Most people would be irate if a shipping company took 54 years to complete a delivery. In this rarest of cases, an overdue shipment by more than a half-century came as a welcome surprise as 1996 Formula 1 world champion Damon Hill, son of 1966 Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time world driving champion Graham Hill, received a small parcel sent from within the state of Indiana.
In the box, amid the protective materials that kept the cargo safe on its journey to England, Hill peeled away the wrapping to find a gift that was most odd, yet entirely ordinary. Pulled free from the packaging, he held aloft an empty glass bottle.
While the item itself lacked financial value, the bottle’s provenance told a remarkably different story. It starts with the American Red Ball Transit Company, sponsor of his father’s Indy 500-winning Lola-Ford those many decades ago.
“Jim Harris worked for Red Ball,” said veteran IndyCar race engineer Michael Cannon. “He got the bottle when the business was sold, and gave it to his brother, Dave, years later. Dave was an amateur racer of some skill – he won the June Sprints in Formula Vee many years ago. Through the Harris’ friends, the Knapps, I met Dave’s daughter, and Jill is now my wife of nearly 30 years. Some time back, Dave gave us the bottle, unsure of what should become of it. Sell it to a collector? Give it to a museum?”
Decades before Borg Warner, sponsors of the famed $3 million trophy that bears the name and likeness of every Indy 500 winner, began making small replica ‘Baby Borg’ trophies as keepsakes for the victorious drivers and team owners, the winner’s wreath and the bottle containing the milk consumed by the person who conquered the ‘Greatest Spectacle In Racing’ were the only tangible items to take home from Victory Lane.
From those pre-Baby Borg days, Cannon was safeguarding an item of immense importance, earned as Hill won the second leg of motor racing’s greatest achievement for drivers, the ‘Triple Crown’ of victories that span Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“I’d forgotten about the bottle until I heard Damon was coming over for this past Indy 500,” Cannon said. “Through a mutual friend, I let him know that I had the bottle and it was his to come and collect. Well, the 500 came and went. No Damon. As our mutual pal explained, ‘Damon wouldn’t feel right taking it from you.’”
As the son of John Cannon, a highly accomplished and respected driver from the 1960s and 1970s, who raced alongside Damon’s father in Formula 1 and Can-Am, the Chip Ganassi IndyCar engineer knew the importance of family legacies in the sport. Still, a bit of persuasion would be necessary to convince Hill the bottle belonged in his hands.
“So, I got Damon’s email address and threatened to tell his sisters about him avoiding me!” Cannon said. “This seemed to do the trick and the bottle was finally headed to its rightful owners.”
Once the 54-year passage was complete, Hill was rather thankful to receive the bottle used by his father while his then-five-year-old son was home in England.
“Well, it’s incredible it’s not been damaged somewhere along the line,” he said. “They’re probably quite robust, those bottles, aren’t they? I suppose it would be regarded as a kind of trophy. It’s not the Borg-Warner, but it’s definitely part of the tradition, isn’t it? The tradition of Indianapolis. A lot of drivers would literally risk their lives to drink from that bottle in victory lane.”
Hill’s 1966 Indy win was the source of controversy at the time as concerns over accurate lap counts and scoring thrust the victor into questions as to whether he’d won. His son takes particular joy in recounting the bottle-related response.
“So, the story is famous, isn’t it?” he said. “That he told the guy, who said that there was some confusion about the results, and dad says, ‘Too late, I’ve drunk the milk!’”
Rightfully surprised that someone he’d never met would protect the bottle and ensure it was returned, Hill thanked Cannon for the thoughtful gesture.
“It’s really nice that somebody looked after it and tried to find it to get it back to the people who perhaps it could have come back to,” he said. “I’m sure my dad didn’t mean to leave it behind, but somebody obviously saw it and thought ‘he might want that one day.’ It’s marvelous.
“I seem to remember I did offer Michael something for it, but he just wanted to make sure he got back to the right people. We were very, very grateful to him and amazed in generosity and his honesty and his integrity.”
Hill’s retirement from F1 at the conclusion of the 1999 meant he missed the arrival of the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis in 2000. Well aware of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s importance to the Hill family, it was a journey to the Indy 500 last year, at the invitation of McLaren, where the son finally had a chance to witness the event that held a place of honor among his father’s many achievements.
“I stood in this grandstand and watched the whole thing…got a bit sunburned!” the Sky Sports F1 presenter said with a laugh. “I think it’s an incredible spectacle and it’s a unique race. It has its own unique atmosphere, excitement, right the way through from the build-up and then the start. And I was sitting on the infield but over the pit lane and you look across and there’s a mile of grand- of three layers of grandstands were full of people. It’s quite an amazing venue. And it always creates a thrilling climb, thrilling finish to the event. And it’s obviously very… You’re mindful of the risks. You can’t help but be very impressed by the bravery of the drivers and the skill.”
With a rectangular piece of glass to admire, Hill has the thing he’d lacked for most of his life – an object that connects his father’s greatest victory in America to home.
“I was too young to remember all that,” he said. “I was only five years old when he won Indy. And I hadn’t been over to the States much. I have not had much to do with the people on that side of the pond. But this is nice. And my dad made a lot of friends there along the way. It’s very good of him to deliver the bottle, and it will be much prized.”