Although Fitch would race on into the 1960s, after his awful experiences in 1955 he began to focus his considerable mental and physical energies on improving safety, not just for race car drivers, but everyone on the road. His most famous and greatest achievement was the Fitch barrier, a system of sand-filled barrels designed to protect drivers from impact with the end of guard rail or the pit wall. With considerable bravery Fitch conducted multiple crash tests with himself at the wheel, and filmed by high speed cameras to perfect his theory. Affordable, easy to replace and remarkably effective, Fitch barriers soon became common sights all over North America.
I met Fitch just once, in Mexico in 2002, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mercedes winning the Carrera Panamerica. At the time he was a disgustingly fit 84 year old, who drove the W194 Mercedes had brought with them beautifully and at speeds that totally belied his age. I shouldn’t have been too surprised however, as he was still racing historics.
One last story about Fitch, one that I think reveals more about the man and the driver he was than any other. I think most of us will remember that Stirling won the 1955 Mille Miglia in a record time that would never be beaten, and that he did so aided not only by Denis Jenkinson but the scrollable roll of pace notes he brought with him. Less well known is that it was Fitch who was meant to be driving Jenks and it was Fitch who had the idea for the pace notes. But it was also Fitch who recognised that he had no chance of winning in a standard 300SL road car, but that the notes might enable Moss in his 300SLR racer to beat the Italians on home soil, something that had only been done twice in the history of the race and not since the war. It was Fitch who leant Moss both Jenks and the idea for the magic role of notes and I think his role in that victory is too often overlooked. As for his own performance in the race, with a German reporter with no knowledge of the thousand mile lap for a passenger, Fitch still came fifth overall in a standard road car, beaten only by factory prototypes.
John Fitch died in 2012 aged 95, but his memory lives on in those who loved sportscar racing from his era, and his innovations continue to save lives to this day.
Photography courtesy of LAT Images