In the modern era, there has been a marked lack of American drivers competing in the highest forms of international automotive motorsports. But 40 and 50 years ago, that wasn't the case. There were several American drivers of note, like Carroll Shelby, Bob Bondurant, AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, and Paul Richard (Richie) Ginther.
Richie Ginther may be one of the least known of the American drivers of that era, without the volume of victories or prominent successes of his peers. But his more understated role was no less significant.
Ginther was raised in the same town in California as Phil Hill. Hill was even a friend of Ginther's older brother. Once Ginther finished school in 1948, he went to work for Douglas Aircraft in the tool and die shop. In his spare time he helped Hill repair and maintain his collection of cars. As Hill's race career picked up, it provided Ginther an opportunity to race for the first time at Pebble Beach in 1951.
Right away, Ginther's race career was quickly sidetracked after he was drafted into the Korean War. While in the service for 2 years, he received experience and training working in aircraft and engine mechanics. Skills that would add to his unique abilities later in his career. When Ginther returned home from military service, Phil Hill asked Ginther to join him in the 1953 Carrera Panamericana, principally as a ride-along mechanic. Hill lost control of the car and had a race-ending crash that year, but the duo returned in 1954, taking second place.
Ginther returned to racing on his own in 1954 as well, in an Austin Healey he had prepared himself. He did well enough that John von Neumann, a Volkswagen and Porsche dealer, hired Ginther to drive a Porsche in American races.
By 1956, von Neumann started selling Ferraris as well. That provided Ginther the chance to drive the Italian marque. It also provided him the chance to visit the Ferrari factory. As Ginther's reputation grew with his western United States racing successes, he garnered the attention of Luigi Chinetti, the three-time 24 Hours of LeMans winner, as well as primary importer of Ferraris into the United States. Chinetti signed Ginther on as one of his drivers.
By 1957, Ginther was racing Ferraris in international level events, starting with the 12 Hours of Sebring, and then piloting a 2.0 liter Ferrari 500 TR in the 1957 24 Hours of LeMans. Ginther had become such a utility driver that he was also signed that same year to drive an Aston Martin owned by Joe Lubin in a different set of races.
For the next three years, he would race both Aston Martin and Ferrari cars. He found pretty remarkable success around the country, all the while still simultaneously working in von Neumann's Ferrari dealership. By late 1959, the challenge of racing and working a full-time job were becoming too much.
Fortunately for Ginther, he got a chance to quit his dealership job. He had developed a relationship with many people at Ferrari, and Ferrari had grown very comfortable with Ginther's close friend Phil Hill. So Ferrari decided to take a chance on Ginther, and let him pilot one of their F1 cars in 1960, debuting in Monaco.
Midway through his first F1 season, Ginther found his pace, finishing second to Phil Hill at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Ginther had actually led from the start of the race until the 25th lap before being passed by Hill.
In the pivotal 1961 season, running with the new reduced displacement 1.5 liter engines, and Ferrari's first season with the engine in the rear, Ginther continued to show his capabilities. Even though he was considered the number three driver for Ferrari behind Wolfgang Von Trips and Hill, Ginther managed to qualify first and finish in second place at the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix, only 3.6 seconds behind Stirling Moss. Later in that 1961 season, at Monza Von Trips died in a horrific accident on the second lap when his car climbed a 5 foot tall embankment and entered a crowd of spectators, killing 15 people. Ferrari ceased racing for the season, not to return until the 1962 season.
Ginther switched over to the British BRM team for 1962, racing along-side Graham Hill. By 1963, Ginther had not won a single race still, but took third place in the 1963 World Championship battle, behind his teammate. In reality, he had scored more points then Hill over the course of the season, but only the six best race scores counted towards the championship. Ginther had developed a reputation as a good team-player style of driver, with an innate mechanical ability that helped teams develop cars that he drove.
Those characteristics interested Honda, who was anxious to leave their mark in Formula One for the 1965 season, but lacked experience. As was covered in this article on the RA272, Ginther provided Honda their first win in Formula One in the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix – the last race of the season. Oddly, the victory would also be Ginther's first and only victory in Formula One. Honda stuck with Ginther for the 1966 season, the first of the 3.0 liter displacement increase, with the RA300 car. Honda struggled with developing the larger engine at first. Despite the issues, Ginther was leading at the 1966 Italian Grand Prix before crashing into a retaining wall and breaking his collarbone. His season was over.
For 1967, he signed up with Dan Gurney's Eagle F1 team, and also raced in the Race of Champions. After practice at Monaco, Ginthers spot on the grid was taken from him, and given to a Formula Two car that had been modified to bring it to F1 standards. Ginther was so disgusted by the politics of F1 that allowed these types of things, that he left the series.
During his 6+ years and 52 starts in formula One, he may have only won one race, but stood on top of the podium 14 times - more than 25% of his races.
He also appeared in the 1966 movie Grand Prix, as driver John Hogarth in the Japanese Yamura team. He also acted as a key technical advisor for the film.
In 1967, while attempting to qualify for the Indy 500, a fuel line broke on Ginther's American Eagle Indy Car. He was covered in ethanol, which, along with a memory of a previous burn, led him to retire very suddenly.
While his name may not be as prominent, driving in the shadows of Phil Hill and Graham Hill, Ginther was a remarkable American racer that proved an asset to any team for which he raced.