John Fitch’s Impact on Lime Rock Park
LAKEVILLE, CT. (12 January 2023)- One of America’s top international racing stars following World War II, John Fitch went on to play a major role in the early days of competition at Lime Rock Park.
A true Renaissance man, the Indianapolis native was an aviator, sailor, inventor and race car driver. When World War II broke out, he volunteered with the U.S. Army Air Corps, and became one of the few Allied pilots to shoot down a German ME-262. His P-51 Mustang was shot down by ground fire on a strafing run on targets behind enemy lines in February, 1945, and was liberated three months later.
Following the war, he became a test pilot and sports car dealer – designing, building and marketing the Fitch Sprint and Phoenix. He even briefly dated the sister of future President John F. Kennedy!
After entering the street race in Bridgehampton on a whim – and finishing fifth with girlfriend and future wife Elizabeth Huntley as his pit crew – the couple began traveling to various competitions on airports and village roads. Their travels took them to Sebring in 1950, where he won his class in the first six-hour race on the airport circuit.
Suddenly, Fitch was one of America’s biggest names. An invitation to race – and win – in Argentina led to a call from American sportsman Briggs Cunningham, and Fitch became one of the first Americans to enjoy success in European competition as a professional driver, launching a race career on both sides of the Atlantic. He won his class three times at Le Mans, taking third overall for Cunningham in 1953. He won his class three times at Sebring, taking the overall victory in 1953. Fitch placed fifth overall in the Mille Miglia, driving a stock Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, winning his class.
In addition to his success behind the wheel, Fitch experienced first-hand the dangers inherent in racing. He was driving alongside Fred Wacker in the 1952 Grand Prix at Watkins Glen when the Chicago driver brushed the crowd in the final turn, killing a seven-year-old boy and injuring many spectators. His co-driver at Le Mans in 1955, Pierre Levegh, crashed into the crowd during the race, killing more than 80 spectators in 1955, the worst tragedy in the history of the sport.
Even though he raced in a number of major events for Cunningham and later Corvette for the remainder of the Fifties, Fitch moved to Stamford, CT, to pursue a new opportunity after Mercedes-Benz withdrew from racing at the end of 1955. Jim Vaill soon came calling, Vaill inviting him to join his efforts to fashion a true race track on the site of his former gravel quarry which would become Lime Rock Park.
Fitch signed on as a director of The Lime Rock corporation. One of his first moves was to call fellow businessman-racer Bill Millikan, who was head of Cornell University’s Aeronautical Library and a leader in highway safety engineering. The Cornell labs worked on the proposed design of the Lime Rock circuit, making only slight changes on the layout to make it safer. They also established the radii of the turns to make it more challenging.
“This was the first time any race track had been deliberately engineering; nobody had ever scientifically designed a race track before,” Fitch told Rich Taylor in his 1992 book, “Lime Rock Park: 35 Years of Racing.”
In addition to helping with the design and safety, Fitch also helped with the promoting, acting to persuade fellow racers to compete at the fledgling circuit. He finished third on opening day, placing behind the Ferrari of Bruce Kessler and Cunningham Jaguar teammate Walt Hansgen.
Fitch eventually relocated his family to a home across the street from the circuit. He opened America’s first driving school at the circuit in 1957. He occasionally raced – placing fourth in the memorable Formula Libre event won by the midget of Roger Ward in 1959.
Fitch quietly moved away from active management in Lime Rock in 1964, when Jim Haynes became the sole track manager. He continued to be very active behind the scenes, mainly concerned with safety on both the race tracks and public roads. The familiar yellow barrels strategically placed on dangerous intersections are “Fitch Barriers,” which have saved thousands of lives.
Occasionally driving in vintage events at his home track, Fitch lived near Lime Rock for the rest of his life. He passed away on Oct. 21, 2012, at age 95.
Lime Rock Park will celebrate its 66th season, hosting four major events along with several community events and dozens of car clubs in 2023. For a full calendar of events and tickets, visit: https://tickets.limerock.com/
Photo via Terry Dunne