John Fitch (racing driver)
August 4, 1917|
Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.
|Died||October 31, 2012
near Lime Rock, Connecticut, U.S.
|Formula One World Championship career|
|Active years||1953, 1955|
|Teams||HWM-Alta, Stirling Moss Ltd.|
|First entry||1953 Italian Grand Prix|
|Last entry||1955 Italian Grand Prix|
John Cooper Fitch (August 4, 1917 in Indianapolis, Indiana – October 31, 2012) was an American racing driver and inventor. He was the first American to race automobiles successfully in Europe in the post-war era.
In the course of a driving career which spanned 18 years, Fitch won such notable sports car races as the Gran Premio de Eva Duarte Perón – Sport, 1953 12 Hours of Sebring, 1955 Mille Miglia (production car class), and the 1955 RAC Tourist Trophy, as well as numerous SCCA National Sports Car Championship races. He also involved in Briggs Cunningham’s ambitious Le Mans projects in the early 1950s, and was later a member of the Mercedes-Benz sport car team. He also competed in two World Championship Grands Prix.
After retirement in 1964, Fitch was the manager of Lime Rock circuit, and a former team boss of Chevrolet's Corvette racing team. His biggest legacy is motor sport safety, as well as pioneering work to improve road car safety, and this has helped save countless lives. He had worked on advanced driver safety capsule systems. He was also a track design consultant, as well as inventing many other automotive devices. Even into his 90s, Fitch was still a consultant, and appeared at historic events.
- 1 Early life
- 2 World War II
- 3 Racing career
- 4 Engineering
- 5 Companies
- 6 Career awards
- 7 Personal life
- 8 Racing record
- 8.1 Career highlights
- 8.2 Complete Formula One World Championship results
- 8.3 Complete 24 Hours of Le Mans results
- 8.4 Complete 12 Hours of Sebring results
- 8.5 Complete 12 Hours of Reims results
- 8.6 Complete Mille Miglia results
- 8.7 Complete Carrera Panamericana results
- 8.8 Complete Monte Carlo Rally results
- 8.9 Indianapolis 500 results
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
John Fitch was 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. In the late thirties, Fitch attended Kentucky Military Institute, then studied civil engineering at Lehigh University. While in 1939, he travelled to Europe and saw the last car race at Brooklands before the outbreak of World War II. He returned to the United States, and sailed around the Gulf of Mexico in a 32-foot schooner from Sarasota to New Orleans.
World War II
His first passion was not cars, it was airplanes, so it was not surprising that when war broke out, he volunteered to become a pilot, whilst in England on an extended trip around the world (1939). In spring of 1941, he volunteered 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. Just two months before the end of the war, he was shot down himself while making an ill-advised third strafing pass on an Axis train and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war.
When Fitch returned to the U.S., he was among many young pilots who’d developed the need for speed during the conflict. Fitch opened an MG car dealership and also began racing an MG-TC at tracks like Bridgehampton, Thompson, and Watkins Glen. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Fitch was good. So good in fact, he caught the attention of the wealthy racing enthusiast, Briggs Cunningham, who encouraged Fitch to start the 1951 season racing in Argentina.
In 1950, Fitch raced his Ford Flathead engined Fiat 1100, which he soon modified into the "Fitch Model B", and ended the year by driving a Jaguar XK120 in the Sebring Grand Prix of Endurance Six Hours. In 1951, in addition to campaigning in his Fitch-Whitmore, he boosted his early reputation by winning the Gran Premio de Eva Duarte Perón – Sport in his Allard-Cadillac J2. As a result of that win, Juan Perón generously awarded him membership in the Justicialist Party, whilst the trophy and a kiss were given by Eva Perón. He also clinched the support of Cunningham, whose financial clout allowed Fitch to race. He was drove a Cunningham C-2 for the Cunningham team at several races, including the 1951 24 Hours of Le Mans, scoring a number of impressive victories in the early ‘50s at then-fledgling road courses like Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen, and was crowned the first SCCA National Sports Car Champion. In 1951, John raced an Effyh Formula Three car, winning at Bridgehampton and a class win at Giants Despair.
In 1952, Fitch continued to race the Fitch-Whitmore as well as a Chrysler-engined Cunningham C4-R for the Cunningham team at several races (once again including Le Mans), a works Sunbeam at the Alpine Rally. Seven years after shooting at Germans, he was racing their cars - a Porsche 356 at a race at the legendary Nürburgring, and a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL prototype in the Carrera Panamericana. It was at Le Mans that Fitch came close to making Cunningham’s dream of an all-American Le Mans victory come true, when, after setting the fastest lap in his C4-R, he was forced to retire late in the race as a result of ‘bad fuel’. During the race, Fitch was impressed by the new Mercedes-Benz 300 SLs, while Mercedes’ team chief engineer, Rudolf Uhlenhaut, who was impressed by Fitch’s performance, offered Fitch the opportunity to test the car at Nürburgring. Advised by Mercedes’s team manager, Alfred Neubauer, to take it easy, Fitch’s agenda was more aggressive as he saw this as an audition to join the Daimler outfit. He drove his allotted two laps as if his career depended on it. Neubauer’s response was to have Fitch do one more lap to prove they weren’t flukes. Fitch shaved a few seconds off his previous lap and the session ended with the proverbial, "We’ll be in touch if something comes up." He decided to make "something" happen, and persuaded Neubauer to send a team of 300 SLs to Mexico for the Carrera Panamaricana, a race that the German team weren’t going to enter. Fitch’s persistence won, and he was invited to Mexico City to pilot one of the team’s trio of cars and drivers Hermann Lang and Karl Kling, two coupes of the Germans and a new, but untried, roadster for Fitch. Fitch’s car kept throwing the treads off its tyres and he also experienced a high-speed blowout that took out one of the shock absorber mounts, which affected the front suspension. With Kling and Lang finishing first and second, putting Mercedes-Benz back on the map in North America, as for Fitch, the repairs on his car were illegal and he was disqualified. He may not have won the race, but he did win Nuebauer’s respect.
In his most notable year, 1953, Fitch and co-driver Phil Walters defeated the powerful Aston Martin team in the 12 Hours of Sebring, in a Chrysler-powered Cunningham C4R, much to the surprise of the English team’s manager, John Wyer. He thought he had the race won, "I never imagined anyone would beat us. Especially not Americans." It was the first Sebring victory for American drivers in an American car. Fitch competed in many European races that year and was named "Sports Car Driver of the Year" by Speed Age magazine. In addition to again racing a Cunningham C4R and Cunningham C5R for the Cunningham team, competing in European rallies in a Sunbeam-Talbot for the Sunbeam team, and racing a Porsche 356 at Nürburgring, 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 for the Cooper team, the RAC Tourist Trophy race in a works Frazer Nash, then made the first of two starts in World Championship Grand Prix, failing to finish the Gran Premio d'Italia in a HWM-Alta at Monza, and took his rookie test for the Indy 500 in a Kurtis-Kraft-Offenhauser but did not qualify for the race. However, whilst racing a Cunningham C5R, Fitch survived a frightening 140-mph, end-over-end crash during the 12 Heures internationales de Reims.
In 1954, Fitch drove for Cunningham in a Cunningham C4R, and also Ferraris, and again a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. For 1955, Fitch raced for the Daimler-Benz AG sports-car team alongside Juan Manuel Fangio, Karl Kling, and Stirling Moss, arguably the most formidable racing team ever, dominating all levels of competition from Formula One to diesel-engined production cars. That year, 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. Fitch reported that the suspension was so bad, "we had to stop and tie down the axle with our belts." Yet he was only beaten by dedicated race cars. Fitch also played a hand in Moss’s victory, when he conceived and built the famous "scrolling map in a box" device use by Moss’s navigator Denis Jenkinson, to guide their 300 SLR through the treacherous course. Later that season, he partnered with Moss to win the RAC Tourist Trophy at the Dundrod Circuit, in Northern Ireland. He found the narrow circuit to be dangerous and unfit for motor racing, as did other drivers; and the Tourist Trophy moved to the Goodwood Circuit in England. Meanwhile, he took ninth in his final World Championship Grand Prix at Monza, driving a Maserati 250F in the Gran Premio d'Italia.
Prior to Tourist Trophy, Fitch was paired with Pierre Levegh in a 300 SLR, at the Le Mans. It was Levegh driving at the time of the worst accident in racing, killing 85 spectators, and, in the initial confusion, had Fitch’s family in the United States notified he had crashed. At the time of the accident, Fitch was in the Mercedes trailer after a coffee with Madame Levegh, just behind the pits. When they heard the explosion, Fitch told Madame Levegh, "Wait here, I’ll see what’s happened." Finding everything in chaos, he helped some injured gendarmes and journalists. Then he returned to the trailer. "I suppose my grim face must have told it all, for I didn’t have to speak. Madame Levegh nodded slowly. ‘I know, Fitch. It was Pierre. He is dead. I know he is dead.’" The incident sparked his lifelong interest in safety innovations for racing and highways.
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 the Corvette was at that point widely panned in the racing community as more style than substance, under Fitch's management the year began with setting a class land speed record for production cars at Daytona Beach of 145.543 mph, followed by two class wins and a team win at Sebring. During this period, Fitch continued to race successfully with the Cunningham team, which was now competing around the United States in Jaguar D-Types. By the end of 1957, Fitch had begun racing in Maseratis, which he continued to race in 1958, mostly at the new Lime Rock Park, where he had been instrumental in the promotion of the track and where he was circuit director.
In 1959 he drove a factory Porsche 718 RSK in the 12 Hours of Sebring, sharing with Edgar Barth to second in class and fifth place overall. He continued to race with his friend Briggs Cunningham in his Jaguar D-Type and Lister Jaguar, along with a Corvette for Chevrolet's Bill Mitchell, and a Cooper Monaco. It was in his role as circuit director at Lime Rock that he organized and drove in the famous Formula Libre race, where Rodger Ward shocked the expensive and exotic sports cars by beating them on an Offenhauser-powered midget car, normally considered only to be competitive on oval tracks.
In 1960, Fitch re-joined the Briggs Cunningham team to race once again at Le Mans. The Cunningham-prepared Corvettes had been tested and refined at Bridgehampton, then raced in the 12 Hours of Sebring. With Bob Grossman as co-driver, the production Corvette of the Cunningham team placed 1st in Grand Touring 5000 class (and 8th overall) at Le Mans, a Corvette record which stood for over 40 years.
After that, Fitch and Cunningham teamed up to race a two-litre Maserati at endurance events at Sebring and Road America through 1961, and a Jaguar E-Type at Sebring in 1962 and again in 1963. Fitch also raced a Genie BMC in 1963, then returned to Cunningham to drive a Porsche 904 at Sebring in 1965 and 1966. The poignant tale of his last race begins at the 1966 Sebring event. Fitch, Cunningham, and Dave Jordan were sharing a Porsche. Well into the race, a valve broke and car was out of contention. By this time, Fitch and Cunningham were no longer enthusiastic about competing to win; according to Fitch, "The thought that this would be our last race never occurred to us. There was a feeling, though, that we weren’t really planning to win. In the past, we usually tried to work out a strategy to win, but not this time. I think we were there because we just liked to drive. And at Sebring we could, for 12 hours! Besides, it was the best place to watch the race." So, when a valve broke on the car in 1966, it marked the end of their racing careers for both of them.
Fitch did, however, return to official automotive competition at 87 years of age in 2003 and again in 2005, when he was once again teamed up with a now 50-year-old Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR owned by Bob Sirna, this time at Bonneville Salt Flats in an attempt to break the land speed record for the class, a novel venue for both car and driver. The attempts failed due to the fuel injection pump which limited the top speed to only 150 mph, but the team vowed to return the next year. 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. The extraordinary event is documented in a film by Chris Szwedo entitled A Gullwing at Twilight: The Bonneville Ride of John Fitch. For few years earlier, Fitch did set a speed record – for driving backwards, reaching 60 mph, set at Lime Rock.
Fitch designed a total of five cars.
In 1950, Fitch built and raced a Fiat 1100 with the small (60 horsepower) Ford Flathead engine tuned for midget racing, which he soon modified into the "Fitch Model B" by adding a Crosley body. In 1951, in addition to campaigning in the Fitch-Whitmore, a Jaguar XK120 to which he had fit a lightweight aluminium body, saving 800 pounds. John won the Gran Premio de Eva Duarte Perón – Sport in a Cadillac-powered Allard J2, he had rebuilt from a wreck. For 1952, Fitch continued to race his Fitch-Whitmore in addition to other cars.
As a road-racer, Fitch was particularly interested in the Chevrolet Corvair as the basis for a spirited road and track oriented car due to its handling, while others concentrated more on the Ford Falcon or Ford Mustang with the potential for more power. His Fitch Sprint had only minor modifications to the engine, bringing it to 155 hp (116 kW), but upgrades to the shock absorbers and springs, adjustments to the wheel alignment, quicker steering ratio, alloy wheels, metallic brake linings, the obligatory wood-rimmed steering wheel (leather available for an additional $9.95) and other such minor alterations made it extremely competitive with European sports cars costing much more. Body options such as spoilers were available, but the most visually remarkable option was the "Ventop", a fiberglass overlay for the C-pillars and rear of the roof that gave the car a "flying buttress" profile.
Fitch went on to design and build a prototype of the Fitch Phoenix, a Corvair-based two-seat sports car, superficially resembling a smaller version of the Mako Shark based Corvette. With a total weight of 1,950 pounds (885 kg), even with a steel body, and with the Corvair engine modified with Weber carburetors to deliver 175 hp (130 kW), the car delivered spirited performance for $8,760. Unfortunately, the Traffic Safety Act of 1966 placed restrictions on the ability to produce automobiles on a small scale; this was followed by Chevrolet's decision to terminate production of the Corvair, which confirmed the end of Fitch's plan. He retained the prototype however, and occasionally exhibited it at car shows. It is briefly glimpsed in the film Gullwing at Twilight: The Bonneville Ride of John Fitch, mentioned above. The Fitch Phoenix has a major role in an episode of the Discovery Channel series Chasing Classic Cars hosted by Wayne Carini where he gives it a minor restoration before it going to auction and sells for $230,000.
Fitch's company, John Fitch & Co., Inc., went on to manufacture and market the Fitch Firebird and Toronado Phantom, but garnered less attention than the Sprint.
In the aftermath of the Le Mans disaster of 1955, 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. His innovations were characterized not only by their effectiveness, but also by their real-world practicality, as affordable and easily installed and maintained solutions.
Inspired by sand-filled fuel cans which he used to protect his tent from strafing during the war, he devised the Fitch Barrier system, now ubiquitous on American highways, for installation around fixed objects on racetracks and highways to absorb impact. Typically, Fitch insisted on testing the system himself. Since first being used in the late 1960s, it is estimated that they have saved as many as 17,000 lives.
Other impact absorbing systems designed by Fitch are the Fitch Compression Barrier, suited for oval tracks and other such high speed situations with little runoff area, which comprises a set of strong, thick-walled resilient elastomer cylinders about a yard in diameter placed between the guardrail and the wall, gently absorbing the vehicle's energy without bouncing it back onto the track, and the Fitch Displaceable Guardrail where more room is available, a guardrail mounted on skids so that it can slide backwards on impact, gradually capturing the car. This reduces the mechanical forces and redirects the car parallel to the wall.
As vehicular modifications for racing safety, Fitch also engineered the Fitch Driver Capsule, an easy to install seat incorporating a seatback which pivots integral with the seatbelt in order to reduce the inertial force experienced by the driver. He later extended the principle with the Fitch Full Driver Capsule, by anchoring the helmet to the seatback to prevent basilar skull fracture and hyperextension of the neck, in a manner similar to the function of the HANS device.
Fitch also developed other automotive innovations, including the Evans Waterless Engine Cooling System, a propylene glycol based cooling system which does not require pressurization; the DeConti Brake, a liquid-cooled secondary braking system for light trucks, buses and similar vehicles; the Fitch Fuel Catalyst, which reduces the proportion of light chain (C1 – C4) molecules in gasoline, and inhibits oxidation and microorganism growth in both gasoline and diesel fuel; self-leveling automotive suspension systems, for which he received several patents; the Salisbury Thermo-Syphon Fireplace which uses waste heat to provide convective heating; and the Fitch Cervical Spine Traction Therapy, which allows freedom of movement in bed while continuing to provide tension that relieves disk pressure.
Fitch was active in crusading for increased safety on racetracks and highways, joining with medical experts such as Steve Olvey and Terry Trammel, engineers such as Bill Milliken and Karl Ludvigsen, and journalists such as Chris Economaki and Brock Yates, as well as many of his racing driver friends. He served as consultant to numerous research and governmental organizations on the subject of vehicle handling and dynamics, as they relate to safety.
During his life, Fitch founded or was associated at a high level with several companies, including John Fitch & Co., Inc., Advanced Power Systems International, Race Safety, Inc., Impact Attenuation, Inc., Impact Dynamics, LLC., Roadway Safety Service Inc., DeConti Industries Inc., Consulier Industries, Inc., Highway Safety Research Corp., as well as Lime Rock Park.
In addition to receiving a Presidential Citation, Theater Awards, Air Medals, a Purple Heart, and a POW Medal for his wartime service, Fitch was awarded the Stonex Roadside Safety Award in 1998 and was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame (2000) for his contributions to the early Corvette racing team. In addition, Fitch was inducted into the Sebring Hall of Fame (2002), the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame (2005), and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (2007). In 2009, Fitch became the first full-time sports car driver inducted in the New England Auto Racers Hall of Fame.
In 1998, Fitch received the Kenneth Stonex Award from the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences (United States) for his lifelong contributions to road-traffic safety. "In all, John Fitch's achievements in road safety throughout the world have spanned four and one-half decades. His lifetime contributions covered the full spectrum of highway safety – the roadside, the vehicle and the driver. All have resulted in significant reductions in injuries and fatalities on the motorways of the world," said Transportation Research Board committee chairman John F. Carney III on presenting the award.
John and Elizabeth had three sons, John, Christopher (Kip) and Stephen.
Complete Formula One World Championship results
|1953||HW Motors Ltd||HWM||Alta Straight-4||ARG||500||NED||BEL||FRA||GBR||GER||SUI||ITA
|1955||Stirling Moss Ltd.||Maserati 250F||Maserati Straight-6||ARG||MON||500||BEL||NED||GBR||ITA
Complete 24 Hours of Le Mans results
|1951||B. S. Cunningham||Phil Walters||Cunningham-Chrysler C2-R||S8.0||223||18th||1st|
|1952||B. S. Cunningham||George Rice||Cunningham-Chrysler C4-R||S8.0||DNF
|1953||Briggs Cunningham||Phil Walters||Cunningham-Chrysler C5-R||S8.0||299||3rd||1st|
|1954||Briggs Cunningham||Phil Walters||Ferrari 375 MM||S5.0||120||DNF
|1955||Daimler-Benz AG||Pierre Levegh||Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR||S3.0||32||DNF
(fatal accident - Levegh)
|1960||B. S. Cunningham||Bob Grossman||Chevrolet Corvette C1||GT5.0||281||8th||1st|
Complete 12 Hours of Sebring results
Complete 12 Hours of Reims results
|1953||B. S. Cunningham||Phil Walters||Cunningham-Chrysler C5-R||S+2.0||DNF
Complete Mille Miglia results
|1953||Nash Healey Inc.||Raymond Willday||Nash-Healey Spider||S+2.0||DNF
|1955||Daimler Benz AG||Kurt Gesell||Mercedes-Benz 300 SL||GT+1.3||5th||1st|
Complete Carrera Panamericana results
|1951||E. Carl Kiekhaefer||John Fitch / Dick Williams||Chrysler Saratoga Special - Race No. 32||S||DISQ
|1952||Daimler-Benz Aktiengesellschaft||Eugen Gieger||Mercedes-Benz 300 SL SpyderRace No. 6||S||DISQ
|1953||E. Carl Kiekhaefer||John Fitch /Bob Boile||Chrysler New Yorker Special||S+1.6||DISQ
(over time limit)
Complete Monte Carlo Rally results
|1953||Rootes Motors|| Peter Collins
Indianapolis 500 results
|1953||Kurtis Kraft||Offenhauser||DNQ||Verlin Brown|
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- John Fitch, "Racing with Mercedes" (Photo Data Research, ISBN 978-0-9705073-6-5, 2005)
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- John Fitch Biography
- Background of John C. Fitch
- DRIVEN[dead link], Hartford Courant, August 13, 2006
- WorldCat entry for John Fitch: Racing Through Life
- John Fitch's obituary
In addition to numerous articles in magazines as well as the Encyclopædia Britannica, Fitch wrote his autobiography (somewhat prematurely, in 1960), Adventure on Wheels, published by G.P. Putnam & Sons. In 1993 an authorised biography titled John Fitch: Racing Through Life, written by James Grinnell, was published. The book Racing Through Life by Carl Goodwin also documents Fitch's life. Fitch wrote of his years with the Mercedes-Benz racing team in his 2005 book, Racing with Mercedes Photo Data Research. In addition, a film documentary featuring Fitch attempting to break a speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats, A Gullwing at Twilight: The Bonneville Ride of John Fitch Chris Szwedo Productions was released on DVD and is being broadcast on the American Public Broadcasting System in 2006.
- Art Evans. The Amazing Life of John Cooper Fitch. Enthusiast Books. ISBN 978-1583883297
- James Grinnell. Racing Through Life: John Fitch – The Authorised Biography. Bookmarque Publishing Limited. ISBN 978-1870519212
- John Fitch on IMDb
- Lunch with John Fitch at Motor Sport magazine
- Fitch's race history, chronologically ordered
- Fitch's race history, ordered by car make and model
- Fitch Phoenix 1:43 model by Automodello
- A short bio in Jalopnik auto blog
- A series of 30 video interviews with Fitch by filmmaker, Chris Szwedo.
|SCCA National Sports Car Championship champion