It’s a rare thing to encounter a life so full, heroic, and memorable it stretches the boundaries of belief. Most of them, it seems, have been immortalized in film. It’s a rarer thing still to encounter such a life that so few people even know existed.
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of John Fitch, who died last week at the age of 95. But you see his work every time you get on the highway. Those yellow barrels at the foot of every overpass support have saved countless lives, but they may be the least interesting of Fitch’s many accomplishments. List them all out and you have a prime candidate for a Hollywood biopic. If only anyone had ever heard of him.
John Fitch was born in the race-tuned incubator that was Indianapolis in 1917. The 500 had been running successfully since 1911, and after World War I, the racing scene exploded anew. Fitch’s step-father worked for the then powerful Stutz Motor Company, and Fitch began building his own cars out of junked parts.
After stints at Kentucky Military Institute and Lehigh University, where he studied civil engineering, he found himself volunteering for the Army Air Corps and flying an A-20 Havoc over North Africa during World War II. He was transferred to Europe where he took the stick of a P-51 Mustang. He used it to shoot down a Messerschmitt M3 262, also known as the only jet aircraft to fly during World War II, and widely considered impossible to fell.
Fitch, however, was not invulnerable, and was shot down during a train-strafing run two months before VE day. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.
After the war he returned to America and opened an MG dealership, likely to finance his real passion – racing.
On June 11, 1949, he finished 5th in his first race, at Bridgehampton Raceway in Long Island. Like some kind of Victorian example of manliness, he proposed to his wife Elizabeth, who was his only pit crew at the time, that night. She said yes, and they remained together until her death in 2009. They had three children.
He wasn’t fond of the car he raced that night, an MG TC, but soon moved up to a Fiat 1100, which he modified, and then completely rebuilt into the Fitch Model B. It was the first of 5 cars he’s is credited as designing himself.
In 1950 he drove in the very first 12 Hours of Sebring endurance sports car race, piloting the timeless Jaguar XK120. But he didn’t stay at home, touring everywhere, from Watkins Glen to the Nurburgring. In 1951, he won the Buenos Aires Grand Prix in a Cadillac-Allard before beginning a long partnership and friendship with racer and builder Briggs Cunningham. He won the first SCCA championship that year in a Cunningham C-2.
The following year, just 7 years after the end of World War II, Fitch put aside any prejudices he had toward Teutonics and joined the German factory Mercedes team to race a Gullwing 300 SL in the Carrera Panamericana across Mexico.
He won Sebring in 1953 driving a Cunningham C4R-Chrysler. It was the first time an American in an American car had won the race.
1955 was a memorable year. He joined the Mercedes factory F1 team, racing beside Juan Manuel Fangio, Karl Kling, and none other than Stirling Moss. The team dominated the season. He also won the production class of the Mille Miglia in another 300 SL, now a favorite, and took 5th overall.
And then came Le Mans. Fitch and his partner Pierre Levegh were set to drive another 300, this one an SLR, composed of magnesium to save weight. It seemed a good pairing, and the day started well. But on lap 35, to avoid a sudden braking ahead of him, Levegh swerved and struck another car, sending him airborne and rolling into the crowd. The car flew to pieces, killing dozens, before exploding. The magnesium body immediately caught fire, and emergency workers began to hose it down, not knowing that burning magnesium only reacts further to water.
The car burned for hours. Eighty-four people were killed in the crash, including Levegh, and 120 were injured. It was a pivotal moment for Fitch, who had watched from the pits, waiting for his turn, and though he continued racing for several years afterward, he devoted much of his life to improving racing and driving safety.
He founded Impact Attenuation, Inc., and developed the Fitch Barrier, the aforementioned system of yellow barrels. Fitch said he got the idea from the cans of sand he would stack around his tent during the war to protect it from Luftwaffe strafing runs. The Fitch Barrier is credited with saving over 17,000 lives, and Impact Attenuation developed several variants, including some for race tracks and guard rails. He also invented the Fitch Driver Capsule, which evolved into an early form of the now ubiquitous HANS device.
His racing career stretches on. He managed the factory Corvette racing team from 1956-1958, helping to raise the Corvette to a world beater standard in sports car racing, a position it holds to this day. Fitch won Sebring again in 1960, in a Corvette, sporting the blue on white racing stripes which inspired Carroll Shelby’s livery for the Cobras and Mustangs of his signature.
His was a circuit director and promoter of Lime Rock Park, where he took up residence for the rest of his life. When, in 1966, again at Sebring, he broke a valve, it seemed a signal for both him and partner Briggs Cunningham, and they both retired from professional racing. “I think we were there because we just liked to drive. And at Sebring we could, for 12 hours! Besides, it was the best place to watch the race,” he said later.
Fitch, true to form, continued in amateur racing, competing in exhibition hill climbs and historic events for years. In 2005, at the strapping age of 87, he attempted to break a land speed record in another 300 SL at Bonneville, but mechanical troubles meant he couldn’t take it over 150 mph. He was likely the fastest octogenarian that day, anyway.
Fascinated with the Corvair, he designed his own variant, the Sprint, which vastly improved the rear-engine car’s blighted handling. He built the Phoenix, a sleek, steel two-seater on a Corvair chassis, but by the time it was ready for sale, Chevrolet had already decided to abandon the Corvair.
It was a life saturated with accomplishment. It reads like one of those Dos Equis commercials. So it seems sad and unfitting, then, that a man like John Fitch should pass through this world so unnoticed, with so little renown. Yet that the impact of his life is far greater than the impact of his name is fitting, part of his biography, perhaps. Fitch didn’t seek to make a name for himself, whether in the air, on the track, or in the workshop. He did what he did for the love of his country, for the love of the sport, for the help of others.
We’ll put it this way. He wrote his autobiography, jovially-titled Adventure on Wheels, in 1960, long before his career was over, long before his patents, his safety accomplishments, his cool custom cars. It seemed he was so awestruck by the opportunities he’d been given, the life with which he’d been blessed, that he thought it must certainly come to an end at some point, so he’d better just get it all down on paper. That humility and easy-going joy seemed to mark his life. It must be why in most of his most famous pictures, running all the way back to his early racing years, he’s wearing a broad, bemused smile.
We need a few more American heroes like him, but as we know, men like John Fitch are a rare find.