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John Fitch at Goodwood 2000Copyright © 2002 by John Fitch & Carl Goodwin

John 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 Corps.

The Complete
John Fitch Racing History

Microsoft Excel files detailing John Fitch's entire auto racing career from 1948 to 1966. Updated 1/25/2012.

Chronological

Sorted by Race Car

Compiled by Lawrence W. Berman (E-mail Larry).

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. 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 soon afterward).

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.

Jay Leno and John Fitch
Jay Leno with John Fitch at the 2002 Mercedes-Benz Pebble Beach party.
Larry Berman Photo.
He was in good company on the Mercedes team in 1955 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. They were simply faultless.

John Fitch Hall of Fame Honors
2012 Bloomington Gold The Great Hall More
2009 New England Auto Racers Hall of Fame More
2007 Motorsports of America Hall of Fame More
2005 Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame More
2002 Sebring Raceway Hall of Fame More
2000 National Corvette Museum Hall of Fame More
Compilation: Larry Berman
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!).

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."

They 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.

"In 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 novel features.

Fitch 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 emissions.

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.

     
Related Links
National Corvette Museum's Corvette Hall of Fame Inductee

The Fitch Fuel Catalyst System founded by John Fitch

Read about one of John Fitch's ancestors, credited with the invention of the steamboat.
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