They don’t make them like John Fitch anymore.
The 95-year-old Corvette racing legend passed away early Wednesday at his home in Lime Rock, Connecticut after a life packed full of accomplishments on and off the track.
Ironically, his initial passion was airplanes, so naturally he volunteered to become a pilot when World War II began. He flew many successful bomber escort missions, including one when he shot down a Messerschmidt ME 262 jet fighter. His P-51 Mustang later crashed when it was hit by enemy fire, and he was captured by the Germans. Just seven years later, he became the first and only American to race for the Mercedes-Benz factory team.
Once the war was over, Fitch had grown used to the speed of aircraft and turned to road racing as an outlet. Briggs Cunningham, the wealthy racing enthusiast, recruited Fitch to race in the 1951 Grand Prix of Argentina where he clinched the first SCCA National Championship with a win.
In 1952, Fitch almost fulfilled Cunningham’s dream of winning Le Mans with an American car and driver, but bad fuel provided by the sanctioning body forced him to leave the race early. That led to Fitch’s move to the Mercedes-Benz team, where in 1955 he took best-in-class, fifth overall in the Mille Miglia driving a stock production 300 SL coupe.
That same year, another major event helped shape Fitch’s life when a terrible crash at Le Mans killed more than 80 people. Fitch became obsessed with highway safety for the rest of his life, leading to his development of the yellow, sand-filled Fitch Inertia Crash Barriers, the yellow crash barrels seen on racetracks and highways that have saved countless lives around the world. He also served as a consultant to numerous research and government organizations on the subject of vehicle handling and dynamics as they relate to safety.
Shortly after that Le Mans tragedy, Fitch entered the Corvette world. In early 1956, Corvette Chief Engineer Ed Cole asked him to help turn the Corvette into a world-class race car. He promptly went out and developed and managed a team of Corvettes in a span of just six weeks, entering them at Sebring after Zora Arkus-Duntov had told Cole that wasn’t enough time to do the job. Fitch’s team won both classes that year, prompting Corvette Racing’s present-day manager Doug Fehan to lead his drivers years later in a standing ovation for Fitch after accomplishing in less than two months what an entire dedicated organization takes years to do nowadays.
At age 93, in 2010, Fitch was reunited with the 1960 Corvette that he and Bob Grossman co-drove to victory at Le Mans 50 years earlier. He’s been inducted into several major halls of fame, including the Corvette Museum’s Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Bloomington Gold Great Hall just this past June.
No sir, they don’t make them like John Fitch anymore, and the Corvette Racing world is a little emptier today with his passing.
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