Saturday night, mid-October, 1958. The Presidential Bar at Riverside’s historic Mission Inn is jammed with people talking about tomorrow’s race, the first Los Angeles Times U.S. Grand Prix. Masten Gregory and Carroll Shelby sit at our table; both will drive cars—a Ferrari 410 Sport and a Maserati 450S, respectively—brought by my father, John Edgar. The rest of the racing talent is just as impressive: Jean Behra, Roy Salvadori, Ken Miles, Lance Reventlow, Chuck Daigh and Dan Gurney, driving a mix of Ferraris, Maseratis, Aston Martins, Jaguars and Scarabs.
And then there’s 31-year-old Phil Hill. Hill, who had won both Sebring and Le Mans earlier in the year, will be driving John von Neumann’s Ferrari 412 MI (s/n 0744MI). The red, alloy-bodied Scaglietti Spyder is Maranello’s most potent sports-racer to date, its 4,023cc V12 delivering a factory-claimed 447 horsepower at 8,500 rpm.
West Coast Ferrari distributor von Neumann paid twice the price of a new 250 TR for the 412 MI, built expressly to beat Reventlow’s Scarabs. Hill’s first outing in s/n 0744, in a Formula Libre race three weeks earlier at Watkins Glen, was plagued by handling problems (“The roadholding of my car was diabolical, behaving as if the left-rear shock was not working properly, and I slid off the road five times before I finally retired the Ferrari,” he wrote), but the car’s brute strength was dramatically evident. With its suspension now sorted, the one-off 412 MI appears poised to end Scarab supremacy.
Sunday morning at the track brings 70,000 spectators and scorching heat; the mercury hits 100 degrees before the green flag waves. Hill, in black helmet, red polo shirt and chinos, sits in s/n 0744 on the front row. He is bracketed by a pair of blue 5.5-liter Scarabs—Reventlow in powder blue to his right, Daigh in an orange jump suit on his left. A legendary duel is about to begin.
Straight from the start, nose-to-tail and side-by-side, Hill and Daigh swap the lead lap after lap. They once trade places twice in the same turn. The unimaginably loud Ferrari V12 can be heard above all of the other 42 starters, its radical firing order based on that of Maranello’s four-cylinder engines.
Shockingly, Hill pits on Lap 21—the afternoon’s severe heat had caused vapor lock. The 412 MI, like many Ferraris of the era, has both a mechanical and an electric fuel pump. If the mechanical pump gets too hot, the driver has to turn on the electric pump. He only has a short window to do so, however, before the electric pump can’t save it, and that’s what happened at Riverside.
Daigh pulls out a commanding lead as the Ferrari returns to the pits twice more. Finally, on Lap 58, with only four to go, Hill parks s/n 0744 and climbs out. Daigh wins, and Scarab again proves itself mightier than Ferrari.