MMR Blog

Andrey and Fitch

Posted on November 14, 2012 Comments (1)

The recent passing of Gaston Andrey and John Fitch has me thinking about them as racers and people and some of the things they had in common.

As racers, they were both very talented, both winners, and, unlike many men of youthful achievement, they had moved on. Neither dwelled much on the past.

Gus Andrey was one of the most charming people I ever met. Attractive, with curly unruly hair, quick bright blue eyes and a movie star smile, he always seemed in motion and was the center of attention in any crowd. He had what people call “presence”. He appeared physically fit, neither tall nor short, never fat, he always “looked” the part of a racing driver.

Gus was a pragmatist and notoriously careful with a buck. He once received a call from a major manufacturer to drive a car at Sebring. This was an opportunity any driver of the day would have sacrificed anything to get. Gus said to the caller, “How much do you pay?” The answer wasn’t to his liking and he replied, “I have a wife and two kids here, and I have to feed them and that is not enough”. He didn’t drive for them. He also told me that at some point he shared a car with a young man he had heard about but never met, Dan Gurney. They had agreed upon a maximum rpm they would use and Gus was angry when he saw his partner’s time was much quicker. He confronted the younger man who swore he hadn’t exceeded their agreed upon limit. Gus said he knew at this point that “this young guy was very special”. I also sensed that this was the moment he learned he wasn’t very special any longer, and perhaps never was quite that special. It happens to every driver.

Gus was a successful business and family man. He parlayed his personal charm, aided in no small part by his beautiful and charming wife Mary Ann, from a foreign car repair garage into a series of foreign car dealerships culminating in his ownership of the Ferrari franchise in New England. As one of his contemporaries said, on learning of his passing, “he loved his racing”. And he was bloody good at it.

In his day, John Fitch was a top sports car driver for the then all conquering Mercedes factory racing team. At a time when the safety of drivers and spectators was never a consideration, he won many important races. High speed road races like the Pan-Americana in Mexico, the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia in Italy, and LeMans were exceptionally dangerous. Fitch was there and he won a lot of them. He also raced for American sportsman Briggs Cunningham and helped technically prepare a Chevrolet assault on Le Mans and Sebring. In his seventies, car failure foiled his attempt to break the speed record for its class in a hotrodded Mercedes 300SL on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

On a visit to his home near Lime Rock Park in Connecticut, three years ago, I was struck by his amazing agility. Though slightly stooped, he still moved gracefully and reminded me of a tall bird. At one point I dropped a business card I was handing him and before I could bend down and retrieve it, he had it. At that point he was thirty years my senior.

Like Gus Andrey, he was much more than his racing resume. He was a family man, a WW2 fighter pilot, a writer, and a track designer. He built his own car, the Fitch Phoenix, and successfully marketed Chevrolet Corvair road and racing parts and accessories in the sixties. Once racing had moved from the streets to dedicated road courses, he was a sought after track designer and safety consultant. He designed Lime Rock Park and laid out Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant among many others. Both on and off the track, John Fitch was always a road safety advocate.

If you haven’t seen it, Chris Szwedo’s film “Gullwings at Twilight” is a remarkable picture of the ever-undeterred Fitch. The general public will probably know him more for the large yellow crash barriers that line highways across the country and have saved countless lives. Oddly, the man who knew no barriers will be best remembered for the Fitch Barrier.