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300SL staged for qualifying attempt.
A look down the course. Tim Considine photo.
John Fitch in cockpit of 300SL
John Fitch in full safety gear. Larry Berman photo.
300SL in Bonneville Trim
The 300SL in Bonneville trim. Larry Berman photo.

2003 Bonneville Record Attempt

When John Fitch raced around the world for Cunningham, Mercedes Benz and Corvette, he drove in places, Watkins Glen, Road America, and the Nurburgring, where the setting was pastoral and it was the cars that jarred the senses, seeming to be a bit out of place amidst the beauty of the surroundings. When he stepped onto the salt at Bonneville for the 2003 Speed Week, it was just the opposite – the cars provided the beauty against the world’s most inhospitable white background of thirty square miles of dead-level salt. John was joining some 400 other race drivers from all walks of life in driving against the clock at the 55th meeting of the Southern California Timing Association. He had come to Bonneville, at the age of 86, to do like all the others – set a record.

It was not to be – after four days of effort the record remained unbroken and the Bob Sirna team left the salt to work on next year’s attempt. The car, a 1955 Mercedes Benz 300SL gullwing coupe, was ready in almost every area except a balky fuel injection pump that refused to let enough fuel through to allow John to get the car up to the qualifying speed of 170 miles per hour. As Dan Gurney put it on one of the rare occasions when his car broke down, “The squirrel died,“ adding, like all good racers, “We’ll get it right and try again.” An outstanding effort by the team, under Sirna’s unflagging leadership, wasn’t quite enough to solve the problem and time ran out without the needed speed being achieved, although John made his rookie (!) run to earn his speed run license – the oldest driver to attempt a record run at Bonneville since the event began.

(Read about the 2005 Record Attempt Here)

At Bonneville, nothing is easy. The 300SL was in the same setup that had previously passed technical inspection (when the engine blew early on) but revised safety rules required some serious modifications of the seating arrangement and roll cage before the required sticker was pasted on the car after 18 hours of work by the crew. John’s height (6’2”), as opposed to car owner Bob Sirna’s (5’7”), meant that the seat had to be lowered substantially to keep the top of John’s head below the top roll bar. The height problem arose a couple of weeks earlier when John had to borrow a racing suit from Phil Hill’s son, Derek. Derek was pleased to support the effort as his father had done a land speed record run in an MG some 45 years earlier at Bonneville – a record that stood for very many years until eclipsed by AJ Foyt in the 90s.

Salt Lake Tribune Article on Record Attempt
Salt Lake Tribune Article35K Adobe Acrobat File. Reprinted with the permission of the Salt Lake Tribune

John, who won his class in a similar 300SL at the 1955 Mille Miglia for Mercedes wearing a LaCoste tennis shirt and slacks, coupled with a “corker” polo helmet, expressed some disdain at having to wear three layers of Nomex combined with a full coverage helmet. He said, “We used to drive the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans faster than this record at night in the rain and now you would think I was going to walk on the moon.” As usual, he did what he had to do, devoted a great deal of time in the car getting things in order and never complained for a moment, other than the occasional wry remark. Even in this strange racing venue, so different from what he did when he raced on roads and tracks, John remained the trooper he has always been.

At Bonneville you get the car in line some two to three hours before your run and then inch to the starting line for a one minute run down the course. About five minutes prior to being flagged off, John was strapped into the car, checked by Sirna and again by the starter before being pushed off onto the course for his rookie run. To be licensed requires a run of 125 to 150 miles per hour and the car, not yet manifesting its injector problems, gave enough speed to safely license John for the record attempt.

All this modification and licensing took up the better part of two days and now the team could come to the line ready for a qualifying run. The rules require a run in excess of the existing record and, once achieved, a run early the next day, again in excess of the existing record, to up the record speed. In the best-case scenario, the team had hoped to license John early Monday morning and do a qualifier yet that day. If successful, the clinching run would be made Tuesday morning, the car modified a bit for Bob Sirna to try a modified class run yet that day and finish up on Wednesday. When Wednesday dawned the car had yet to make a qualifying run and unless things went well then, the window of opportunity would close as much of the team had travel obligations and needed to leave Wednesday.

It didn’t happen according to the script. The car just wouldn’t reach anything near qualifying speed (due to the faulty injection pump), the resources necessary for a field repair were unavailable on the salt and the attempt came to an end, the car was loaded up and the team went home. Already, even in the aftermath of a disappointing campaign, the plans are underway for 2004!

John Fitch is magnificent in all he does, even under a blazing sun on the Bonneville Salt Flats, working hand in hand in setting up the car, granting interviews to all the media, signing autographs for fans and entertaining the team with stories from the “Glory Years.” The car, too, is magnificent, drawing a crowd every time it appeared. Bob Sirna’s team had prepared it with loving care, its classic lines comparing well with the designs of the various streamliners scattered about the pits. It was and is a combination that deserves success and there’s no doubt, God willing, that the team will assemble once more to take some runs across the salt in a very special event.

Copyright ©2016 by Race Safety, Inc. Portions copyright John Fitch. All Rights Reserved.