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John Fitch, Race Legend and Safety Pioneer, Dead at 95

AutoWeek reports John Cooper Fitch, World War II Veteran, inventor, and race legend, passed away earlier this morning at his home near Lime Rock, Connecticut. He was 95.

Fitch was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on August 4, 1917. After briefly studying engineering at Lehigh University, but ultimately left to tour Europe with a friend in a used MG Magnette. Upon his return, Fitch sailed the Gulf Coast, but ultimately enlisted in the Air Force in early 1941, and assigned to the 15th Bombardment Squadron. Fitch's P-51 was shot down by enemy fire in February 1945, but survived the crash with but a broken arm.

After spending several months in a German POW camp, Fitch was released and returned home to America. There, the sports car bug planted during his travels in Europe grew into a full-fledged fever. As Preston Lerner wrote in our November issue, "Fitch's resume traces the high points of a stellar career" - one that can only be briefly summarized here.

Fitch initially opened an MG dealership in Connecticut, but soon turned to racing the cars themselves. His prowess caught the eye and earned the friendship of Briggs Cunningham, who soon employed Fitch to drive for his team. Fitch won the first SCCA national championship in 1951 while driving for Cunningham, and was part of the first American team to win an international road race -Sebring in 1953 - in an American car: a Cunningham C4-R. Fitch hoped to win Le Mans with the C-4R in 1952, but was forced to retire late in the race.

That performance brought Fitch to the attention of Rudi Uhlenhaut, the chief engineer of Mercedes-Benz's race team. Uhlenhaut allowed Fitch the chance to test the then-new 300 SL at the Nurburgring, and Fitch drove as if his career depended on it. Team manager Alfred Neubauer promised Fitch a chance to drive for the team should an opening emerge, but Fitch pitched him the idea of entering the 300 SL in the Carrera Panamericana - and, at that, having an American driver in one car as a U.S. PR stunt. Fitch was disqualified on a timing technicality, but impressed Neubauer, who hired him to drive full-time for the team in 1955. Fitch won the grand touring class of the Mille Miglia, but his tenure at Benz was cut short after Pierre Levegh - Fitch's co-driver in the race - was killed in a tragic accident that took the lives of eighty spectators. Mercedes-Benz ultimately withdrew from racing altogether at the end of the 1955 season, after Fitch helped teammate Stirling Moss eke out an overall win at the Tourist Trophy, along with a fourth-place finish with Desmond Titterington at the Targa Florio.

Fitch's long association with the Chevrolet Corvette began soon afterward, as Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole hired Fitch to head up a Vette-based racing effort for the 12 Hours of Sebring. Four cars were entered across two different classes, and despite the lack of prep time - or race-ready hardware on the Corvette - the team walked away with victories in both classes. Fitch would later be tapped to drive the bespoke Corvette SS racer in 1957, although a number of mechanical issues issues forced its retirement. Internal pressure from GM suits forced the program to be retired altogether.

Fitch's Corvette highlight came in 1960, when he drove as part of Cunningham's three-Vette team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. One car was wrecked three hours into the race, while another developed terminal engine failure in the 20th hour. Fitch's own car - the #3 Corvette co-driven with Bob Grossman - lost coolant and began overheating, but rules prevented the team from replenishing the fluid. After each lap, the car would return to the pits, where its intake manifold and engine compartment would be packed with dry ice stolen from the catering tent. Grossman nursed the car across the finish line, taking 1st place in its class, 8th place overall, and giving the Corvette its first victory at Le Mans.

Fitch wasn't as active of a driver after that point, and instead turned to tinkering with cars and automotive-related devices. From 1965 to 1969, Fitch modified Chevrolet Corvairs into performance machines, dubbed the Fitch Sprint. A similar attempt to do the same with the Oldsmobile Toronado - the Fitch Phantom - appears to have been stillborn, as was the Fitch Phoenix, a wild-looking two-seat sports car that used suspension and engine components from the Corvair. Inspired in part from the 1955 Le Mans tragedy, Fitch designed a sand-filled, energy-absorbing crash barrier, which is now commonplace on both road and track.

Fitch was preceded in death in 2009 by Elizabeth, his wife of 62 years. Both are survived by three sons - John, Christopher, and Steven.

Lead photo credit: Rick Dole.

Source: AutoWeek