MMR Blog

John Fitch Memorials

Posted on November 21, 2012 Comments (2)

John Fitch Lakeville, CT -- The funeral mass for racing icon John Cooper Fitch will be held at 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 1 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Lime Rock, Connecticut. The church is located at 484 Lime Rock Road.

Fitch, who helped build the track at Lime Rock Park in 1957, died here on October 31 at the age of 95. Born in Indianapolis August 4, 1917, Fitch's stepfather was the president of the Stutz Motor Car Co. An Army Air Corps. enlistee, he shot down the first jet fighter, a German Me-262, with his P-51 Mustang. He was later shot down himself and spent the last three months of WWII as a POW.

But it was on the ground, in the motorsports arena, where he would claim his fame. He began racing an MG TC on the East Coast, moving up to a Cadillac-powered Allard, with which he won the 1951 Argentine Grand Prix. As the SCCA's first national champion, he was hired by Briggs Cunningham to race his eponymous Chrysler-powered car to a win at the Sebring 12-hour race in 1953. Recruited by Mercedes-Benz, he was paired with Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss on the German team. He was about to take over for teammate Pierre Levegh, in the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour race, when Levegh's fatal crash killed more than 80 spectators.

Following Mercedes' subsequent withdrawal from racing, Fitch helped develop Chevrolet's Corvette into a racing contender, culminating in a GT-class win for Cunningham and Corvette at Le Mans in 1960, the first for an American car. Fitch raced competitively until 1966.

In 2005 at the age of 88, Fitch attempted to set a speed record in a modified Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing coupe, but engine problems kept him short of the 170mph goal.

His engineering background and racing experiences led him to invent safety barriers, including the ubiquitous Fitch Inertial Barrier, those sand-filled yellow plastic barrels now standard safety devices on highways across the U.S.

Fitch's wife Elizabeth died in 2009. He's survived by sons Stephen, John and Christopher and six grandchildren.

For more information on the services, or driving directions, visit: trinitylimerock.org or call 860-435-2627.


From the Larz Anderson Auto Museum news bulletin:

Remembering John Fitch

Come Celebrate the Life of this American Legend of Motorsports
with Members of the Museum Community.

Thursday December 6th
Doors open at 7pm | Presentation at 7:30pm
Admission is $20
Light refreshments

Register Now

John Fitch

John Fitch

John Fitch lived through flying a P-51 fighter plane in World War II and a post-war career in automobile racing to die peacefully in his bed at age 95 at 1:20 a.m. Wednesday October 31, 2012.

Mr. Fitch was a lion in the automotive world, recognized for his on-track performances during his racing career that saw him score wins in races such as the 1951 Argentine Grand Prix, the 1955 Mille Miglia (production car class) and the Dunrod Tourist Trophy and Sebring endurance race. He is also known for his contributions to highway safety. An engineering graduate of Lehigh University, he developed the portable impact-absorbing barriers used on race tracks and highways.

He advocated for increased safety on race tracks and was a consultant to numerous research and governmental organizations on the subject of vehicle handling and dynamics.

Gullwing at Twilight - Chris Szwedo 

John Fitch and Chris Szwedo

Chris Szwedo has over 25 years of experience in creating special interest, corporate, and broadcast documentaries.  He has traveled extensively and produced films on multiple issues for clients in the art world, energy, auto sports history, nature, and business.

He has produced two films in the motor sports genre-the cult classic and public television-aired "Lime Rock Park: The Secret Valley of Racing", of which AUTOWEEK Magazine labeled a passionate work of great significance.  Chris went on to produce "A Gullwing at Twilight: The Bonneville Ride of John Fitch" for the PBS HD Channel, culminating in the prestigious Dean Batchelor Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism, presented by the Los Angeles based Motor Press Guild, an organization of leading US automotive writers and photographers.

Chris was co-nominated in 2009 for a national EMMY Award for cinematography in the natural history category for NATURE/PBS. Other projects include exhibition films for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston's  exhibition "SPEED, STYLE, & BEAUTY, The Cars of Ralph Lauren.  Additionally he has created videos for the personal and private Auto Museum of Ralph Lauren, and contributed new recordings for The Art of The Automobile, a 2011 special exhibition at The Louvre (Les Arts Decoratif) in Paris, as well as promotional and educational outreach films for The Mingei International Museum, Balboa Park San Diego 2012.

He is currently working on this third broadcast documentary on the life and work of LIFE Magazine photographer Rowland Scherman.

Don Klein

John Fitch and Don Klein

When Don Klein sold his Manhattan-based ad agency in 1998, it left him free to pursue his true passion: CARS!

That led to his accepting the position of Editor-in-Chief of Mercedes Momentum, MBUSA's customer magazine, a post he held for eight years before turning freelance. Don is a frequent contributor to magazines such as Autoweek and Sports Car Market.  This month he became a regular columnist for Car and Driver.

It was during his tenure at Momentum that Don met John.  In 2005, they collaborated to write the book Racing With Mercedes, and that led to their great friendship which included traveling around the world together for John's many speaking engagements.   "We were definitely an odd couple," says Don, "but somehow it worked and we remained close friends to the end."  Don will deliver the eulogy at John's memorial service at Trinity Church in Lime Rock, CT.

Tags: John Fitch

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.