31 October 2012

John Cooper Fitch: Aug. 4, 1917-Oct. 31, 2012

I first met John Fitch, fittingly, at Lime Rock Park in 1986.  With an integral part in the race track’s “Vintage Fall Festival,” John presented me with a concours trophy. At the time, I knew he’d been a successful race driver and was held in high esteem. Over the 26 years that followed, I gradually came to know John better and learned about many of the accomplishments that made him so special.

A member of what Tom Brockaw called “The Greatest Generation,” Fitch joined the Army Air Corp in 1941, learned to fly and became a fighter pilot on bomber escort duty. One of the few P51 pilots to shoot down a German ME 262, he was eventually shot down during a mission and ended the war in a German POW camp. Returning home, he soon found himself involved in the fledgling sports car movement, racing a TC and building and repairing sports cars. He came to the attention of wealthy sportsman Briggs Cunningham and became an important part of the team that raced its own large-displacement sports cars at home and at LeMans, which they nearly won. John also managed to live through one of the most dangerous periods motorsport has ever known.

Fitch was responsible for Mercedes taking the 300SL to the Carerra Panamericana and eventually joined the factory team for which he drove a stock 300SL Gullwing to fifth overall and first in class in the 1955 Mille Miglia. A member of the German automaker’s LeMans team, he never got to drive before the dreadful accident that year and played a pivotal part in convincing Mercedes to withdraw following the accident. He was also responsible for developing the 1956 Corvette racers for Sebring and was part of the 1960 Corvette effort at LeMans. Living in Northwestern Connecticut, John was instrumental in the development of the track at Lime Rock Park and actually designed the course.

In his later years, John became a vocal advocate of highway safety and designed and tested a collapsible barrier system that saved many lives.

By the time I really got to know him in the late 1990s, Fitch had taken on a role as an elder statesman of motorsports. He was articulate, genial and really knew how to give you his full attention, even though his hearing had become increasingly worse. A true gentleman, I know I’ll miss seeing his smile and knowing a great man who remained modest to the end.

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