Copyright © 2002 by John Fitch & Carl Goodwin
Fitch has led a life that would beggar a scriptwriter. He's been
a blue-water sailor, a fighter pilot, a test pilot, a professional
racing driver, a team manager, race course director, prolific inventor,
highway safety expert, automaker, entrepreneur and dreamer.
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
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
John Fitch Racing History
Microsoft Excel files detailing John Fitch's entire auto racing career from 1948 to 1966. Updated 1/25/2012.
Sorted by Race Car
Compiled by Lawrence W. Berman (E-mail Larry).
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.
Boosting his early reputation as a driver was his victory in the
Grand Prix of Argentina, driving an Allard rebuilt from a wreck.
General Juan Peron generously awarded him membership in the Peronista
Party. Evita gave him a trophy and a kiss (he admits that she died
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 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.
He was in good company on the Mercedes team in 1955 with Juan Manuel
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.
|Jay Leno with John Fitch at the 2002 Mercedes-Benz Pebble Beach party.
Larry Berman Photo.
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. They were simply
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
thatshocked the sports car troops!).
|John Fitch Hall of Fame Honors
||The Great Hall
||New England Auto Racers
||Hall of Fame
||Motorsports of America
||Hall of Fame
||Sports Car Club of America
||Hall of Fame
||Hall of Fame
||National Corvette Museum
||Hall of Fame
|Compilation: Larry Berman
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.
Fitch said "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."
both officially retired from serious racing on the spot.
In 2000, Fitch was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame for his contributions to the early Corvette racing team.
During the latter part of his racing career he entered the field
of highway safety by designing, developing and successfully testing
the Fitch Barrier. This is the sand-filled plastic-barrel crash
cushion that is commonly seen in front of bridge abutments. Used
in 51 states, it is credited with saving thousands of lives. Fitch
is the only person in the highway safety field who personally crashed-tested
barriers of his own design.
In 1998 John Fitch received the Kenneth Stonex Award from the Transportation
Research Board, a part of the National Academy of Sciences, for
his lifelong contributions in the field of roadside safety. The
award is sponsored by General Motors Corporation and presented by
the Board's Roadside Safety Features Committee.
all, John Fitch's achievements in road safety throughout the world,"
noted John F. Carney III, the Transportation Research Board committee
chairman who presented the award, " have spanned four and one-half
decades. His lifetime contributions have 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."
Additionally, he has made substantial contributions to advances
in motorsports safety. His Impact Attenuation Inc. is currently
developing three circuit safety designs and a driver capsule for
the contemporary racing scene. All are designed to reduce the velocity
of a mass over a distance at a survivable rate.
One is the
Displaceable Guardrail, mounted on skids instead of posts sunk into
the ground. Upon impact, it moves several feet, depending on the
severity of the impact, lowering the Gs to a fraction of what they
would be otherwise. This reduces the mechanical rebound forces and
redirects the car parallel to the wall. The Compression Barrier,
primarily for oval tracks, utilizes thick-walled resilient elastomer
cylinders between a guardrail and the concrete wall to provide nearly
three feet of crush, plus a redirecting function. And, for the race
car proper, the Fitch Driver Capsule is a protective trough-like
seat that incorporates a helmet tether to reduce exposure to basal
skull fracture and hyperextension of the neck, with a shear-pin
mounting that provides energy-absorbing forward travel, among other
is also active with other technologies, including a water-less,
pressure-less cooling system using propylene glycol; the DeConti
Brake, a water-cooled, remote heat sink system; and the Fitch Fuel
Catalyst. The catalyst is essentially an additional refining step
for gasoline or diesel fuel, resulting in more complete combustion.
It enhances the volatility of the fuel for the life of the engine
and offers other benefits that include improved mileage and reduced
Until recently, his main involvement with motorsports has been his
self-imposed crusade for drastic change in racing safety with the
help of an honor roll of over twenty credible colleagues of like
mind. They include the preeminent race surgeons (Steve Olvey and
Terry Trammel), experienced engineers (Bill Milliken and Karl Ludvigsen),
respected journalists (Chris Economaki and Brock Yates) and, as
an example of the stature of the advocates of his designs, three
world champion drivers. Traditionally, the place to start to address
any unexplored technology on a scientific basis is to get the consensus
of such an assembly of the most qualified experts in the field.
In this case, the select committee has spoken.