With just two Grand Prix races recorded against his name, the uninitiated may be given the false impression that John Fitch was just another insignificant run-of-the-mill driver - far from it.
An ocean racer, a fighter pilot, a test pilot, a professional racing driver, a team manager, race course director, prolific inventor, highway safety expert, automaker, and entrepreneur., he was born John Cooper Fitch in Indianapolis, Indiana, August 4, 1917. He is a descendent of the inventor of the steamboat. His step-father was an executive with the old Stutz car company so Fitch witnessed auto racing at an early age, attending the Indianapolis 500 race in the passenger seat of a Stutz Bearcat at the Brickyard.
In the late thirties, Fitch went from Kentucky Military Institute to Lehigh University to study civil engineering. In 1939 he traveled to Europe and saw the last race at Brooklands just days before Chamberlain's declaration of World War II. Returning to the 'States, 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. In 1944, as a P-51 pilot in the Fourth Fighter Group on bomber escort missions near the end of World War II, he became one of the first Americans to shoot down a German ME 262 jet fighter. After 4 years of combat duty and just 2 months before the end of the war, he was himself shot down and became a POW.
Then seven years after shooting at the Germans, he was driving their racing cars - in the cockpit of a Mercedes-Benz 300SL prototype at the 1952 Pan American Road Race. The previous year he had been the first Sports Car Club of America National Champion.
For 18 years during the 50s and 60s, Fitch had a racing career that included driving for Mercedes-Benz and the Briggs Cunningham team, with major wins in the Grand Prix of Argentina, the Mille Miglia, Tourist Trophy and Sebring. Fitch also drove six times in the Le Mans 24-hour race, finishing as high as 3rd.
He was the first racing team manager for Corvette (in 1956 and 1957) and he was the first general manager of the Lime Rock race course.
He started in racing, as many of his era did, in an MG-TC, at Bridgehampton. The first two of five Fitch-designed cars were built in the early fifties: the Fitch Model B and the Fitch-Whitmore Jaguar. The "B" was a Fiat 1100 chassis with the small Ford 60 V8 tuned for midget racing and a modified Crosley body. The Jag special was an XK-120 with 800 pounds of bodywork replaced with lightweight aluminum. Both were successful racing cars.
In March 1951, on his first racing trip overseas, he won the Peron Grand Prix, a sports car race in Buenos Aires, driving an Allard-Cadillac that had been rebuilt from a wreck. This victory brought him to the attention of millionaire racer and entrant Briggs Cunningham, who took him into his sports car team, which was attempting to win Le Mans and other long-distance events. General Juan Peron generously awarded him membership in the Peronista Party. Evita gave him a trophy and a kiss (he admits that she died soon afterward).
In 1953, Fitch and co-driver Phil Walters beat the Aston Martin team at Sebring in a Chrysler-powered Cunningham C-4, much to their surprise. The British team manager thought he had the race won. "I never imagined anyone would beat us," John Wyer said. "Especially not Americans." It was the first Sebring victory for American drivers in an American car.
His escapades in racing included a 140 mph end-over-end crash at the wheel of a Cunningham C-5 at Rheims. That had the team baffled for nearly forty years before they realized that the body shape was an excellent wing, which caused the car to lift.
Having impressed Neubauer during a test in a 300SL Mercedes in 1952, Fitch finally got the call from the great man and found himself in the factory sports car team for 1955, and reserve driver at a couple of Grands Prix. He was in good company on the Mercedes team with Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Karl Kling. It was the most formidable racing team of all time, winning Formula One, Sports Racing, production GT sports cars and all classes including even Diesel passenger cars, all in a single year. A class win in the Mille Miglia was the high point of Fitch's driving career - fifth overall in a production 300SL behind 4 sports racing cars - the two Mercedes 300 SLRs of Moss and Fangio, Maglioli's Ferrari and Guiardini's Maserati. However, at Le Mans that year, Fitch's co-driver, Pierre Levegh, was involved in the worst accident in racing, killing 85 spectators.
It directed his life into energy-absorbing safety barriers, and the installation of racing barriers at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen as early as 1968. When he returned from three years of racing in Europe at the end of the '55 season, Ed Cole, then Chief Engineer at Chevrolet, asked him to help realize his dream of making Corvette a world class racing marque. The first rung on that high ladder was in setting a production sports car record of 145 mph on the sand beach at Daytona.
As the Corvette team captain at Sebring in '56 and '57, Fitch struggled to make the early Corvettes capable of a respectable performance. The importance of Fitch's contribution has never been fully recognized. Just two months before the 12-hour race, he started with a nice boulevard sports car that could not complete a single lap without breaking. When the event commenced, it began with a team of Fitch prepared sports cars ready to race. With two class wins and the team prize, he concluded "It was less than we had hoped for, but probably more than we deserved." None other than Dick Thompson was one of the eight drivers that made it possible.
In 1959 he drove a factory Porsche Spyder with Edgar Barth to a second in class and fifth overall in the Sebring 12-hour race. Racing with his friend and patron Briggs Cunningham, he ran D-Type and Lister Jaguars at Lime Rock, Road America and Thompson CT. As Lime Rock circuit director, he organized and drove in the famous Formula Libre race. He took a fourth place to winner Roger Ward in an Offy midget (that shocked the sports car troops!).
In 1960, he went back to Le Mans with the Cunningham Team and more American cars: Corvettes, three of them. The Corvettes had been tested and refined at Bridgehampton and later in the Sebring race. With Ferrari pilot Bob Grossman as co-driver, they finished 8th overall, equal to the Corvette finish at Le Mans in 2001, 41 years later. In both cases, a production sports car finished ahead of dozens of all-out sports racing machines.
In the early and mid 60s, with introduction of the Chevrolet Corvair, Fitch created two versions for the car enthusiast. One was the Fitch Sprint based on the production Corvair, the other the Fitch Phoenix. The former had four carburetors, an extensively revised rear suspension, faster steering, better brakes and many other refinements. The latter is conceded to be a timeless classic, as well as a performer at only 2150 lbs.
East Coast racing in a two-liter Maserati and a Cooper Monaco rounded out the final years of his career. The poignant tale of his last race begins at the 1966 Sebring event. Fitch and Cunningham were driving a Porsche 904. Well into the race, a valve broke and the car was out of contention.
They both officially retired from serious racing on the spot.