Teams John Cooper Fitch
Races: 2John Fitch: More than SpeedBy Jeremy McMullen
In a career spanning less than two decades, John Fitch would ascend the ranks to become one of the premier sportscar drivers in the world. Though speed would forever define Fitch's life right up to that last day on the 31st of October, there would be much more to the man than just speed.
It is nearly impossible to experience terrible and absolute devastation and not be affected by it in some form or manner. Such memories of a silver Mercedes-Benz disintegrating and flying through the air decapitating bodies and causing other such horrific memories would plague the minds of many who were at Le Mans in 1955. In the case of John Fitch, the memories of that terrible moment would lead him to live a life of dual identities, forever striving to turn back the clock in his own way and saving those many lives lost those early evening hours on the 12th of June in 1955.
Those knowledgeable in motor racing history would recall John Cooper Fitch as a talented racing driver. But there would be many others that would recall the man first as an innovator in safety. And, because of his equal passion to both, a discussion of the man almost always requires a delineation of the two halves, the racing and the safety. A man devoted to his art, Fitch would impact all facets of the automotive industry, from inside and outside the cockpit and everywhere else in between. And it would all begin a couple of generations before his birth.
Those astute in history would likely recognize the name 'John Fitch', but there may be some difficulty as to pinpointing from what time period the name comes. The truly astute would recognize there are two inventors/innovators sharing the name 'John Fitch', but which one could still offer some difficulty. But in the case of John Fitch and John Cooper Fitch, though there are differences, they are truly one in the same, for they are from the same family. Therefore, it is not at all surprising to marvel at all John Cooper Fitch would be capable of creating/devising when it is remembered that his great-great grandfather, John Fitch, had been the inventor of the steamboat.
Though those of the time period would likely disagree, unlike his great-great grandfather, John Cooper Fitch would be born into the world in a place filled with speed. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana on the 4th of August in 1917, John Fitch would soon find himself being raised in an automotive family when his stepfather, George Spindler, came into his life at the age of 6. George Spindler was an executive with the Stutz Motor Company and even showed an interest in amateur racing. Because of this upbringing, John would be quite adept and building cars, and throughout his early life he would spend hours taking wrecked or incomplete cars and turning them into proper road-going machines.
Being surrounded by the automotive industry it would be practically impossible if motor racing wouldn't come to attract the young boy. This would lead him to enter Lehigh University to study civil engineering after a period of time at the Kentucky Military Institute. Though Fitch would enroll in civil engineering at Lehigh University, he would only be there a short period of time before he would be persuaded to tour Europe with a friend. Therefore, instead of studying, John would be enjoying the privilege of seeing some of the sights and sounds of Europe. One of those 'privileges' Fitch would enjoy, and that would ultimate determine a course for his life, would be seeing the final motor race held at Brooklands in England before the outbreak of World War II.
Although England and all of Europe was on the verge of war when the young American visited Brooklands in 1939, it would be another couple of years before the war would catch up to the United States and the boy from Indiana.
When the war did reach the United States, Fitch would be an honorable young man and would volunteer his service to his country, but if war could ever be considered slow-paced, Fitch would choose a path of service that was anything but.
Having attended Kentucky Military Institute and then, briefly, Lehigh University to study civil engineering, Fitch would be able to enter the military as an officer. This opened the door to being a pilot and, coming into service in 1941, he would find himself in some of the hottest and most dangerous theaters of war.
Volunteering for the US Army Air Corps, Fitch's military career would begin in North Africa as a pilot of a Douglas A-20 Havoc in the 15th Bombardment Squadron. This attack/medium bomber aircraft meant Fitch would be right in the fight, down low at times with the sand kicking up and the fighting intense. He would serve throughout North Africa for a couple of years before being shipped to England.
Upon arriving in England, Fitch would be assigned what many would consider a dream position as pilot of a North American P-51 Mustang as part of the 4th Fighter Group in the 335th Fighter Squadron.
Part of the famous 'Red Nose' squadron, Fitch would be a part of a Fighter Group that would boast of such famous war aces as Don Gentile, Duane Beeson, Pierce McKennon and Don Blakeslee. But while Fitch himself wouldn't become a fighter ace, he would have the distinction of being just one of a handful to ever shoot down one of the first operation jets, the German Messerschmitt ME 262.
Nothing in war is truly glorious, but, in Fitch's case, his experience would get worse when he would get shot down during a strafing pass on a German train. Crash landing the Mustang, Fitch would suffer a broken arm but would obviously survive. However, just two months before the end of the war, Fitch would find himself a prisoner of war.
During his spontaneous tour of Europe, John would have the opportunity to take to the wheel of an MG Magnette. This experience would be enough for him to start his own MG dealership back in the United States following the end of the Second World War. Based in Connecticut, the dealership would be simple a means, a front for a man with a passion, an obsession with going fast.
Fitch had gone to the Indianapolis 500 as a boy and had even taken some laps of the circuit with his stepfather George Spindler, he had seen the very last race at Brooklands, he had sailed around the Gulf of Mexico and had shot down a jet and had the opportunity to fly what is considered to be the best fighter of all time. Fitch's life was one filled with speed and adventure, and it would have been considered an impossibility had he lived a quiet and serene life afterward. Not surprisingly, he wouldn't.
Not only would Fitch experience some incredible moments, but his life itself would be amongst the jet-setters and affluent. Returning from the war, Fitch would originally settle in Palm Beach, Florida and would be seen with such influential people as Orville Wright, Noel Coward and even the Kennedy family. In such a setting, he would soon form some very interesting and influential friendships, including people like the poet George Barker and the Duke of Windsor, whom Fitch likes to recall as having met and formed a friendship with while urinating on a bush while at a party.
Quoted as saying, 'I've always needed to go fast', Fitch wouldn't remain docile behind the wheel of a car for very long. Already having picked up a life racing yachts, Fitch would decide to make the obvious jump to motor racing. Born to a grandfather that invented Fitch's Chewing Gum and having such an extensive family line of innovators, Fitch believed he could make a go of a racing career. The fact his car dealership wasn't selling very many cars would be further motivation for the still young man to chase adventure and speed. Therefore, in 1949, Fitch's motor racing career would begin with a 100 mile race at Bridgehampton driving an MG TC.
Actually, Fitch tried to get his motor racing career jumpstarted toward the end of 1948 by taking part in the Watkins Glen Grand Prix in the MG TC. However, despite his best efforts, he would fail to qualify for the race.
After a 5th place in the debut at Bridgehampton, Fitch would try his hand at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix once again. This time he would not only qualify, but he would again finish in 5th place. Taking part in the Seneca Cup on that same day, Fitch would finish in 6th place.
Focusing on sports cars mostly, Fitch would even try his hand at designing and building his own cars. Taking from a Simca, John would create a car that would become known as the Fitch Model B and he would campaign the car in a couple of different races throughout the 1950 season. Unfortunately, the best result the car would earn throughout the season would come at Watkins Glen during the Grand Prix where Fitch finished the race in 8th place.
Fitch's first victory would come just a year after his having started racing. At the Sebring 6 Hours on the 31st of December, Fitch would bring home a Jaguar XK120, entered under his own name, 18th overall. However, he would take the class victory in the S5.0 class.
This victory would lead to Fitch gaining the confidence necessary to head to South America to take part in the Buenos Aires National at the wheel of an Allard J2. Starting the race from 2nd place on the grid, he would eventually take the victory by more than a lap over fellow American Fred Wacker. As a result of this victory, Fitch would receive another honor to which he would recall throughout his life, and that would be having received a victor's kiss from Eva Peron, the famous 'Evita'. Though the kiss would be something Fitch would consider as special, the fact he would achieve the victory driving an Allard that he himself had rebuilt and that was powered by a Cadillac engine would also be an achievement in its own right.
Returning to the United States, Fitch would take part in a handful more sportscar races earning some more class victories before he would again set off for an international race. But this time, instead of heading south, John would head east. He would travel all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and would eventually arrive in Le Mans, ready to take part in his first 24 Hours of Le Mans race as part of the B.S. Cunningham team.
Partnered with Phil Walters, Fitch would overcome the distractions of Le Mans to finish his inaugural attempt in 18th overall and 1st in class driving the Cunningham C2-R in the S8.0 class. In that race, which would eventually be won by Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead, Fitch would find himself the likes of some drivers like Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Louis Chiron, Guy Mairesse, Luigi Chinetti, Jose Froilan Gonzalez, Onofre Marimon and one Pierre Levegh.
After the initial experience at Le Mans, Fitch would return to the United States to complete the inaugural season of the Sports Car Club of America national championship. By winning 12 of 13 races on his native soil, Fitch would become the first-ever winner of the national championship.
The 1952 season would see Fitch take part in a number of races all over the globe. Fitch would come through to take victories at Elkhart Lake, Watkins Glen and Sowega and would even score a 4th place result in a race at the Nurburgring driving a Porsche 356. This success would lead to a special honor for the man from Connecticut.
Fitch would return to Le Mans with the B.S. Cunningham team vowing to take victory. And, had it not been for late engine troubles, Fitch and co-driver George Rice would have been on course for an extremely good result. Still, despite the failure, Fitch's performance behind the wheel would capture the attention of someone very important. Rudolf Uhlenhaut was the chief designer for the Mercedes-Benz team and he would be impressed by what he saw in Fitch. Uhlenhaut would then convince the great Alfred Neubauer to give Fitch an opportunity to drive for his team. Therefore, on the 23rd of November, John Fitch would be partnered with German driver Eugen Geiger driving a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Spyder for the Daimler-Benz AG team in the terribly difficult Carrera Panamericana.
Just seven years earlier, Fitch had been strafing German trains and shooting down German jets, but now, he would be driving for the German mark in one of the marquee sportscar races in the world; the only American to do so.
The adventures would keep coming during the 1953 season. The season would start out strong with victories at Macdill and the 12 Hours of Sebring, the first American driver/car combination ever to do so. But though Fitch would be overwhelmingly known for his career in sportscars, he would make his first World Championship debut in 1953 driving for HW Motors.
Arriving on the scene during the Formula 2 era of the World Championship when Scuderia Ferari was still dominant and Maserati was on the rise, the British Formula 2 car in which Fitch would be driving would be immediately at a disadvantage. Underpowered and stretched to its absolute limits, Fitch would enter the ultra-fast Italian Grand Prix.
With each lap consisting of the driver's foot being firmly on the gas for more than 75 percent of a lap, the Alta engine powering Fitch's HWM would undergo an absolute torture test. And, sure enough, it would prove too fragile to be able to make the distance. In fact, with a pace similar to the spectacular and unimaginable French Grand Prix of the same year, Fitch's HWM wouldn't be able to make it 15 laps before its engine would give up the ghost. Interestingly, the man that would be the first out of that race would be one Lance Macklin, another would-be player in Fitch's life in a couple of years.
Earlier on during the 1953 season, Fitch would make an attempt at coming home. At the wheel of a Kurtis-Kaft-Offy, Fitch would complete his mandatory rookie testing for the Indianapolis 500. He was finally coming home. After living his early years around Indianapolis, Fitch would actually make his attempt to join the grand race. Unfortunately, just because it was a race he was very familiar it didn't mean an automatic starting place in the field. In fact, Fitch would fail to qualify for the race. Still, it wouldn't be much of a loss for a man that had before thought such oval racing was monotonous and not very exciting at all.
Although the Indianapolis 500 wouldn't come off for the man from Indianapolis there would be many other suitors seeking after his services. Besides continually being considered for drives by the Mercedes-Benz factory team, Fitch would continue to be courted by Briggs Cunningham to drive for his team and, in 1954, he would take part in a number of events for the team driving a Ferrari 375MM and a Cunningham C4-R. Unfortunately, the season would be mired by a number of retirements. Still, Fitch would manage to bring home a 5th place overall finish in that year's 24 Hours of Le Mans.
But then there was 1955. After a failure of the factory Maserati team to arrive at the Sebring 12 Hours with one of its 300S sportscars, Fitch would be signed to drive, once again, for the Mercedes-Benz team with their evolved 300SLR.
Fitch certainly couldn't have been more excited about this proposition given Mercedes-Benz was certainly the dominant team of that time, right up there with Jaguar. And so, for a man that just couldn't get enough speed, to be hired to drive one of the best cars for arguably the best team was a dream come true.
The dream began to pay immediate dividends when Fitch and Kurt Gesell managed to bring home a class victory and a 5th place overall result in the Mille Miglia that year. And, despite being signed onto a team that also boasted Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss as co-drivers, the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans would shape up to be a very special race in Fitch's, still young, racing career. Instead, it would turn into a nightmare and would forever chart a course for Fitch that would run parallel to his thirst for speed.
Considering his success on the race track and the teams for which Fitch would have the opportunity to drive it wouldn't have seemed inconceivable that that would have been his life, it would have been for that which he is remembered. But, on the 11th of June, 1955, that would all change. And, as a result, a whole different personality would begin to play an important role in Fitch's life.
Co-driver with Pierre Levegh, Fitch was only ten minutes away from stepping in behind the wheel when Levegh would suffer his terrible accident that would see him vault into a wall and send pieces flying through the tightly-packed grandstands killing more than 80 spectators. Fitch would be in the pits and would witness the crash and the most horrific aftermath. It would change his life.
It would be at his urging that the Mercedes team management at the circuit and back at the factory would finally make the decision to withdraw from the race to avoid any bad feelings given that it had been just a decade since France had been occupied by German forces.
The accident would be absolutely terrible and it would lead Fitch on a determined course to create such safety devices to help make motor racing and passenger car motoring much safer. This would become a passion as great as his need for speed and it would lead to such creations as energy absorbing safety barriers that would be in place at such places as Watkins Glen as soon as 1968.
Fitch's work would also lead to other such well known innovations as the Fitch Inertial Barrier. John would be quoted as saying, despite having left college early, 'I had learned just enough engineering to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish' and the Fitch Inertial Barrier would be one of those creations.
Consisting of plastic barrels filled with varying levels of sand, the Fitch Inertial Barrier would become an easily recognizable sight along America's highways and would be estimated to save more than 17,000 lives in accidents over the years.
But while Fitch would be on a quest to create such safety measures as the Fitch Inertial Barrier and more than a dozen other safety measures, all with patents, John would still carry on in his racing career.
After the horrific events at Le Mans, Fitch would remain with the Mercedes-Benz team throughout the remainder of the season. Unfortunately, Mercedes would make the decision to withdraw from motor racing altogether leaving Fitch having only tasted a very little of the possible success he could have achieved with the dominant team.
Still, Fitch would take advantage of every opportunity presented to him. And, after taking victory in the Tourist Trophy race at Dundrod while being paired with Stirling Moss, Fitch would take one more crack at Formula One.
Being partnered with Stirling Moss at times and already a part of the Mercedes-Benz team with the young British driver, John would find another opportunity to take part in a Formula One race, but with a strong car this time.
While Stirling Moss would be busy preparing for the final round of the 1955 Formula One season with Mercedes, Fitch would be busy making final preparations to take part in the Italian Grand Prix with Moss' own Maserati 250F. Armed with a much stronger car than the last World Championship race in which he took part, Fitch would be able to come through the long day of racing to finish Formula One race in the 9th position.
Mercedes' withdrawal from motor racing would leave Fitch without any serious team in which to compete, other than with his friend Briggs Cunningham. Therefore, Fitch would return to the United States after having lived in Switzerland for a few years. But upon returning to the United States, it wouldn't be too long before John would be approached to help make the Chevrolet Corvette into a serious sportscar contender.
Despite a serious lack of time to prepare and get the car race ready, Fitch and co-driver Walt Hansgen would come through to finish the 12 Hours of Sebring in 9th place overall and 1st in class.
While continuing his development work with the Corvette, Fitch would continue to compete with his friend Briggs Cunningham. At the wheel of a D-Type Jaguar, John would record a number of podium finishes and even a handful of victories over the next couple of years.
Besides his racing and safety career, Fitch would begin to venture into circuit design and would end up helping to create and manage Lime Rock race course. He would also be contracted as a consultant to help with many other circuits including Mosport, Watkins Glen and St. Jovite.
Still, Fitch wasn't done. In addition to everything else, John would continue to dabble in creating his own race car designs. Modifying a Chevrolet Corvair, Fitch would eventually come up with a sporty car that would be called the Sprint and another that would become known as the Phoenix. It is said that the Phoenix, the shape and the lines of the car's body were to influence the design of the Corvette Stingray.
Fitch's racing career would continue and would stretch into the 1960s. Throughout that period he would earn a number of podium finishes in sportscar races, but was never to take part in another Formula One race ever again.
The racing would never entirely leave his veins, but Fitch realized where he needed to focus his efforts. Still, he wasn't yet ready to walk away, at least just not yet. And, one of the reasons for that was simply because of his desire to see the Corvette program ascend to the top levels. That goal would be achieved at the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans when he would partner with Bob Grossman to achieve an 8th place overall finish and a 1st in class. Overheating and in danger of failing to make it the entire distance, some dry ice 'liberated' from catering would help Grossman to nurse the car through the final minutes to provide Corvette its finest result.
By the early and middle 1960s, Fitch had grown tired of competing at top levels, but he hadn't lost his enjoyment of driving and driving fast. Therefore, John would take part in the 12 Hours of Sebring just a couple of more times in 1965 and 1966 before stepping away from competitive driving altogether.
Despite a life filled with exciting racing and important innovations, Fitch would not settle down at any time during his life. Sharing experiences with his wife, Elizabeth Huntley whom John proposed to the night of his first race all the way back in 1949, Fitch would continue his never-ending campaign for greater safety, both on the racetrack and on the highways and roads. Working with medical experts, he would develop such devices as an improved racing seat to which the driver's helmet would attach and a Cervical Spine Traction therapy device that allowed freedom of movement while still a bed.
All of his interests would lead John to starting a number of different companies besides his John Fitch & Co., Inc. Some of those companies would include Advanced Power Systems International, Race Safety, Inc., Impact Dynamics, LLC., and Roadway Safety Service Inc.
Even up to his later years in life, Fitch would remain active in concerns around Lime Rock Park circuit and with his numerous enterprises, especially those dealing with safety concerns. By the 1990s, he would be awarded the Kenneth Stonex Award from the Transportation Research Board and would eventually develop even more safety innovations such as the Fitch Compression Barrier.
Though never one to slow down, John would also prove capable of taking time to record his numerous stories and personal accounts authoring a number of articles and an autobiography. He would write about his years driving for Mercedes-Benz and would give countless interviews recalling his terribly interesting life that would include sailing with John, Robert and Ted Kennedy.
Loving motor racing and going fast, Fitch would still find the opportunity to exercise his passion by taking part in a number of vintage racing events such as at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Monterey Historic Automobile Races. Living in his native Connecticut, Fitch would remain a regular presence in vintage races at Lime Rock Park and would even try, at the age of 87 to attempt to break a land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in a 50 year old Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. Unfortunately, he would fall well short of the goal and would only be able to touch speeds of around 150 mph. This Fitch would find humorous stating that he had gone much faster, in much worse conditions, at Le Mans down the Mulsanne 50 years earlier.
Having lived what many would consider a charmed life, Fitch had experienced his share of heartache and tragedy, and this would drive the man throughout his life. Working tirelessly and even up to the day he passed away, John Fitch would be a man worthy of all the rewards and awards bestowed upon him throughout his life. While his racing record is certainly envious for more than the vast majority, he is not recalled with the same level of fame as such names as those he had the opportunity to be teamed with like Fangio, Moss or others. Still, because of his tireless efforts he would help to save many of their lives, as well as, thousands of those unable to easily recognize his name.
Receiving a Presidential Citation, numerous air medals, a Purple Heart, safety awards, as well as, being inducted into around a half-dozen halls of fame, Fitch would rightfully be regarded in the same vain as his great-great grandfather—an innovator that would help to change the world.
John Fitch would be the first successful American driver in postwar Europe. Equal passion and speed, Fitch's career would span multiple careers, and yet, each would prove to be as successful as the other. Eventually having his life taken as respiratory ailments stole the precious air he had breathed for so long, John Fitch never wasted a breath throughout the whole of his life. As a result, many would be gifted theirs. And that would be prove to be the greatest legacy Fitch would give to the rest of the world. While the great drivers would become heroes, providing motivation to a number of generations to chase their dreams, Fitch's impact would go beyond the speed, but largely unnoticed. Perhaps Fitch's greatest contribution would be the gift, the opportunity for individuals to even be able to achieve their dreams. And, despite a life filled with on track achievements, a number of important innovations and patents such a legacy of saving and giving back life would have to be considered Fitch's greatest success.Sources:
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Fitch, John & Goodwin, Carl. 'Racing Safety with John Fitch', (http://www.racesafety.com/fitchbio.html). Race Safety. http://www.racesafety.com/fitchbio.html. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
McCausland, Evan. 'John Fitch, Race Legend and Safety Pioneer, Dead at 95', (http://rumors.automobilemag.com/john-fitch-race-legend-and-safety-pioneer-dead-at-95-181989.html). Automobile. http://rumors.automobilemag.com/john-fitch-race-legend-and-safety-pioneer-dead-at-95-181989.html. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
Wikipedia contributors, 'John Fitch (racing driver)', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 November 2012, 04:45 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Fitch_(racing_driver)&oldid=521309627 accessed 6 November 2012