When two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon was killed last month at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it was a tragedy, of course, but also a shock.

Thanks to fireproof suits, neck-stabilizing helmets and walls that give on impact, fewer race-car drivers die on the track these days than ever before. The last American superstar to die behind the wheel, before Wheldon, was Nascar’s Dale Earnhardt in 2001. And the last Formula One driver killed in the cockpit was Brazilian racing sensation Ayrton Senna, who died in Italy during the opening laps of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Understandably, Senna’s death did not register with most American fans, for whom racing means Indy cars and Nascar, both competing mostly on oval tracks. But in Europe, it’s all about road racing—a fiercely competitive realm that includes not only Formula One’s high-tech, open-wheel cars (the kind that Senna was driving) but sports cars that resemble standard production models from famous manufacturers like Mercedes and Ferrari. The speeds in road racing can be impressive, to say the least. At Le Mans, cars hitting the Mulsanne straight used to reach more than 250 miles per hour, before the road was given a turn to slow things down.

And the history of road racing has been bloody. As Michael Cannell explains in “The Limit,” his enthralling history of road-racing’s golden era, fatal crashes were once common. Indeed, in the 1940s and 1950s, many of the greatest road-racing drivers fully expected to die on the track. Why did they keep driving? Because they had become addicted to what one driver called the “nodding acquaintance with death.”

For obvious reasons, most of the storied names in road-racing history are European. But one of the greatest drivers on the circuit—and one of the principal figures in “The Limit”—was Phil Hill (1927-2008), an American who reached the height of road-racing fame and survived to tell the tale.

The Limit

Raised in California’s post-World War II sports-car culture, Hill began as a mechanic, but after his first big race, the 1950 Pebble Beach Cup, it was clear that he had driving talent: He went quickly from last place to first, winning easily. In his mind, as he explained to Mr. Cannell (who conducted interviews with Hill for the book), time seemed to slow to a crawl. “He could see every dodge and feint with uncanny clarity,” Mr. Cannell writes. “He was in what athletes now call the zone—a lonely state of heightened awareness.”

As Mr. Cannell emphasizes, racers search not only for the zone but also for “the limit,” that theoretical maximum speed where the car is just on the edge of spinning out of control. “If you go into a 100 mph corner at 101, that’s too fast and 99 is too slow,” said racing great Stirling Moss. “You’d better be able to feel the difference in the seat of your pants.”

Phil Hill had exactly that ability. His first big race was the 1952 Carrera Panamerica, a nine-leg, five-day road race from Guatemala to Texas, a brutal test of man and machine. About 200 miles into the 1952 race, a vulture crashed through the windshield of a Mercedes Gullwing, knocking unconscious Hans Klenk, a former Luftwaffe pilot who was the car’s right-seat navigator. On the second day, Mexico’s Santos Letona Diaz died when his Jaguar XK120 hit a bridge parapet. Hill didn’t win the race, but he finished it, an achievement in itself when you consider the odds (17 of the 92 cars that began the race didn’t even get through the first leg).

In the 1953 Carrera, in which Hill also competed, the race claimed the lives of more than a dozen drivers and spectators. One of the drivers was Felice Bonetto, a fearless Italian nicknamed “the Pirate.” Before getting into his car, he told reporters that he would be “driving until I die.” An hour later, he hit a ditch, flew into a lamppost and broke his neck.

In January 1954, Hill was racing in Buenos Aires at Argentina’s national racetrack when he saw Eric Forrest-Greene, a 50-year-old Rolls-Royce dealer and sometime driver, burn to death in a crash. Later that year, at the Carrera again, Hill came within 24 cumulative minutes of winning the race, but the death and destruction that he had been witnessing on the track began to take a toll on him. He took six months off and tried to soothe his nerves by restoring old cars and listening to classical music.

But the music he kept hearing in his head—his siren song, if you will—was the sound of a car at full throttle. “Racing was irresistible because he excelled at it,” Mr. Cannell writes. “He could not turn away from it any more than Picasso could lay down his brush.” In 1955, Hill was on his way to a series of European road races when he got the call that every racer dreamed of back then. He was summoned to Modena, Italy, by Enzo Ferrari, the godfather of Italian racing.

Ferrari’s auto company was a major force on Europe’s road-racing circuit, fielding cars and drivers whose exploits would help to glamorize an already famous marque. Enzo Ferrari called Hill because his lead driver, Alberto Ascari, had just been killed on a track in Monza, Italy. When Hill visited the Ferrari factory in Modena, mechanics were preparing the car that Ascari would have driven at Le Mans, the famous annual 24-hour contest 300 miles southwest of Paris. “How would you like to drive it at Le Mans?” Ferrari asked Hill. It was the break that Hill had been waiting for. He put in a good showing at Le Mans that year, but death did too, in a spectacular way. A Mercedes car crashed and killed more than 80 spectators.

Driving regularly for Ferrari, as Hill now started to do, was an honor in itself: Ferrari’s was the greatest racing stable in the world. But the honor came at a price. The patriarch was a truly Machiavellian figure. He called himself un agitatore di uomini—an agitator of men. “He encouraged his drivers to take up with the tanned women in tight cashmere sweaters and oversize sunglasses who hung around the pits,” Mr. Cannell writes, “and he was delighted to hear about their sexual escapades. He took these things as signs of manliness. But he discouraged serious relationships for a simple reason: He saw love as the enemy of speed.”

When Eugenio Castellotti, a member of the Ferrari team, was killed during a test run at Modena, Enzo Ferrari reportedly said: “What a pity. What about the car?” When asked why he never went to the track, Ferrari told a New York Times reporter that he couldn’t stand to see his beautiful machines destroyed. “Deep down,” Hill said, “I suppose all of us knew he cares more about his cars than he does about us.”

Because Hill was conscious of “the limit” and respected it, he would never become one of Ferrari’s garibaldini, the drivers who, in Ferrari’s eyes, “put courage and verve before cool calculations.” Ferrari discovered a version of that ideal-type in a German driver named Wolfgang von Trips.

Nicknamed “Count von Crash” because of his aggressive style, von Trips was the opposite of Hill in almost every way. Hill was a calculating loner, while von Trips was a reckless extrovert. Von Trips, whose lineage was aristocratic, embraced the dolce vita of a 1950s race-car driver: affairs with beautiful women, nights on the town. Ferrari loved him, mainly because he had “a driving style that bordered on a death wish.”

While Hill could tune his Ferrari better than his mechanics, von Trips knew only the accelerator. When asked early in his career if he’d like to drive in the Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile race around Italy, he jumped at the chance though he had never driven a car over 85 miles per hour in his life. He and his co-driver finished first in their class. “The experts,” von Trips remembered, “looked at us and shook their heads as if to say: How is that possible?”

Von Trips made the most of these free-lance opportunities and posted strong finishes that showed him, as Mr. Cannell puts it, “unafraid of edging up to, and over, the limit.” Exactly the kind of driver that Enzo Ferrari coveted. He was, Ferrari wrote in his memoirs, “capable of the most daring feats, always with that slightly melancholic little smile on his aristocratic face.”

“Hill drove with his head and von Trips drove with his nerves,” Mr. Cannell says. Enzo Ferrari judged Hill to be “better suited to long-haul sports car campaigns.” Meanwhile, Ferrari elevated von Trips to the Formula One circuit, with its higher speeds.

At the start of the 1958 season Hill was determined to so dominate the sports-car circuit that Ferrari would have to offer him a Formula One ride. He won at Buenos Aires, Sebring and Le Mans. Still, Ferrari continued to deny him a Formula One ride.

Once again, death played a role in shaping Hill’s career. He finished seventh at the 1958 French Grand Prix, a Formula One race that Hill entered in a borrowed Maserati. It was an impressive showing, but what really propelled Hill into a steady Formula One role was the death of Luigi Musso, a member of the Ferrari team who crashed and died during the same race. Ferrari gave Musso’s ride to Hill, and later that year, at Monza, Hill became the first American to lead a Formula One race.

“The Limit” culminates in the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit, a cumulative Formula One championship stretching across a dozen races. The competition pitted Hill and von Trips against each other, both driving for Ferrari. It is a neat endpoint to Mr. Cannell’s narrative but feels anticlimactic, perhaps because the Grand Prix is not one race but many. Hill wins, thanks to his steady habits and driving skill, but the reader is unlikely to feel a great moment of triumph.

Hill walked away from Ferrari at the end of 1962, eventually returning to California’s sports-car culture, where he raced and restored vintage cars. He became a kind of elder statesman—a legend who had lived through an incredibly bloody period in racing history.

As for von Trips, his recklessness got the better of him. He was poised to become the first German to win the Formula One title. All he needed to do was finish third in the 1961 Italian Grand Prix at Monza. But he collided with another car, crashed into a barrier and died.

It is clear from Mr. Cannell’s well-researched chronicle that men like Hill and von Trips, however different their styles, wouldn’t have raced without the specter of death tugging at their shoulder. “Without danger there wouldn’t be any point to it, really,” Stirling Moss said. “It would be like climbing a mountain with a net ready to catch you if you fell. What’s the point to that?”

source: © online.wsj.com