John Fitch 1917 – 2012

Dave Burnham, Connecticut Cruise News, December, 2012/January, 2013

Shortly after the 2012 Lime Rock Historic Festival, the sad news was announced that John Fitch, one of the track’s founders, died at the grand age of 95 on October 31st from Merkel carcinoma, a rare skin cancer, at his home in Lime Rock, CT.

John Cooper Fitch was born in Indianapolis on August 4th, 1917. His parents divorced when he was six, and his mother married George Spindler, president of the Stutz Motor Car Company.

In the late thirties, Fitch went from Kentucky Military Institute to Lehigh University to study civil engineering. He traveled to Europe in 1939 and saw the last race at the historic Brooklands circuit just days before Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of World War II. Returning to the USA, he sailed around the Gulf of Mexico in a 32-foot schooner from Sarasota to New Orleans. In the spring of 1941 he volunteered in the Army Air Corps. Flying came naturally to Fitch, and he soon gained the rank of Captain.

His service took him to North Africa – where he flew the Douglas A-20 Havoc, an attack, light bomber and night-fighter aircraft – and then to England. By 1944, Captain Fitch was a P-51 Mustang pilot with the 4th Fighter Group, 335th Fighter Squadron based in Debden, North Essex. On November 18, 1944, his squadron was sent on an attack mission to Leipheim Aerodrome in Germany. They destroyed 12 Messerschmitt Me-262s and one Me-109. Fitch accounted for one of the Me-262s, a fearsome jet-engined Luftwaffe fighter aircraft. “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.”

A couple of months before the war ended in Europe, it was Fitch who became the target. After three attempts to strafe a Nazi supply train his P-51 was hit by enemy fire. He survived the crash but was captured and spent the remaining days of the conflict as a POW.

When Fitch came home, he was among the many young pilots who’d developed the need for speed. Like many of his kind, he started out racing an MG-TC, primarily at Bridgehampton, NY. But unlike many of his fellow racers, Fitch was good. 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, but he was able to borrow an Allard that had previously been wrecked.

“The frame was bent, so I secured it with a chain to a tree and kept backing up till it was reasonably straight. I won the race and was given a trophy by Eva Peron. She gave me a kiss…and died shortly thereafter!” With that victory, Fitch clinched the first Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) National Championship.

That year, he also drove a Cunningham C2 at several races including the Le Mans 24 Hours where he finished 18th. This was to be the first of six appearances for Fitch in the legendary endurance classic.

In 1952, Fitch raced a Chrysler-powered Cunningham C4R for the Cunningham team at Le Mans. After setting fastest lap, he was forced to retire late on to an engine failure. He also drove a works Sunbeam at the Alpine Rally, a Porsche 356 at the Nürburgring, and a Mercedes Benz 300SL in the Carrera Panamericana.

In his most notable year, 1953, Fitch was named “Sports Car Driver of the Year” by Speed Age magazine. In addition to racing a Cunningham C4 and C5 for Briggs Cunningham, he competed in European rallies in a factory-backed Sunbeam Talbot. He also competed in the Mille Miglia in a Nash Healey for the factory team, the Aix-les-Bains Grand Prix in a Cooper Monaco, the RAC Tourist Trophy race in a works Frazer Nash and the Italian Grand Prix in a HWM-Alta. His win at the Sebring 12 Hours with co-driver Phil Walters in a Chrysler-powered Cunningham C4 was the first Sebring win by American drivers in an American car.

In 1954, Fitch and Walters drove for Cunningham in a Ferrari 375 at Sebring. This was unsuccessful as the car’s engine failed. They took another 375 to Le Mans, but they retired from that race as well, this time with differential failure.

In 1955, in addition to driving a Maserati 250F to ninth place in the Italian Grand Prix, Fitch raced for the Mercedes Benz sports car team alongside Juan Manuel Fangio, Karl Kling, and Stirling Moss. This fearsome foursome dominated all levels of competition from Formula One to diesel-engined production cars. Fitch and Kurt Gessell won the production class at the Mille Miglia in a 300SL, coming in fifth overall behind his teammates Moss and Fangio in their 300SLRs. He then teamed up with Moss to win the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod in Northern Ireland.

His season was also tinged with tragedy. He was sharing the Mercedes 300SLR which Pierre Levegh crashed fatally at Le Mans, killing more than 80 spectators. Fitch was waiting in the team trailer, having a last-minute cup of coffee before taking the wheel. But it wasn’t to be. A crash involving Levegh, Mike Hawthorn’s D-Type Jaguar and Lance Maklin’s Austin Healey resulted in what is the worst disaster in automobile racing.

When Fitch returned from Europe, Ed Cole, then chief engineer at Chevrolet, asked him to help realize his dream of making the Corvette a world-class racer. As team captain at Sebring in 1956 and 1957, Fitch struggled to make the early cars capable of a respectable performance. Just two months before the 1956 race, he had a car that could not complete a lap without breaking. When the race finished, the team took two class wins and the team prize.

For Sebring 1957, the team used the Corvette SS. The car was ultra-lightweight and powerful. The featherweight body covered a tubular-steel chassis that featured coil over-shocks, a de Dion rear axle and inboard-mounted aluminum drum brakes. The SS retired due to suspension problems and other mechanical defects after only 23 laps, but it posted the fastest lap of the race.

Fitch spent the rest of 1957 and 1958 racing a Jaguar D-Type and Maserati 200 at such tracks as Elkhart Lake, WI, Montgomery, NY, Thompson, CT and the newly opened Lime Rock.
In 1959 he drove a factory Porsche RSK with Edgar Barth to fifth overall at Sebring. Racing with his friend and patron Briggs Cunningham, he again ran D-Type and Lister Jaguars across the USA.

In 1960, he went back to Le Mans with Cunningham, this time with three Corvettes. With Ferrari pilot Bob Grossman as his co-driver, they finished 8th overall.

In the early and mid 60s, after the introduction of the Chevrolet Corvair, Fitch created two versions for car enthusiasts. The Fitch Sprint was based on the production model. The Fitch Phoenix had four carbs, a heavily modified rear suspension, faster steering, better brakes and many other refinements.
East Coast racing in a Maserati and a Cooper Monaco rounded out the final years of his career. His last race was Sebring 1966. Fitch and Cunningham were driving a Porsche 904 where a valve broke and the car was out of contention after 104 laps. They both officially retired from serious racing on the spot.

In the aftermath of the 1955 Le Mans disaster, Fitch devoted a great deal of effort to the task of increasing the safety of motorsports and driving in general, resulting in his company, Impact Attenuation Inc.

Inspired by sand-filled fuel cans, he devised the Fitch Barrier system, now commonplace, for installation around fixed objects on racetracks and highways to absorb impact. Since first being used in the late 1960s, it is estimated the barriers have saved as many as 18,000 lives.

Another impact-absorbing system is the Fitch Compression Barrier, suited for oval tracks and other high-speed situations with little runoff area. This comprises a set of strong, resilient hollow cylinders about a yard in diameter placed between the guardrail and the wall, which gently absorb the vehicle’s energy without bouncing it back onto the track.

Fitch’s achievements have been immortalized by numerous awards, including his induction into the Corvette, SCCA, Sebring, New England Racer, and Motorsports of America Halls of Fame. In June of 2012, he was inducted into the Bloomington Gold Great Hall.