Word came today of the death of John Fitch, age 95, in Connecticut. His influence on the classic cars I admire and the sports car racing I enjoy, cannot be underestimated. We’re a lesser world without him.
For Corvair enthusiasts John Fitch took the early model Corvair and created the Fitch Sprint. You could order the parts and install them on your own, or drive your Corvair to his garage near Lime Rock, CT and have his crew modify your Corvair to do everything Chevrolet should have done from the start.
When the late model Corvair came out in late 1964, Fitch created an even more special Sprint, taking advantage of the improvements built into the new model.
Seeing the success built into the ’65 Corvair he set his sights on using that platform to become the underpinning of the Fitch Phoenix.
His considerable talents also included sports car driving and engineering. Autoweek summed them up best in an obituary posted today, which I’ve reprinted here:
Dan Klein, Autoweek, October 31, 2012
We lost more than just one of our own early Wednesday. We lost a national treasure. At age 95, American John Cooper Fitch–the first Sports Car Club of America national champion and a star in European sports-car racing in the 1950s and ’60s–died at 1:20 a.m. from Merkel carcinoma, a rare skin cancer, at his home surrounded by family in Lime Rock, Conn.
Fitch, who went on to become a pioneer in racing safety, was born in Indianapolis on Aug. 4, 1917. After his parents divorced, his mother married an executive at the Stutz company who introduced his young stepson to racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But the boy wasn’t impressed by what he saw.
“A bunch of cars going around in a circle. What’s the point?” was a question he posed often, even later in life.
His first passion was airplanes, not cars, so it is not surprising that when World War II broke out, he volunteered to become a pilot. He was in England at the time (1939) on an extended trip to “see the world” and tried to join the RAF, since the United States hadn’t yet joined the war. When this proved impossible, he returned to the U.S. and, in 1941, volunteered for the Army Air Corps. Fitch took easily to flying, and attained the rank of captain quickly, serving in northern Africa before entering the battle in Europe.
Based in London, Fitch flew many successful bomber escort missions. On one, he achieved elite status by shooting down a Messerschmidt ME 262 jet fighter. “We couldn’t catch them in the air because they were simply too fast,” he recalled, “but I was lucky enough to come upon one that was taking off. It was relatively easy.” Whether it was modesty or bravado, Fitch often dismissed his heroic feats that way.
But shortly before the end of the war, it was Fitch who became the target. After three attempts to strafe a Nazi supply train–“When we scored a direct hit, the boiler sent up a magnificent plume of steam!”–his P-51 Mustang was hit by enemy fire. He survived the crash but was captured quickly.
A mere seven years later, he became the first–and to this day the only–American to race for the Mercedes-Benz factory team. People asked Fitch often if that transition period seemed short to him, but it didn’t.
“During the war we were soldiers. By the early fifties, we were drivers. No problem.”
When Fitch returned to the U.S., he was among the many young pilots who’d developed the need for speed during the war. He had also developed an awareness of road racing, having witnessed an event at Brooklands in the U.K. while on his grand tour. Unlike Indy’s “roundy round,” this form of motorsport appealed to Fitch, so road racing became his logical outlet.
Like many of his contemporaries, he started out campaigning an MG-TC, primarily at nearby Bridgehampton, N.Y. But unlike many of his contemporaries, Fitch was good. So good, in fact, that he caught the eye of Briggs Cunningham, the wealthy racing enthusiast who encouraged Fitch to enter the 1951 Grand Prix of Argentina. Fitch couldn’t afford a competitive car of his own, but he was able to borrow an Allard that had been wrecked in a previous race. This is a story Fitch loved to tell.
“The frame was bent, so I secured it to an oak tree with a chain and kept backing up till it was reasonably straight. Well, I won the race and was awarded a trophy by Eva Peron, who gave me a kiss . . . and died shortly thereafter!” With that victory, Fitch clinched the first SCCA National Championship.
He also clinched the support of Cunningham, whose financial clout allowed Fitch to race cars that complemented his considerable skills. Notably, Fitch scored a number of impressive victories in the early ’50s in Cunninghams at then-fledgling road courses like Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen. But Cunningham had bigger plans: He had his sights set on Le Mans. His goal was to win the world’s most demanding endurance race with an American car and driver, and Fitch was to play a leading role in that quest.
In 1952, Fitch came close to making Cunningham’s dream come true. After setting fastest lap in his C-4R roadster, he was forced to retire late in the race because of bad fuel provided by the sanctioning body. Although others have questioned this “coincidence,” Fitch always accepted it at face value.
Ironically, the Cunningham’s failure gave him the opportunity to take his career to the next level. During the race, Fitch was impressed by the new Mercedes-Benz 300 SLs. Similarly, Mercedes team chief engineer Rudi Uhlenhaut was impressed with Fitch’s performance in the Cunningham. So when the American approached the German to compliment him on the new car, Uhlenhaut reciprocated by offering the opportunity to take a few laps in the innovative roadster after the upcoming Nürburgring race. Fitch knew that while Cunningham would probably wind down his eponymous Le Mans efforts in the near term, Mercedes-Benz would likely do the opposite. So he capitalized on the invitation to develop a relationship with the man in charge. The Nürburgring courtesy laps would be his audition to join the vaunted German race team.
Team manager Alfred Neubauer exhorted Fitch to take it easy, but the determined American’s agenda was more aggressive: He drove his two allotted laps with the knowledge that his career depended on it. Neubauer’s response? Do one more to prove they weren’t flukes. Fitch complied by shaving a few seconds off his previous lap and the session ended with the proverbial, “We’ll be in touch if something comes up.”
However, patience never was Fitch’s strong suit; he decided to create his own “something” and doggedly pursued a reluctant Neubauer to enter a team of 300 SLs in the upcoming Carrera Panamericana, a race that wasn’t even on Neubauer’s radar. Fitch’s persistence won out, and on Oct. 26, 1952, he was invited to Mexico City to pilot one of team’s roadsters. He didn’t win the race, but he did win Neubauer’s respect, and that set the stage for his eventual invitation to join the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Karl Kling to race for Mercedes-Benz in 1955, the greatest season in the company’s competition history.
Two of the most significant events in Fitch’s racing career happened that year. The first was his astonishing best-in-class, 5th overall finish in the Mille Miglia at the wheel of a stone-stock production 300 SL coupe, whose suspension was so bad, “we had to stop and tie down the axle with our belts.” Yet Fitch screamed into Brescia just one hour and 22 minutes behind overall winner Moss, who was piloting a full racing version of the 300 SLR. The only cars between them were Fangio’s 300 SLR, a Ferrari and a Maserati–all dedicated race cars. Moss’s navigator was journalist Denis Jenkinson, who will always be remembered for the famous “scrolling map in a box” he used to guide Moss through the treacherous course. But in fact it was Fitch who conceived and built the device, and he always treasured the note of gratitude that “Jenks” sent him for providing it.
The second landmark event, of course, was Le Mans. Fitch was waiting in the Mercedes-Benz team trailer, just behind the pit wall, having a last-minute cup of coffee before taking over from teammate Pierre Levegh. But he never got that chance. A crash involving Levegh’s 300 SLR, Mike Hawthorn’s D Jaguar and Lance Maklin’s Austin Healey resulted in what has remained the worst disaster in the history of automobile racing. The crash killed more than 80 people, and changed Fitch’s life forever. It was then that he realized something had to be done to improve racing and highway safety, a challenge that became an overriding pursuit for the rest of his life, leading to, among other innovations, the development of the ubiquitous yellow, sand-filled Fitch Inertia Crash Barriers–the yellow crash barrels seen on racetracks and highways–that have saved thousands of lives around the world.
But Fitch’s racing career didn’t end with Le Mans. At the end of 1955, Chevrolet’s Chief Engineer, Ed Cole suggested that he help develop the Corvette into a world-class race car. The two hit it off, and in early 1956, Cole asked Fitch to develop and manage a team of Corvettes he planned to enter at Sebring, just six weeks hence. Corvette father Zora Arkus Duntov had already turned down Cole’s request, claiming that it would be impossible to make the slow, overweight production two-seaters competitive in such a short amount of time, but in typical Fitch fashion, Fitch rose to the occasion.
Four cars were entered, but different engines put them in two different classes: B and C Production. Against overwhelming odds, the team won both classes, giving them the team prize as well. Years later, Corvette Racing’s present-day manager Doug Fehan led his drivers in a standing ovation for Fitch, remarking that he had almost single-handedly achieved in six weeks what today would take an entire dedicated organization years to accomplish.
In 2010, Fehan again led his drivers in a salute to Fitch, this time at LeMans, where, at age 93, Fitch reunited with the 1960 Corvette that he and Bob Grossman co-drove to give Corvette its first significant international victory 50 years earlier (Autoweek, Aug. 16, 2010).
Fitch’s motorsports achievements have been immortalized by numerous awards, including his induction into the Corvette, SCCA (inaugural class), Sebring, New England Racer, and Motorsports of America Halls of Fame. In June of 2012, he was inducted into the Bloomington Gold Great Hall.
Although Fitch and his self-designed Phoenix sports car remained a common sight in the Lime Rock paddock until shortly before his death, the Le Mans reunion marked his last major public appearance. Close friends noticed a marked decline in Fitch’s vitality after his wife, Elizabeth, died in 2009. But he was insistent upon remaining in their 1700s “homestead” in Lime Rock, which they purchased in 1956, when Fitch was named the track’s first general manager. Despite his on-going soil contamination issues with the state of Connecticut (Autoweek, April 14, 2008), he did his best to go it alone at home, even at the expense of his declining health. To no-one’s surprise, Fitch remained fiercely stubborn and independent to the end.