought cars and started racing, and were really good at it, and lucky.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Sully on December 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Michael Cannell admits up-front that he's not a racing fan, and it shows. "The Limit" is plagued with distracting errors. A Ferrari 156 did not produce 400 bhp; more like half that. Phil Hill was not the first American to win a Grand Prix; that was Jimmy Murphy, who won the French event in 1921 driving a Duesenberg. Moreover, Cannell struggles with technical concepts like drum-brake overheating and heel-and-toe pedal technique. Sometimes he muddles race-course layouts and starting-grid assignments.

Really, it doesn't matter, because Cannell isn't telling a racing story here. He's telling a human story about two complicated men and their struggles to rise through a dangerous profession. For the most part, Cannell succeeds in portraying Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips, and other individuals who competed in sports cars and Formula One during the decade stretching from the early 1950s to the early 1960s.

As an outsider, Cannell is genuinely appalled by the casualty rate among drivers and spectators during those years, even fascinated. Quite often, his accounts border on the lurid. Cannell describes one Ferrari crashing into a crowd like a "big red razor blade." The death toll speaks for itself; there's no need for embellishment. It's also worth remembering American driver Dan Gurney's assessment of the era: "We were all volunteers."

Unfortunately, that perspective is missing from the book. Cannell relies heavily on secondary sources for his narrative. He's also done some primary research, and the interviews provide fresh context. There are holes, however. Gurney isn't mentioned, though he and Hill were close, particularly in later life.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Colin McArthur on November 29, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Given that the author admits freely that he is not a "car guy" (and being a New Yorker doesn't even have a car) this is a credible piece of work detailing much of the racing life of two figures that played an important part of the F1 scene in a dangerous era. Having followed F1 and sports car racing in the US and Europe over the past 40+ years I know a great deal about the history of the sport and was able to witness firsthand the last few years of these most dangerous times in the early 70s while stationed in Europe. I thought I knew a great deal about these two, particularly Phil Hill, however, I learned a great deal more. The book is well researched and I certainly recommend to anyone interested in the history of F1.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Bob Binder on November 25, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is a very engaging and finely wrought story about how Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips became the leading drivers for Ferrari F1 while vying for the 1961 world championship, and how this ends in both tragedy and nobility.

Hill and von Trips were polar opposites held in orbit by the wobbly gravity of Enzo Ferrari, whose drama, flair, and cynical cruelties were operatic.

Cannell blends vivid portraits of the principals and of Ferrari, families, and rivals. The supporting characters are developed enough to bring the story to life. It explains how Hill and von Trips were drawn to intense competition and found the courage to face certain pain or death for mistakes at the limit. This book respects its characters, without lapsing into historic pedantry or tedious, sneering post-modern deconstructionism.
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More About the Author

Michael Cannell has written about sports for "The New Yorker," "New York Times Magazine," "Sports Illustrated," and "Outside," and was editor of the "New York Times" House & Home section for seven years. His previous book was the critically acclaimed "I.M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism."