Renaissance man: Visionary thinking and fast driving were John Fitch trademarks
If you could design an idealized life around the automobile, it would be difficult to come up with a more exciting and noble story than that of John Fitch. He is known to most as the first American to join Mercedes-Benz in the early 1950s as a motorsport teammate of Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, and Peter Collins. Fitch later became team manager and driver on Corvette’s first major racing outing at Sebring in 1956, and he would go on to race Corvettes at Sebring and Le Mans.
But that’s just scratching the surface.
“He shot a newly introduced German jet fighter from the sky in World War II, raced yachts, built his own sports cars,” Douglas Martin wrote in Fitch’s 2012 obituary in The New York Times. “Eva Peron, the legendary Evita, kissed him after he won the 1951 Grand Prix of Argentina.” Fitch also hobnobbed with Orville Wright, English playwright Noel Coward, and several Kennedys.
As if that wasn’t fascinating enough, Fitch:
- Was the great-great grandson of another John Fitch, a U.S. Navy lieutenant who in 1787 invented the first steamboat, even though the patent rights would eventually go to Robert Fulton.
- Was an American POW during World War II after his P51 Mustang was shot down by German ground fire during an attack on a locomotive. He spent the last two and a half months of the war as a POW.
- Was the first SCCA national champion, in 1951, driving two different cars—a Cunningham and a Jaguar. (There was only one class from 1951–53.)
- Won the second-ever 12 Hours of Sebring in 1953 and was declared Driver of the Year by Speed Age magazine the same year.
- Won the production class at the 1955 Mille Miglia and finished fourth overall in a Mercedes 300 SL, with navigator Kurt Gesell. Fitch often called it his greatest race.
- Witnessed the greatest tragedy in racing history at Le Mans in 1955, when his Mercedes teammate, Pierre Levegh, was launched into the grandstands by another car.
- Helped develop and drove GM’s first purpose-built race car, the Corvette SS, at Sebring in 1957.
- Drove a 1960 Corvette to its first Le Mans class victory, co-driving with Bob Grossman in a car campaigned by Briggs Cunningham.
- Was a prime mover behind the creation of Lime Rock Park in Connecticut, one of the country’s foremost road courses.
- Dabbled in limited specialty car building in the 1960s with both a modified Corvair, known as the Fitch Sprint, and a special-bodied sports car on a Corvair chassis, called the Phoenix. Only one Phoenix was built, and it sold as part of Fitch’s estate for $253,000 at the 2014 Greenwich Bonham’s auction.
- Was a safety engineer who developed the yellow crash barrels and other safety devices that have saved countless lives on the road and track.
“If there was one quality that set John Fitch apart from his contemporaries in 1955 and in 1992, it was, and is, to have his own vision and follow it,” John Grinnell wrote in his 1993 biography, John Fitch: Racing Through Life.
An Indianapolis native, Fitch was born on August 4, 1917. “His parents divorced when he was 6, and his mother married George Spindler, president of the Stutz Motor Car Company,” Martin wrote in The New York Times. “An amateur racecar driver, Mr. Spindler took young John for spins on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
That planted the seed, and young John grew up dreaming about automobiles and Indy racing. He studied at Lehigh University, but quickly grew impatient with a broad curriculum, preferring to concentrate on what he felt he needed to know to accomplish his goals. “Answering the call of the open road,” Martin wrote, “he bought an Indian motorcycle and rode it to New Orleans, where he traded it for a Fiat 500 automobile and drove it to New York, stopping only for gas. In 1939, he used a small inheritance to hop a freighter for Europe and found his way to London, where he fell in love with a ballet dancer and lived with Communist intellectuals in grain barges on the Thames.”
After joining the Army Air Forces in World War II, Fitch bought his first sports car, a lemon yellow MG TC in 1948. “So great was Fitch’s enthusiasm for the spry British sports car that he soon set up shop as a dealer of Jaguars and Rileys, later adding other offbeat brands such as Willys, Hillman, and Renault to the MG line,” Grinnell wrote.
Fitch finished fifth in his first race at Bridgehampton in 1949, driving a stock MG TC, and followed that with a second-place finish at Watkins Glen that same year. That performance led to an opportunity to drive a more powerful Cadillac-Allard at an international sports car race in Buenos Aires Argentina, which Fitch won.
He later met gentleman racer Briggs Cunningham, who would become well known for winning the 1958 America’s Cup yacht race. In the early 1950s, Cunningham was racing lightweight sports cars with powerful American V-8s nestled inside. After winning the first SCCA championship in 1951, Fitch got an offer from Cunningham to ride in one of his Cunningham C4s at Le Mans the following June. Fitch paired up with George Viola in a Chrysler-powered C4R but did not finish the race.
The following year, at Sebring, Fitch paired Phil Walters and captured an overall victory in a Cunningham CR4R.
Fitch’s performance for Cunningham drew the attention of Mercedes-Benz, which offered him a spot on the factory racing team, joining two of the greatest drivers to ever don a helmet—Fangio and Moss. Fitch would go on to distinguish himself with wins at the Panamericana Carrera road race in Mexico in 1952 and the Mille Miglia in 1955.
At Le Mans in 1955, just 10 minutes before Fitch was to take over for Levegh, the 300 SLR ran up the back of Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey and launched into the grandstands. Levegh and 83 spectators died in the deadliest crash in motorsports history. The Mercedes-Benz team withdraw from the race, and from racing altogether.
That tragedy suddenly made Fitch available to Chevrolet. General Manager Ed Cole was looking for an experienced driver to lead an all-new factory Corvette racing program. Zora Arkus-Duntov would have claimed that role had he not complained to Cole that the Corvette’s brakes were not ready for prime-time racing. Fitch gratefully accepted the opportunity.
Describing the process of making the 1956 Corvette a race-ready machine, Fitch—quoted in Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Legend Behind Corvette—said, “The engineers in Detroit were more concerned with supplying the parts for 10,000 Chevrolets a day. Among the engineers at Chevy, none of them had a moment’s time for the Corvette or Zora. They were swamped. To them, the Corvette racing program was a flea on an elephant.”
But that flea grew the following year. Working with Arkus-Duntov, Fitch helped develop GM’s first purpose-built race car, the Corvette SS. Two cars were built, a test mule and a race car carefully designed by Harley Earl. The mule had been very competitive in early testing and came close to setting track records at Sebring when both Moss and Fangio took the wheel at Fitch’s behest. But the actual racing SS arrived at Sebring only a few days before the race and featured an all-new, and as-yet untested magnesium body, which proved to be a heat trap. The car started the race, but on lap 23 a couple of technical gremlins, including an ignition coil, sidelined it.
Despite the program’s great potential, Chevrolet withdrew from racing after Sebring, following the recommendation of the American Manufacturer’s Association, which, after the 1955 Le Mans tragedy, suggested that motor racing was too dangerous and set a poor example for impressionable youth.
Fitch continued driving, most notably for Briggs Cunningham, who entered three Corvettes in the 1960 Le Mans race. Despite a less-than-competitive car, Fitch and Bob Grossman overcame rain and overheating problems to nurse their Corvette to a class win and a ninth-place finish overall.
Fitch continued to drive in occasional races at Sebring and elsewhere through the mid-1960s. At 70, he set a track record while lapping Lime Rock Park in reverse.
Fitch’s final driving exploits included unsuccessful attempts to create a new production land speed record in a Mercedes 300 SL at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 2003 and 2005—documented in Chris Szwedo’s film, A Gullwing at Twilight.
Fitch was a champion of racetrack safety, more so after witnessing the Le Mans tragedy in 1955. As a driving force behind the construction of Lime Rock, he offered many suggestions for runoff areas and the wide, sandy areas on the outside of turns—the forerunner of the gravel beds we see on modern road courses today.
Fitch later developed his Fitch Barrier system of sand-filled barrels that are now quite common on American highways. He was inspired by the sand-filled fuel cans that were used to protect against German strafing during WWII. He also helped develop racetrack compression barriers and walls that give upon impact. More importantly, he contributed to the development of today’s HANS devices via his Fitch Driver Capsule, an easy-to-install seat incorporating a seat back that anchors the helmet to the seatbelt and helps prevent basilar skull fracture and hyperextension of the neck.
Fitch died at the age of 95 on October 31, 2012, at his home in Lakeville, Connecticut, near the Lime Rock track that he helped establish. In addition to his legacy as a driver and race car builder, he also had 15 patents, mostly related to automotive safely. One of those patents was for a system Fitch created to steer hot air balloons. Further confirmation, as if any was needed, that he was a true renaissance man.