Over there & overlooked
Why don't we think of John Fitzpatrick as a sports car star? Because his major successes came in the States, says Gary Watkins
The question 'Who won the most major sportscar races at the wheel of Porsche's 935 in all its iterations?' would undoubtedly yield some predictable answers. The name you'd probably get thrown back at you is Bob Wollek, the victor of more than a dozen DRM German Racing Championship events in these monsters. Or maybe Rolf Stommelen, who scored more wins in the world championship aboard the flame-belching Group 5 machine than any other driver. And then there's Peter Gregg, twice an IMSA Camel GT Champion with self-entered Brumos 935s.
Opt for any of the above three, and you'd be wrong. Wollek did most of his winning in Germany, Stommelen in the world arena and Gregg over in North America's premier sportscar series. But overall the most successful driver of the 935 era has to be a multiple victor in all three of those championships. Step forward John Fitzpatrick, Britain's forgotten sportscar star and the winner of a whopping 26 races in a variety of 935s.
There's no doubt about it, Fitzpatrick is overlooked when it comes to lining up the greats of this branch of the sport. So overlooked, in fact, that he failed to garner a single vote when Motor Sport asked a distinguished panel of experts — including this author — to pick their top 20 sportscar drivers. The omission of 'Fitz' from that list (Motor Sport, January 2004) is due in part to our focus on the world championship, whereas the Briton's glory days undoubtedly came on the other side of the Pond in IMSA. But there's more to it than that, and not just because many remember the 1966 British Saloon Car Champion as a touring car specialist. The Group 5 era — read GTX for the American branch of the sport — somehow remains historically unfashionable, sitting as it does between the three-litre formula that gave us classics such as the Matra MS670, and the Group C era, which produced the all-conquering Porsche 956/962.
Yet, for a handful of years in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Fitzpatrick was certainly Britain's most successful sportscar driver, and arguably pedalled a 935 better than anyone. And that includes two men in our top 20, Wollek and Klaus Ludwig, not to mention Stommelen, Gregg and a host of others.
Fitzpatrick, by then in his late 30s, was part of the 935 set that raced almost every weekend through the summer as the Seventies drew to a close. He was a race winner with both Georg Loos' Gelo team and Kremer Racing in the DRM and the World Championship of Makes. He'd already claimed a first WCM win in the 1976 Silverstone Six Hours driving a factory-backed BMW 3.5 CSL when he notched up his first victory in a Porsche the following year. But perhaps his greatest triumph at this level came at Watkins Glen in the autumn of 78, when he famously drove to victory with Gelo despite losing a door. This win would prove to have a greater bearing on Fitz's career than even he could have imagined at the time.
A close second that weekend was IMSA regular Dick Barbour, an aspirational and at times inspirational team owner. Just over a year later he ran into Fitz again at the Bathurst 1000 touring car classic in which they were both driving. "Dick told me he was going to run a full IMSA programme and asked me if I was interested," remembers Fitzpatrick. "I didn't know much about him except that his cars always looked nice and that he'd finished second at Le Mans that year. The Loos thing was coming to an end, and a deal for me to drive with Dick came together inside a couple of months."
Come the first weekend of February, Fitzpatrick was racing a Dick Barbour Racing Porsche 935-K3 at the Daytona 24 Hours. It wasn't an auspicious start, however. Manfred Schurti, who was co-driving with Fitz and Barbour, crashed heavily around midnight
Seven weeks later, Fitzpatrick and Barbour claimed victory in the Sebring 12 Hours by three laps. The pair won again in the Riverside Five Hours in April, which marked the beginning of a purple patch for a team which started the season running out of Bob Garretson's workshop. Fitz, now driving alone in the sprint events that made up the bulk of the schedule, remained unbeaten until the series entered its closing stages. Another win, this time with Brian Redman, in the Mosport Six Hours (also a WCM counter) as good as gave him the IMSA title, which he sealed with victory number eight in the first of two 50-mile dashes at Road Atlanta in September.
Fitzpatrick had left the IMSA Porsche 935 regulars trailing in his wake, most notably Peter 'Perfect' Gregg. But his opposition didn't begin and end with the reigning champion. There was Bobby Rahal in a second DBR/Garretson car, new kid on the block John Paul Jr, Flyin' Hawaiian Danny Ongais and the Whittington brothers, Bill and Dale.
The Briton's runaway success was all the more impressive given his unfamiliarity with the majority of the tracks used on the IMSA trail. "I knew Sebring, Daytona and Watkins Glen," he explains, "but the rest of the circuits were new to me." What's more, he missed the Lime Rock event in May while DBR prepared for a Le Mans 24 Hours assault.
Exactly how Fitzpatrick ended up as Britain's first IMSA champion is a tale of driver talent, car superiority and more than a hint of intrigue.
More than 20 years on, Fitzpatrick and Barbour pay each other great compliments. "I wouldn't say we had a secret," says the driver. "We just had a good car from Kremer and Dick ran a good team." Barbour, meanwhile, believes that Fitzpatrick had the measure of everyone in the field. Including Gregg and Paul? "They weren't even close to Fitz." And Rahal? "Not in the same class." Did he have a match in a 935? "The only guy who could put him on a trailer was Stommelen, but he wasn't consistent like Fitz was." Praise indeed from the team boss.
Fitz also had a trick or two up his sleeve. "Goodyear would never supply qualifying tyres, but I'd picked up a deal to race in the DRM with Kremer," he recalls. "I'd return to the US from Europe with a set of Goodyear quallies in my luggage, we'd cut the numbers off and, if the possibility arose, we used them in qualifying."
The other trick was something he'd learned in Europe and seems not to have been common practice on the IMSA scene. "I used to play with the boost a lot," he explains, "I'm sure not a lot of other drivers were doing that [Gregg appears to have been the exception]. In qualifying you could use 1.7-bar boost, but in a long-distance race, for example, you had to run 1.2. I used to knock it up to 1.6-1.7 in the corners and once the car got going would back it off again. I was tweaking the boost the whole time."
It wasn't all plain sailing for Fitzpatrick and DBR. Despite the team's slick preparation and even slicker presentation, money was tight. Long-time IMSA senior official Mark Raffauf remembers the outfit's hand-to-mouth existence. "At Portland, they could not start the car because the battery was dead and they didn't have a spare," he says. "Dick had to send someone down to GI Joe's to buy another one. You'd always find him hanging about outside our trailer after the race so he could collect the prize money and get to the next event"
DBR closed its doors over the winter of 1980-81 and Fitzpatrick was left with a dilemma. "I hadn't moved myself out to California just for 12 months," he says, "so I made the decision to do my own thing." John Fitzpatrick Racing was born.
The venture retained Barbour's Sachs sponsorship and his San Diego premises. A 1980-spec Mk2 K3 was purchased and the reigning champion began the defence of his crown. The 1981 season, however, marked the beginning of the GTP prototype era in IMSA. More wins followed over the next two seasons, and Fitz also claimed his best Le Mans result with fourth in a Joest-built `Moby Dick' 935 in 1982, but the IMSA title was always going to be won by a prototype driver.
JFR took a K4 Kremer car on the 1982 IMSA trail, with backing from the JDavid fund run by controversial financier David Dominelli, and ordered two new 956s for the following year. When IMSA decided it didn't want the car, the team switched its focus to the World Endurance Championship.
The highlight of the season was a famous win with Derek Warwick ahead of two factory cars in a soaking Brands Hatch 1000km, a round of the European Endurance Championship. It was the last big win of Fitzpatrick's career. JFR famously employed an aerodynamic tweak that involved blocking off louvres in the car's ground-effect tunnels and extracting the hot engine-bay air with fans, though the team owner dismisses its significance. "The two keys were Goodyear tyres, which were better than the works cars' Dunlops, and Derek's driving. He built up a big lead and I hung onto it."
But how did John Fitzpatrick the touring car driver become one of the most successful drivers ever in 911-derived machinery? As in most motorsport stories, almost entirely by chance.
"I'd had the odd sportscar drive, but in 1972 I went to the Daytona 24 Hours for the first time. Broadspeed [with whom he had won the saloon car title in '66] had built a BDA-engined Escort for John Buffum, who wanted me to drive it at Daytona. Next to us in the pits were the Kremer brothers. They asked me what I was doing for that year. One thing led to another and I ended up driving for them."
Fitz contested a mixed programme of European GT Trophy and world series events driving a 911S. He claimed the new GT series crown and the end-of-season Porsche Cup (the first of three wins in the Stuttgart marque's privateer award). He remained with Kremer for 1973 at the same time as driving for Ford in the European Touring Car Championship, a series in which he continued to dovetail factory drives with his sportscar programmes for much of the decade. He regained the GT crown — now with full championship status — in '74 driving for both Gelo and Kremer, after briefly falling out with the mercurial Loos mid-season.
Fitz hung up his helmet at the end of 1983 in order to focus his energies on JFR, which was set to move into Champ Cars with JDavid. "I had ordered three March chassis and we were going to do CART," explains Fitzpatrick. "Skoal Bandit [which had backed a JFR Porsche at Le Mans in 1983] was coming on board full time, so the sportscar team was about to grow. Then Dominelli got into legal trouble and the CART thing didn't happen, but retiring still seemed the natural thing to do."
What he didn't know then was that his team would only continue for three more seasons before the sponsorship dried up. That explains why he looks back on his retirement with a hint of sadness: "I could have continued driving into the 1990s."
There wasn't much Fitzpatrick didn't win during his career, but his failure to claim overall honours at Le Mans is one regret. "My big chance was with Dick in 1980," he explains. "We were effectively leading for 14 hours, but then we had an engine problem, which dropped us to fifth."
The only other hole that Fitzpatrick would like to have filled in his CV is more ethereal. "Winning a British Racing Drivers' Club Gold Star [awarded annually to the best British and Commonwealth driver] would have been something special," he explains. "When I was growing up it really meant something. In 1980 it went to Alan Jones, but I always thought my victories in IMSA and the DRM would have put me in with a chance." Fitz has long suspected that the BRDC was not aware of quite what he accomplished that year. It was not alone in failing to grasp the achievements of this underrated driver.