Friday, February 1, 2013

John Fitch

“You know what makes a racer different from other people?  
The faster he goes, the more relaxed he becomes.”

I found myself thinking about John Fitch's words on the afternoon that he took me about the countryside, regaling me with stories of great drivers, great moments, and terrible tragedies while I blithely tried to ignore the fact that a man of nearly ninety was about to exceed that number on his car's speedometer and, all the while, looking like other men do when they sit in a recliner and watch football. I shouldn't have been worried; I doubt if I have ever been in safer hands.  The reason that I found myself riding in an open roof, hyper-powered vehicle on the winding road that is Route 7 and shooting through the West Cornwall covered bridge was because of one of those odd duties that has marked my career.

Not a bad weekend ride, eh?

Because my parish was next door to the well-known Lime Rock Park race track, and I belonged to the local volunteer fire department, I had been asked to serve as the "chaplain" to the track and its drivers.  My duty was remarkably simple:  I gave the invocation at the beginning of the race, standing at the start/finish line with the singer of the National Anthem, the honored guest who says, "Gentlemen and Ladies, start your engines", and some scantily clad Pirelli Tire girls.  I've had worse duty, believe me.

That reminds me; I need new tires.

Each year I would be "paid" with two season passes, which was a magnanimous compensation, a gift of either a book about racing, a facsimile of Steve McQueen's racing jacket from the film "Le Mans", or, one spectacular year, the chance to ride with John Fitch in a racing car of his own construction.  Yeah, that year was the best.  I only wish I had worn the McQueen jacket while doing so.

I suppose it looked better on him, but still....

John Fitch, his wife, children, and great-grandchildren, were Episcopalians and familiar to the Anglican community in the northwest corner of the state.  However, I was familiar with him because, as a fan of auto-racing, I knew a story about him, a famous one in auto racing that included the false reporting of death, an international tragedy, the half-century withdrawal from racing by one of the world's premier automobile marques, and the impetus for the creation of safety devices that would eventually become standard equipment on highways.

It should be no surprise that Fitch was born in Indianapolis, as that is the ideal spot from which to hail for an American racer.  Not just due to the famous track and its race, but because of the tradition of machines, metal fabrication, engineering, and manufacturing for which the Hoosier city is also known.  In this world, it was natural for Fitch to develop an interest in all of these things.  As his stepfather was an exec with the Stutz Company, makers of the famous Bearcat, Fitch was able to abide with those who showed him how to take junk metal and turn it into a functional car.  This, even before he was licensed to drive, became his hobby and passion.

Fitch enjoying another day at the office.

After serving as a Mustang pilot during WWII, his avocation became his profession.  Beginning in 1950, Fitch raced a Ford-powered Fiat 1100, which he soon modified into the "Fitch Model B", and drove in the first 12 Hours of Sebring. In 1951, he won the Buenos Aires Grand Prix, drove in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and became the first Sports Car Club of America national champion.  In 1953, Fitch competed in as many European races as he could afford to enter and was named "Sports Car Driver of the Year" by the automotive press.  The next season, he drove for both Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz and, in 1955, Fitch raced for the Mercedes-Benz sports car team along with Juan Manuel Fangio, Karl Kling, and Stirling Moss [the three best drivers of this era]. That year, Fitch won the production class at the Mille Miglia.

Then came the most notorious moment in road racing history, occurring as it did during that year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, to this day the world’s most demanding endurance race.  As the drivers race for 24 consecutive hours, they are made up of two or three-man teams, each alternating a couple of hours at the wheel with a couple of hours of rest.  That year Fitch’s teammate was Pierre Levegh, not one of the great drivers of his era, and a fellow who should have had nothing to do with a professional automobile competition of this calibre.

From an official retrospective:

Fitch's family heard on the radio that it was Fitch, and not his co-driver Levegh, who had been driving the Mercedes and been killed in the conflagration.  It took some time to straighten out the misinformation.  Mercedes-Benz would immediately withdraw its factory teams from all forms of competitive racing for half a century.

Fitch's close involvement with this tragedy lead him to grow beyond driving and car development and into the area of safety equipment.  While he was one of the first racers to build his own eponymous cars, he is best known these days as the inventor of "The Fitch Barrier", those sand-filled barrels often seen on highway off-ramps and bridge abutments.  Innumerable times they have rendered potentially horrific traffic accidents into one-car incidents with little or no damage to driver and passengers.

John Fitch died last October.  The Burial Office was read for him in the local parish.  He will be remembered for two things: His association with the deadliest accident in racing history and his determination that nothing like that would ever happen again, be it on a track or a highway.  Mostly, I remember him for that Sunday drive. 

Although, to be honest, once it was over I was tempted to kiss the ground like the Pope when I was released from that car.  I guess that's why I'm not a racer.