- John Fitch, a legendary racer and a pioneer in automotive safety, died Wednesday at 95.
- The Sports Car Club of America noted that Fitch is perhaps best known for his international drives in Cunninghams, which he helped to make famous.
- Fitch also developed the Fitch Barrier System, the sand- or water-filled plastic barrels designed to minimize crashes that are ubiquitous on American highways.
SALISBURY, Connecticut — Renaissance man John Cooper Fitch — World War II fighter pilot, inventor, auto racing driver and innovator — died Wednesday at his home near the Lime Rock Park racing course. He was 95.
The New York Times described Fitch as a "glamorous racer with a flair for danger," in its obituary.
"I've always needed to go fast," Fitch liked to say.
The Sports Car Club of America noted that Fitch is perhaps best known for his international drives in Cunninghams, which he helped to make famous. At age 70, Fitch set a speed record for driving backwards.
Fitch also developed the Fitch Barrier System, the sand- or water-filled plastic barrels designed to minimize crashes that are ubiquitous on American highways.
Fitch was born August 4, 1917, in Indianapolis, and his paternal ancestry was rich in variety and in material wealth, as it included the inventor of the steamboat (great-great-grandfather John Fitch), a magnate in the chewing-gum industry (grandfather Asa Fitch) and an early entrepreneur in the horseless carriage industry (father Robert Fitch).
However, it was his stepfather — George Spindler, president of the Stutz Motor Car Company and racing driver — who took young John for rides around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and thereby influenced the automotive and auto racing facets of a multifaceted life.
The youngster was unimpressed with oval-track racing and was distracted by an interest in aviation. He went on to become an Army Air Forces pilot of a P-51 Mustang fighter plane and shot down a German Messerschmitt ME 262, the first jet-powered military fighter, as the revolutionary plane was taking off from an airstrip in 1944.
After the war, he segued from racing yachts off the coast of high-society Palm Beach to racing cars — first, an MG roadster on Long Island, and later graduating to more exotic equipment, such as a Cadillac-powered Allard in which he won the Grand Prix of Argentina and became the Sports Car Club of America's first national champion in1951.
He won the second running of the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1953, marking the first win at that track for an American driver in an American car, and subsequently became a member of the Mercedes-Benz factory racing team alongside the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss.
A fateful 1955 race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans turned Fitch into a safety advocate.
"Fitch was paired with Pierre Levegh in a 300 SLR, which was involved in a historic crash killing 84 spectators while Fitch was in the pits awaiting his turn to drive," said Mercedes-Benz in a statement on Wednesday. "The disastrous and horrific accident at Le Mans sparked Fitch's lifelong interest and devotion to increasing safety for motorsports."
Mercedes withdrew from racing after the Le Mans tragedy, but Fitch landed with the aspiring Corvette endeavor as team manager and also helped develop the Lime Rock Park racing circuit in northeastern Connecticut, near the family home where he died. Merkel carcinoma, a rare skin cancer, was reported as the cause of death.
Edmunds says: Scion of a family with an extraordinarily colorful and adventurous history, Fitch arguably set the bar even higher with a long and eventful life of his own. He was a unique figure in automobile and auto racing history.