John Fitch - RIP
Thursday 1st November 2012
Fighter pilot, racing driver, safety campaigner and all-round good-guy John Fitch dies aged 95
Born in 1917 in Indiana, Fitch's stepdad worked for Stutz so cars were there from the start. Between the wars he attended the Indy 500 and the last race at Brooklands before World War Two broke out, later returning to the UK as a fighter pilot flying P-51 Mustangs where he was credited as one of the first to shoot down one of the Messerschmitt Me262 fighter jets before he himself was shot down and finished the war as a POW.
And yet just seven years later he was a factory Mercedes driver, taking part in the Carrera Panamericana before winning the GT class in a bog standard 300SL Gullwing in the 1955 Mille Miglia (see lead picture). Such was his pace he actually ended up fifth overall, behind four full blown racing cars. The legendary pace notes system - the route was on a roll of paper, wound on manually past a 'window' in a metal case - employed by Moss and co-driver Denis Jenkinson was actually something devised by Fitch and 'Jenks' before the race when the two were scheduled to drive together. In the end Jenks rode with Moss and took the idea with him. "Fitch sportingly agreed it would be a good thing to try out our plans for beating the Italians with Moss as a driver," Jenks wrote in his famous MotorSport feature.
Despite a misfire they finished the race at an overall average of 83.3mph, an impressive effort in a factory standard road car given that Moss's SLR did it at 97.9mph. A special mention at this point must go to fellow Mercedes drivers and winners in the diesel class Helmut Retter and Wolfgang Larcher, averaging 58.7mph in a car whose official 0-62mph time was 39 seconds and could only achieve 68mph flat out!
The Classic & Sports Car obituary has more about his later life as a car designer and single-seat racer with the Briggs Cunningham team. A Goodwood regular until very recently, Fitch was a true hero and will be sadly missed.
Pictures: Mercedes-Benz archive