A Mexican jaunt highlights the quiet role of John Fitch in motor racing history
Ten years ago a small number of us got on a plane to Mexico to pay our respects to the Carrera Panamericana and the 50th anniversary of Mercedes winning it using the W194 prototype that would go on to be developed into the immortal 300SL ‘Gullwing’ road car. Karl Kling took the win with Hans Klenk at his side, deterred not at all by facial injuries resulting from a vulture coming through the windscreen at an estimated 120mph.
The great Hermann Lang came second in a sister car, and the only thing that prevented a complete Mercedes lock-out of the podium was John Fitch being disqualified on a technicality. Half a century later as we drove into Oaxaca, there sat Fitch, who’d set the fastest time of all on the last stage, and a W194.
Fitch is a remarkable man, unfairly most remembered for being Pierre Levegh’s team-mate that fateful day at Le Mans in 1955. In fact he was a fine driver and a generous one: for the Mille Miglia that year he was to be teamed with our own DSJ in a showroom-spec 300SL road car. And it was Fitch who had the idea for putting pacenotes on a roll of paper and Fitch who recognised his idea would be put to much better use by Stirling in the works 300SLR, so gave both his idea and his co-driver to Moss, with results that have passed into history.
By the time I met him, Fitch was 84 but in good health and more than game to slither into the W194 and take me for a blast across Mexico. He drove fast and well and then was good enough to swap seats while I drove slowly and poorly.
Fitch left me to find out for myself about his extraordinary contribution to road safety, designing impact absorbent barriers that to this day line US Interstates. He used to test his inventions not under laboratory conditions, but by crashing at high speed; he’s 94 now and, so far as I am aware, still going strong.