Corvair Racing Pioneer John Fitch Dies

5 Nov

The following is a recent excerpt from Hemmings Motor News:

Racing Legend and Safety Pioneer John Fitch Dies

A living legend has left us. John Fitch, the racer whose life would have been entirely unbelievable had he not lived it, has died at the age of 95.

It’s difficult to sum up John Fitch’s life without leaving something important out, just as it’s difficult to find any one highlight to his life, considering that his whole life was one almost endless highlight reel. He knew just about everybody there was to know in international racing’s glory years, he drove with some of the best and most notorious race car drivers on the planet, he built his own cars and designed a world-renowned race track, and he invented safety devices that continue to save lives today.

He was born August 4, 1917, to a family that counts another John Fitch, the inventor of the steamboat, among its ancestors; Fitch’s stepfather worked as an executive at Stutz and introduced the young Fitch to automobiles and to engineering. He went to Lehigh University to study the latter, but dropped out in 1939 to visit Europe “to see the world before it was destroyed,” he said. Two years later, he volunteered for the Army Air Corps and flew missions in North Africa and England before being shot down over Germany in 1944 and serving out the rest of World War II as a prisoner. He began racing sports cars in 1949 and eventually earned a spot on the Mercedes racing team, sharing a co-driver spot with Pierre Levegh at the infamous 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans. He later raced for Chevrolet and Briggs Cunningham, but the Le Mans crash stayed with him and influenced him to develop the Fitch Inertial Barrier System – those sand-filled yellow barrels that have become almost standard at highway exit ramps. During the 1960s, he turned to tuning the Chevrolet Corvair in attempts to make it perform along the lines of the sports cars that he had so much experience with, and in the mid-1960s built the one-off Fitch Phoenix, a Corvair-based two-seater that very nearly made it into series production. Though he retired from racing in 1966, he remained a fixture in the international racing scene – particularly in and around Lime Rock Park – and in 2003 attempted to set a land-speed record in a Mercedes-Benz 300SL gullwing.

In later years, Fitch has not only been presented with the Simeone Museum’s Spirit of Competition award, but has also been inducted into numerous halls of fame, including the Corvette Hall of Fame, SCCA Hall of Fame, Sebring Hall of Fame, Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, and the Bloomington Gold Great Hall. Three years ago we had the chance to visit with him and found him, at age 92, as charming and lucid as ever and still willing to take the Fitch Phoenix or his Consulier GTP out for a spin at the drop of a hat.

As Autoweek reported, Fitch died early this morning of Merkel carcinoma. He was 95.

UPDATE (1.November 2012): As noted above, Fitch was a prolific inventor. While he holds a couple patents on vehicle suspension systems (3366400 and 3473822), one on a stowable luggage rack (3181753) and even one on a wood-burning stove (4141366), the majority are related to both on-track and on-highway crash safety (3606258, 3856268, 3880404, 3916816, 5921702, 5947515, 5957616, 6010275).

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