John Fitch: Proving age is no barrier

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John Fitch may not be remembered as one of the finest racers of his era, but he stands as one of the most remarkable men I have ever met. He’s still competing at 85, most recently at Laguna Seca, and was aghast that he was unable to take part in the 2002 rerun of the Carrera Panamericana in a nut-and-bolt replica of the 300SL roadster with which he competed in 1952: ‘We were fine, the car was fine, the organisers were fine-we just could not find anyone to insure it for remotely sensible money. But don’t worry, we’ll do it for sure in 2003.”

He drives the 300SL with total assurance fast and smooth and hops in and out of its restricted interior with the ease of someone literally half his age.

One of Fitch’s lesser known claims to fame is that it was he who was originally to have driven Jenks in the 1955 Mille Miglia, and that it was Fitch who had the idea for countering the local knowledge of the Italians with pace notes written on a rolling sheet of paper. As Jenks acknowledges in his original race report, he accepted Moss’s subsequent invitation, ‘John Fitch having sportingly agreed that it would be a good thing for me to try out our plans for beating the Italians with Moss as driver.’

Of the Carrera Panamericana, Fitch says, “It was the crowds that were the real worry. You’d come into towns and the road would curve in such a way that all you could see in front was a wall of people. In such circumstances you really didn’t want to lift, but sometimes you just had no choice.”

His works 300SL roadster of which none survives -was less aerodynamic by far than the Gullwing, but up to 100kgs lighter: “All told I didn’t think it made much difference, and if you look at the last stage, where I recorded the fastest time of any car on any leg of the race, I couldn’t say I was disadvantaged over the closed car.”

Disqualification came when Mercedes engineers failed to set the front suspension properly at a stop. Rather than be disqualified for missing his start slot, Fitch got permission to start the stage and immediately return to the service bay to have 20mm of toe-out removed.

“The sound of the tyres howling was awful so I just went off the line and then immediately reversed back I’d got permission, but some higher authority still disqualified me.”

Of the dangers that strew his path, like so many others of the era, he simply did not think that hard about it: “I guess it was kinda dangerous, and sure, people died, but I don’t remember sitting there and letting it get to me. It was just another race that needed running.” However, after witnessing the appalling fatalities at Le Mans and Dundrod in 1955, Fitch dedicated the rest of his career to improving safety on both roads and tracks, once driving head first into one of his deformable barriers at 60mph to prove its design. They are now used on roads in all 50 US states.

Today Fitch cuts an enigmatic and more than a little eccentric dash. I met him in Oaxaca, one of the stage starts for the Carrera, where he spent the day in 90deg heat, marching from place to place, jumping in and out of the SL and always choosing the most challenging items on the menu. When I left him, he was tucking into a cactus.

Like Kling and Klenk (both still very much alive at 92 and 83, respectively), he is a relic of a different age of cars and drivers. But one day, even these true survivors will be gone and with them will die the few remaining first-hand experiences of the greatest road race of them all. In that perspective, it was a privilege to spend even a short period of time in his company.