The man who could call the first F1 champion ‘awful’ passes away

This is a bit delayed as 39 straight days of work, which included covering the recently concluded Indian Grand Prix caused me to take it easy to the point that I kept my computer off and didn’t log on to the Internet to do anything more than check my emails.

Former American racing driver, John Fitch, passed away this Wednesday near the Lime Rock racing circuit in Connecticut, USA.

When it came to racing and safety (or road safety in general), Fitch is a name you may not have heard of. Names like Jackie Stewart and Sid Watkins may come to mind more due to their association with the high profile world of Formula 1. But overlooking Fitch, who was 95 when he passed away, would be a mistake.

Fitch only competed in two F1 world championship races, but that is only an indication of how much more there is to motor racing than F1, which is really just the tip of the iceberg as far as motorsport is concerned.

He devised the Fitch Barrier, which is a standard feature on pretty much every American highway. If you recall a scene from the Keanu Reeves movie ‘Speed’ where a Jaguar XJS crashes into a water-filled yellow barrier at the exit of a highway; that would be the Fitch Barrier in action.

Specifically to racing, he also developed the Fitch Compression Barrier, which is used extensively at oval tracks and in its design is the forerunner to the Tecpro barrier that you now see used at the latest F1 grade circuits like the Buddh International Circuit.

His safety innovations aside, Fitch was also one hell of a racing driver as his record suggests. By his own admission, his greatest motorsport achievement came at the 1955 Mile Miglia (Italian for thousand miles) when he won the production sports car category and was beaten only by the racing prototypes that had drivers like Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio behind the wheel.

He finished as high as third at the 24 Hours of Le Mans where he competed six times as well.

While I was too young (by a long way!) to ever see any of these exploits in person, I did have the pleasure of meeting Fitch at the 2006 Greenwich Concours d’Elegance where I asked him about racing in F1 during the world championship’s infancy in the early 1950s.

Given his extensive experience, Fitch was in a position to honestly dish out on Grand Prix racing’s stars of the time.

“He was awful, just awful!” was Fitch’s take on Giuseppe Farina, the sport’s first world champion. “He was a real dirty driver who didn’t care about who was on the road with him.”

Fitch spoke in awe of five-time F1 champ Fangio but noted that he was not a driver to take lightly. “Fangio could race really hard,” said Fitch. “He didn’t race dirty but you had to watch yourself going up against him.”

The most praise was set aside for Britain’s Stirling Moss, who scored 16 pole positions and 18 wins without ever winning an F1 title. “He was a real gentleman,” said Fitch. “He would always race fair.”

I confess, that at the time, I wasn’t entirely up to speed on Fitch’s contribution to motorsport’s colourfully rich story but the experience of talking to a man who experienced motor racing’s most high-profile addiction in its beginning was surreal in itself.

Fitch’s contributions to motorsport goes beyond just numbers and for that, those involved in the sport today should be thankful.

About Vinayak Pande

Motorsport journalist.
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