John Fitch

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1917 – 2012

The death of John Fitch ends a long, adventurous life that would have been remarkable even without his time as a racing driver, which only occupied 18 of his 95 years. From an old New England family — an ancestor built the first successful steamboat in 1787 — he was a friend of the Kennedys, and dated JFK’s sister. As a young man he sailed a schooner around the Gulf of Mexico, and then spent World War II flying P-51 Mustangs. He was the first to shoot down a Messerschmitt Me262, the early German jet, and was then himself shot down while attacking a weapons train, evading capture behind enemy lines for a couple of days before ending the war in a prison camp.

Back home he tried farming, then opened a car dealership, and began racing in his own MG TC. He won the 1951 Argentine Grand Prix in a borrowed Allard, earning a victory kiss from Evita Peron. For Briggs Cunningham he won the 1953 Sebring 12 Hours and was third at Le Mans, and then escaped unharmed from a huge, highflying accident at Reims because, to the derision of the European drivers, he was wearing an aircraft safety harness.

In 1952 he’d persuaded Mercedes-Benz to enter the Carrera Panamericana, driving one of the three 300SLs himself, and in 1955 he was offered a place in the Mercedes sports car team. His 300SL was fourth overall and first GT home in the Mille Miglia; then he shared Stirling Moss’ winning 3005LR in the TT, and was fourth in the Targa Florio. But at Le Mans he was paired with Pierre Levegh, whose tragic crash cost the lives of over 80 spectators, and it was Fitch who lobbied for the remaining works cars to be withdrawn after the accident.

He did the Italian Grand Prix twice, retiring his HWM in 1953 and borrowing Stirling Moss’ own Maserati 250F in 1955 to finish ninth. In 1956 he was hired by Chevrolet to develop the Corvette into a raceable sports car, and his efforts culminated in 1960 with a class win at Le Mans and eighth place overall. He continued to drive for Briggs Cunningham in Jaguar, ListerJaguar, Porsche, Maserati, Cooper and Porsche, until retiring in 1966 at the age of 48.

The Le Mans tragedy affected him deeply, and he invented a highway safety barrier which was eventually adopted by the US authorities across America. He successfully marketed a Sprint version of the Chevrolet Corvair, and then designed and built the prototype Fitch Phoenix, a rear-engined GT car using Corvair running gear. Other projects included a waterless cooling system for cars, self-levelling suspension, and secondary braking for trucks and buses.

He was deeply involved in the Lime Rock circuit, which was close to the period Connecticut house where he lived for more than half his life. Despite the death three years ago of Elizabeth, his beloved wife of 60 years, his mental energy and rumbustious good humour remained undimmed, and he worked on a device to give back sufferers comfort in bed and on an ecologically efficient fireplace. His final motor sporting effort, aged 88, was a record attack on the Bonneville Salt Flats in a 50-yea-rold 3005L, although a faulty injector pump kept his speed down to 150mph. And in 2010, aged almost 93, he lapped the Le Mans circuit in the same Corvette in which he’d won his class 60 years before.

Gentleman racing driver, brave warrior, inventor, broad-minded sportsman: John Fitch was a polymath. In these days of specialisation, he was a fine example of a disappearing breed. Simon Taylor

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