Once during a party at the compound, John needed to relieve himself. Because the bathroom was in use and there was a line, he went out to the garden, found an out-of-sight bush, and proceeded to irrigate it. Much to his surprise, he found another guest, the former King of England, on the other side of the bush performing the same function!
I first became aware of John in 1953 when he came to California and won the first March Field race in a Cunningham C-4R. He started out that year by winning Sebring as well as the first SCCA National Championship. His greatest year was 1955, when he was a member of the Mercedes-Benz team that, led by Fangio and Moss, won everything. John told me that he thinks his greatest drive was the Mille Miglia where he won the GT class in a production 300SL.
Originally, the factory had teamed Fitch with Denis Jenkinson as navigator. During practice, John invented a device, which he made out of wood, to hold a continuous roll of paper with a map of the course. Stirling Moss, entered in an SLR, insisted on an all-British crew. So at the last minute Jenks was teamed with Moss. Jenks took the Fitch invention with him and the German mechanics constructed one out of metal. The rest is history. Moss and Jenks won overall.
John’s 18-year racing career is the stuff of much legend, but his most significant contributions are in automotive safety. He designed the course at Lime Rock, among the safest in the world for drivers as well as spectators. Fitch’s concern with safety began at Le Mans in 1955, when he was teamed with Pierre Levegh. Before John took a turn at the wheel, Levegh was involved in what many consider to be the most horrendous racing accident ever.
If he never does anything else, John can take great satisfaction in his invention and development of Fitch Barriers. These ubiquitous barrels that line danger points on our freeways have saved countless lives. Most people assume they are just sand-filled barrels, but they are much more than that. Without going into the technology, suffice it to say John was granted a patent, which, unfortunately, has now expired so he no longer receives royalties.
John and I became acquainted when we worked together during the ’60s on advertising projects, he as driver and me as cinematographer. For many years, whenever he was in California, we sailed together on my Newport 30. Since then, we have kept in touch. Lately, I was privileged to be asked to help him with a book about some of his experiences, “Racing with Mercedes.” Low and behold, I discovered, to top off his many other talents, John Fitch is also an excellent writer. His descriptions of ’50s-era open road racing are unparalleled. Oh, by the way, he invented and developed a few cars too, but that’s another story.