Yesterday, a racing legend passed in John Fitch. He was 95, and had lived an incredible life as a WWII fighter pilot, storied racing driver, and pioneer in the world of automotive infrastructure safety. In addition to being the first American racer for Mercedes-Benz, he was also the creator of the Fitch Barrier, which are the sand filled barrels found nearly everywhere on our nations highways. He was a POW after being shot down during World War II, and was also the man behind the Fitch Phoenix; a Chevy Corvair-based sportscar.
And when I interviewed John Fitch in the spring of 2008, I knew none of these things.
I have been a car nut since before I had a license through college, and into my first internship at a company that produced videos for the automotive industry. After starting as this unnamed company’s intern, I became a writer and producer there. As a car nut, I was tasked with going to auto shows, conducting interviews and checking out the latest car news. (sounds kind of familiar, huh?) I spent my time researching new cars, and was not very well versed in the realm of vintage My first real love for the classic car world when I was tasked with covering the 2008 Newport Concours d’Elegance.
The guest of honor was Fitch, and I was not prepared for the experience. Not only was his Fitch Phoenix in attendance, but so was the Fitch-Whitmore Le Mans special; a Jaguar XK120-based racer that is truly one of a kind. More on that in a bit
In sitting down with Fitch, we rolled camera and he began to share his life stories, like being one of the first fighter pilots to shoot down a Geman ME 262 advanced jet plane during WWII. He also was one of the leading minds in the development of Lime Rock park, and attended vintage races there into his 90′s.
It became readily apparent that I was in the presence of greatness, and that I was truly embarrassed for not better familiarizing myself with the man. That is when he did something that I will never forget. In the middle of the interview, he apparently notices something over my shoulder, and stops the interview brefily so that he could make a pass at a young woman that was walking by! Though I don’t remember what exactly he said, I remember it was quite clever for someone my age to say, let alone someone in his 90′s! It was an indicator that even in his old age, he was as sharp as a tack.
Part of the Greenwich Concours is the annual Bonham’s auction. Following our interview, we were informed that he would be speaking before the auctioning of his Fitch-Whitmore Special, and I think this was the moment that I truly developed a love for vintage European racecars. We set up our camera in between his car and the podium, and in the moments before he spoke, I was able to take in the car.
It was a stunning piece of machinery, with hidden headlights, and open wheels with free-floating fenders. I knew what the XK120 looked like, and I told myself that there was no way that this had come from that beautiful, yet sleepy by comparison, car. Then Fitch spoke, and it all came together for me.
Fitch spoke fondly of his early race career, entering in the Mille Miglia, competing for the Tourist Trophy, and his exploits in the Pan Americana. Fitch talked about the development the car being auctioned, and how he worked with Coby Whitmore to design it. Fitch said that he thought the XK120 could perform better than weight would allow, and thus embarked upon a plan to significantly re-body the Jag. He explained how the grille had been made form magnesium, and was one of a kind. In his own words, “If that ever broke, I don’t know where you’re going to find another one!”
That is likely when it hit me. That the man, the car and the history are all interconnected. The car would not be special without the man, and the man was made by the life that hit lived. I know understand that this is why we do what we do. This is why the cars are important- the history and the personal connections. Fitch would likely tell you he was just a man doing his job, but we all know how special he was. I consider myself lucky to have met John Cooper Fitch, and it is a memory I will carry with me for the rest of my days.