Saturday, August 05, 2017

John Fitch, far more than just a race car driver, and more than a racing team director. Not only did he date JFK's sister, he was manager of Lime Rock, inventor of the sand barrel safety barrier saving over 17,000 lives, and a WW2 fighter pilot in the P51 Mustang

To think of him only on terms of a Gran Prix race car driver is to miss the majority of his astonishing life.

But learn from that. To think of most people in terms of just one thing, is to miss the big picture of their lives, and odds are you'll have missed the better parts.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1917. He was a descendent of the inventor of the steamboat, John Fitch. Fitch's stepfather was an executive with the Stutz Motor Company, which introduced him to cars and racing at an early age.

When WW2 broke out, he volunteered in spring of 1941, for the United States Army Air Corps. His service took him to North Africa, where he flew the A-20 Havoc and then on to England. By 1944, Captain Fitch was a P-51 Mustang pilot with the Fourth Fighter Group on bomber escort missions, and became one of the Americans to shoot down a German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.

When Fitch returned to the U.S., he was among many young pilots who’d developed the need for speed during the conflict. He became part of the Palm Springs set, hanging out with Joe Kennedy’s sons including Jack and Bobby, and dating his daughter. But he was increasingly interested in racing and by the 1950s had started to devote more and more time to the sport.

Fitch opened an MG car dealership and also began racing at  Bridgehampton, and Watkins Glen.

In 1951, he raced the Fitch-Whitmore, a Jaguar XK120 to which he had fit a lightweight aluminium body, saving 800 pounds.

Fitch was so good he caught the attention of Briggs Cunningham, then rebuilt a Cadillac-powered Allard J2 from a wreck  and won the 1951 Gran Premio de Eva Duarte Perón – Sport

As a result of that win, the trophy and a kiss were given by Eva Perón, and he won the support of Cunningham, and got a seat with the Cunningham team at several races, including the 1951 24 Hours of Le Mans, scoring a number of impressive victories at Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen, and was crowned the first SCCA National Sports Car Champion.

And it was in Cunninghams that he would win his class at Le Mans in both 1951 and 1953, coming third overall, and he won the '53 Sebring 12 Hours.

In 1953, Fitch won the 12 Hours of Sebring, in a Chrysler-powered Cunningham C4R, was named "Sports Car Driver of the Year" by Speed Age magazine.
He raced a Cunningham C4R and Cunningham C5R for the Cunningham team,
competing in European rallies in a Sunbeam-Talbot for the Sunbeam team,
raced a Porsche 356 at Nürburgring,
competed in the Mille Miglia in a Nash-Healey for the factory team,
drove a Cooper Monaco for the Cooper team in the Aix-les-Bains Grand Prix
drove in the RAC Tourist Trophy race in a works Frazer Nash,
then took his rookie test for the Indy 500 in a Kurtis-Kraft-Offenhauser

In 1955 he was team-mate and co-driver with Fangio and Stirling Moss in a 300SLR, winning the RAC Tourist Trophy at Dundrod

For 1955, Fitch won the Gran Turismo oltre 1300 class in the Mille Miglia in at the wheel of a stock production Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, coming in fifth overall behind his team-mates Moss and Fangio in their Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR racers.

When he returned from racing in Europe at the end of the ’55 season, Fitch was chosen by Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole to head the new eight-driver Chevrolet Corvette racing team for two years.

Although Fitch would race on into the 1960s, after his awful experiences in 1955 he began to focus his considerable mental and physical energies on improving safety, not just for race car drivers, but everyone on the road. His most famous and greatest achievement was the Fitch barrier, a system of sand-filled barrels designed to protect drivers from impact with the end of guard rail or the pit wall inspired by sand-filled fuel cans which he used to protect his tent from strafing during the war.

With considerable bravery Fitch conducted multiple crash tests with himself at the wheel, and filmed by high speed cameras to perfect his theory. Affordable, easy to replace and remarkably effective, Fitch barriers soon became common sights all over North America.

Stirling won the 1955 Mille Miglia in a record time that would never be beaten, and that he did so aided not only by Denis Jenkinson's scrollable roll of pace notes he brought with him. Less well known is that it was Fitch who was meant to be driving Jenks and it was Fitch who had the idea for the pace notes.

But it was also Fitch who recognized that he had no chance of winning in a standard 300SL road car, but that the notes might enable Moss in his 300SLR racer to beat the Italians on home soil, something that had only been done twice in the history of the race and not since the war. It was Fitch who leant Moss both Jenks and the idea for the magic role of notes and I think his role in that victory is too often overlooked. As for his own performance in the race, with a German reporter with no knowledge of the thousand mile lap for a passenger, Fitch still came fifth overall in a standard road car, beaten only by factory prototypes.

Fitch did, however, return to racing at 87 years of age in 2003 and 2005, when he teamed up with a  50-year-old Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR at Bonneville in an attempt to break the land speed record for the class.
The fuel injection pump limited the top speed to only 150 mph, and with characteristic self-deprecating humour, Fitch noted that he had driven those cars faster than that in the rain, at night, on a road with 60 other cars.

A few years earlier, Fitch did set a speed record – for driving backwards, reaching 60 mph, set at Lime Rock


  1. You forgot the Fitch sprints, modified Corvairs, and the Phoenix, his hand built Corvair powered sports car. An amazing man.

    The other Jesse

    1. I didn't forget them. I chose to leave them out. They don't impress me, and I never understood why the Phoenix was such a big deal when the entire automotive world chose to ignore it. The rest of his story is far more impressive and interesting, so I stuck to that. It's already a longer article than most people will read. Adding more would only have fewer people read it, and appreciate his accomplishments. There's a limit to how much people will attempt to read, most are only here for the humorous photos

  2. Their loss then. Never stop learning. I figure if it is there, I will read it. You took the time to write it, I should honor your effort.

    1. thanks. I never stop learning, but already knew about those, and I'm not writing a book. I'm just blogging. And I can't keep blogging if I get caught up in the blackhole of research. You have to grab the low hanging fruit, take a quick look a bit deeper without getting sucked in, and then make a quick post and move on. Doing that halfway decently isn't too bad. Honoring someone with true respect, takes careful decisions. Hoping to get the right balance is a guess. So far, I think I'm doing ok. I haven't avoided anything that anyone built their reputation on, and I haven't missed anything that made me say WOW like Fitch dating JFKs sister, being a P51 pilot, the Lime Rock record, and Bonneville at 50 years after his 1st racing with the 300SL. Those are amazing. The Corvair wasn't, to me, any match for the stuff I chose to deliver to readers in respect to Fitch.
      Well... it's all just a blog anyway. It's not a paying job, and I'm not a professional.

      If it's done well, I can say "Yes, I did that. I did it well. And I'm just a car guy, not a pro, not a writer, not a reporter, not a journalist, not a college degreed university diploma'd frat guy. I'm just a car guy and I did that and did it well."

      Then I move on and learn about a 7 year old taxi raced around Australia, or I learn about Virgina Waters, or Hiduminum, or Nubar Gulbenkian, or 20 thousand other things.

      I've forgotten more than most people have learned, in the last 10 years, while blogging about cars.