John Cooper Fitch (born August 4 1917) was a racecar driver born in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the first American to race automobiles successfully in Europe in the postwar era. After obtaining an engineering degree from Lehigh University, he began racing in Europe.
In the course of a driving career which spanned 18 years, Fitch won such notable sports car races as the Argentine Grand Prix 1951, Mille Miglia 1955 (production car class), Dunrod Tourist Trophy, and Sebring endurance race as well as numerous lesser races. He also competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans six times, finishing as high as third. Fitch also served as the first manager for Chevrolet's Corvette racing team, and the first general manager of the Lime Rock Park race track, where he organized (and drove in) a famous Formula Libre race in 1959, where Rodger Ward shocked the expensive and exotic sports cars by beating them on the road course in an Offenhauser powered midget car, normally considered competitive for oval tracks only.
In addition, Fitch emulated his ancestor, John Fitch who invented the steamship, by inventing many safety innovations for the race track and the highway, as well as designing and building high performance cars, including modifying Corvairs for resale.
Fitch was active in crusading for increased safety on racetracks and highways, joining with medical experts such as Steve Olvey and Terry Trammel, engineers such as Bill Milliken and Karl Ludvigsen, and journalists such as Chris Economaki and Brock Yates, as well as many of his racing driver friends. He served as consultant to numerous research and governmental organizations on the subject of vehicle handling and dynamics, as they relate to safety. He also served as technical consultant for the film The Racers and design consultant for many racetracks, including Mosport, St. Jovite, Quebec, and Watkins Glen International, as well as Lime Rock Park.
John Fitch's stepfather was an executive with the Stutz Motor Company, which introduced him to cars and racing at an early age. In his youth, Fitch would build cars from junk and drive them. In 1939 he saw the last auto race at Brooklands before the outbreak of World War II.
Fitch attended Kentucky Military Institute, then studied civil engineering at Lehigh University. In 1941 he volunteered for the US Army Air Corps. His service took him to North Africa, where he flew the A-20 Havoc and then on to England. By 1944, Captain Fitch was a P-51 Mustang pilot with the 4th Fighter Group, 335th Fighter Squadron, and is credited with shooting down a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet. Two months before the end of the war, he was shot down himself while making an ill-advised third strafing pass on an Axis train and spent the rest of the war as a POW.
After the war, Fitch opened an MG car dealership and also began racing MG-TCs at tracks like Bridgehampton, New York, Watkins Glen, and Thompson, Connecticut.
In 1950 Fitch raced his Ford Flathead engined Fiat 1100, which he soon modified into the "Fitch Model B," and ended the year by driving a Jaguar XK120 in the first Sebring endurance race. In 1951 in addition to campaigning in his Fitch-Whitmore, he won the Argentine Grand Prix in his Cadillac-Allard, drove a Cunningham C-2 for the Briggs Cunningham team at several races including the 1951 24 Hours of Le Mans, and became the first Sports Car Club of America national champion. In 1952, Fitch continued to race the Fitch-Whitmore as well as a Chrysler-engined Cunningham C4R for the Cunningham team at several races (once again including Le Mans), a Sunbeam-Talbot for the Sunbeam team at the Alpine Rally, a Porsche 356 at a Porsche race at Nürburgring, and a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL for in the Carrera Panamericana.
In his most notable year, 1953, Fitch competed in many European races and was named "Sports Car Driver of the Year" by Speed Age magazine. That year, in addition to again racing a Cunningham C4R and Cunningham C5R for the Cunningham team (and becoming airborne at 140 mph and tumbling end for end while leading the French Grand Prix), competing in European rallies in a Sunbeam-Talbot for the Sunbeam team, and racing a Porsche 356 at Nürburgring, he also competed in the Mille Miglia in a Nash-Healey for the factory team, the Aix-les-Bains Grand Prix in a Cooper Monaco for the Cooper team, the Dunrod Tourist Trophy race in a Frazer Nash for the factory team, the Italian Grand Prix in HWM-Alta for the Hersham and Walton Motors team, and took his rookie test for the Indy 500 in a Kurtis-Kraft Offy but did not qualify for the race. His win at Sebring with co-driver Phil Walters, defeating the powerful Aston Martin team under John Wyer, was the first win at that track for American drivers in an American car.
In 1954, Fitch drove for Cunningham in a Cunningham C4R, and also Ferraris and again a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. In 1955, in addition to driving a Maserati 250F in the 1955 Italian Grand Prix, Fitch raced for the Mercedes-Benz sports car team along with Juan Manuel Fangio, Karl Kling, and Stirling Moss, arguably the most formidable racing team ever, dominating all levels of competition from Formula One to diesel-engined production cars. That year, Fitch won the production class at the Mille Miglia in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, coming in fifth overall behind his teammates Moss and Fangio in their Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR racers. Fitch was also driving a 300 SLR at Le Mans that year, the time of the 1955 Le Mans disaster; during the initial confusion, his family in the United States were notified that it had been him who had crashed. The incident sparked his lifelong interest in safety innovations for racing and highways.
In 1956 Fitch returned from Europe and was chosen by Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole to head the new eight driver Chevrolet Corvette racing team for two years. Although the Corvette was at that point widely panned in the racing community as more style than substance, under Fitch's management the year began with setting a class land speed record for production cars at Daytona Beach of 145.543 mph, followed by two class wins and a team win at Sebring. During this period, Fitch continued to race successfully with the Cunningham team, which was now competing around the United States in Jaguar D-types. By the end of 1957, Fitch had begun racing in Maseratis, which he continued to race in 1958, mostly at the new Lime Rock Park, where he had been instrumental in the promotion of the track and where he was circuit director. In 1959 he drove an RSK for Porsche at Sebring, a Lister Jaguar for Cunningham, a Corvette for Chevrolet's Bill Mitchell, and a Cooper Monaco.
In 1960, Fitch and Briggs Cunningham joined the Corvette team as drivers to race once again at Sebring and Le Mans. After that, they teamed to race a two liter Maserati at endurance events at Sebring and Road America through 1962, and a Jaguar E-type at Sebring in 1963. Fitch also raced a Genie BMC in 1963, then returned with Cunningham to drive a Porsche 904 at Sebring in 1965 and 1966. By this time, both were no longer enthusiastic about competing to win; according to Fitch, "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." So, when a valve broke on the car in 1966, it marked the end of their racing careers for both of them.
Fitch continued to drive in vintage racing events, particularly at Lime Rock Park, as well as at Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Monterey Historic Automobile Races.
Fitch did, however, return to official automotive competition at 87 years of age in 2003 and again in 2005, when he was once again teamed up with a now 50-year-old Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR owned by Bob Sirna, this time at Bonneville Salt Flats in an attempt to break the land speed record for the class, a novel venue for both car and driver. The attempts failed due to the fuel injection pump which limited the top speed to only 150 mph, but the team vowed to return the next year. With characteristic self-deprecating humor, Fitch noted that he had driven those cars faster than that in the rain, at night, on a road with 60 other cars. The extraordinary event is documented in a film Gullwing at Twilight: The Bonneville Ride of John Fitch, which aired on PBS in 2006.
Fitch designed a total of five cars. In 1950 Fitch built and raced a Fiat 1100 with the small (60 horsepower) Ford Flathead engine tuned for midget racing, which he soon modified into the "Fitch Model B" by adding a Crosley body. In 1951, in addition to campaigning in the Fitch-Whitmore, a Jaguar XK120 to which he had fit a lightweight aluminum body, saving 800 pounds, he won the Argentine Grand Prix in a Cadillac powered Allard he had rebuilt from a wreck. In 1952, Fitch continued to race his Fitch-Whitmore in addition to other cars.
The Fitch Sprint and Fitch Phoenix
As a roadracer, Fitch was particularly interested in the Corvair as the basis for a spirited road and track oriented car due to its handling, while others concentrated more on the Ford Falcon or Ford Mustang with the potential for more power. His Fitch Sprint had only minor modifications to the engine, bringing it to 155 hp (116 kW), but upgrades to the shock absorbers and springs, adjustments to the wheel alignment, quicker steering ratio, alloy wheels, metallic brake linings, the obligatory wood-rimmed steering wheel (leather available for an additional $9.95) and other such minor alterations made it extremely competitive with European sports cars costing much more. Body options such as spoilers were available, but the most visually remarkable option was the "Ventop", a fiberglass overlay for the C-pillars and rear of the roof that gave the car a "flying buttress" profile.
Fitch went on to design and build a prototype of the Fitch Phoenix, a Corvair-based two-seat sports car, superficially resembling a smaller version of the Mako Shark based Corvette. With a total weight of 1,950 pounds (885 kg), even with a steel body, and with the Corvair engine modified with Weber carburetors to deliver 175 hp (130 kW), the car delivered spirited performance for $8,760. Unfortunately, the Traffic Safety Act of 1966 placed restrictions on the ability to produce automobiles on a small scale; this was followed by Chevrolet's decision to terminate production of the Corvair, which confirmed the end of Fitch's plan. He retained the prototype however, and occasionally exhibited it at car shows. It is briefly glimpsed in the film Gullwing at Twilight: The Bonneville Ride of John Fitch.
Fitch's company, John Fitch & Co., Inc., went on to manufacture and market the Fitch Firebird and Toronado Phantom, but garnered less attention than the Sprint.
In the aftermath of the Le Mans disaster of 1955, Fitch had devoted a great deal of effort to the task of increasing the safety of motorsports and driving in general, resulting in his company, Impact Attenuation Inc. His innovations are characterized not only by their effectiveness, but also by their real-world practicality, as affordable and easily installed and maintained solutions.
Inspired by sand-filled fuel cans which he used to protect his tent from strafing during the war, he devised the Fitch Barrier system, now ubiquitous on American highways, for installation around fixed objects on racetracks and highways to absorb impact. Typically, Fitch insisted on testing the system himself.
Other impact absorbing systems designed by Fitch are the Fitch Compression Barrier, suited for oval tracks and other such high speed situations with little runoff area, which comprises a set of strong, resilient hollow cylinders about a yard in diameter placed between the guardrail and the wall, gently absorbing the vehicle's energy without bouncing it back onto the track, and the Fitch Displaceable Guardrail where more room is available, a guardrail mounted on skids so that it can slide backwards on impact, gradually capturing the car.
As vehicular modifications for racing safety, Fitch also engineered the Fitch Driver Capsule, an easy to install seat incorporating a seatback which pivots integral with the seatbelt in order to reduce the inertial force experienced by the driver. He later extended the principle with the Fitch Full Driver Capsule, by anchoring the helmet to the seatback to prevent basilar skull fracture and hyperextension of the neck, in a manner similar to the function of the HANS device.
In 1998, Fitch received the Kenneth Stonex Award from the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences for his lifelong contributions to road-traffic safety. "In all, John Fitch's achievements in road safety throughout the world 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," said Transportation Research Board committee chairman John F. Carney III on presenting the award.
Fitch was also involved in the development of other automotive innovations, including the Evans Waterless Engine Cooling System, a propylene glycol based cooling system which does not require pressurization; the DeConti Brake, a liquid-cooled secondary braking system for light trucks, buses and similar vehicles; the Fitch Fuel Catalyst, which reduces the proportion of light chain (C1 - C4) molecules in gasoline, and inhibits oxidation and microorganism growth in both gasoline and diesel fuel; self-leveling automotive suspension systems, for which he had received several patents; the Salisbury Thermo-Syphon Fireplace which uses waste heat to provide convective heating; and the Fitch Cervical Spine Traction Therapy which allows freedom of movement in bed while continuing to provide tension that relieves disk pressure.
During his life, Fitch had founded or was associated at a high level with several companies, including John Fitch & Co., Inc., Advanced Power Systems International, Race Safety, Inc., Impact Attenuation, Inc., Impact Dynamics, LLC., Roadway Safety Service Inc., DeConti Industries Inc., Consulier Industries, Inc., Highway Safety Research Corp., as well as Lime Rock Park.
In addition to numerous articles in magazines as well as the Encyclopædia Britannica, Fitch wrote his autobiography (somewhat prematurely, in 1960), Adventure on Wheels, published by G.P. Putnam & Sons. The book Racing Through Life by Carl Goodwin also documents Fitch's life. Fitch wrote of his years with the Mercedes-Benz racing team in his 2005 book, Racing with Mercedes. In addition, a film documentary featuring Fitch attempting to break a speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats, A Gullwing at Twilight: The Bonneville Ride of John Fitch, released by Chris Szwedo Productions on DVD.
In addition to receiving a Presidential Citation, Theater Awards, Air Medals, a Purple Heart, and a POW Medal for his wartime service, Fitch was awarded the Stonex Roadside Safety Award in 1998 and was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame (2000) and the Sebring Hall of Fame (2002).