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The Amazing Life of John Cooper Fitch

The Amazing Life of John Cooper Fitch
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Book review by Richard Parks

Photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz

 

Art Evans has written many books on road course racing, especially during the height of American sports car racing in the 1950’s. The Amazing Life of John Cooper Fitch is his latest work. This is a paperback book measuring 5 ½ by 8 ½ inches and is 192 pages, double spaced on high-quality paper to enhance the photographs. There is one color photo on the front cover of the book showing John Fitch on the Bonneville Salt Flats, two maps and 101 black and white photographs interspersed throughout the book. There is an introduction by Evans, but no index. Enthusiast Books of Hudson, Wisconsin is the publisher and the ISBN is 1-583-88-329-0, or 978-1-58388-329-7. You can reach the publisher at [email protected]. The price is $29.95. You can also order this book through Autobooks/Aerobooks in Burbank, California.

Art Evans has a gift for biography. It starts with a love that he has for sports car racing; a sport that he participated in. He doesn’t waste time; he goes right into the story. The text is easy to read, the photographs are interspaced throughout the book and the interest level never flags or slows down. The chapters are short and the characters are well developed. My day is full of interruptions and yet I found it easy to pick up the book where I left off and continue reading. John Fitch is a fascinating person and like so many other men and women of the Great Depression and World War II era, a man of many talents. I’m glad to see Evans go into more detail. Evans has written several books in a format that I like; a page or two of text and a full page photograph. Evans is also an excellent photographer. John Fitch deserved a book all to himself and Evans gave it to us.

Fitch was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1917, young enough to know the men who created the modern day automobile industry, the greatest racers of the day, experience the Great Depression, fight in World War II and of course become a well-known American road course racer in his own right. Patrician looking, he knew the Kennedy family well, had that look of a Boston Brahmin and the pedigree of a New England Yankee. His great-great-great grandfather received a patent for a steamboat in the late eighteenth century. John’s stepfather, George Spindler, introduced his stepson to the Indianapolis 500 motor race, the granddaddy of them all. Fitch knew many of the racers from the early days of racing. He took a leave of absence to travel just before the outbreak of World War II. He traveled around England, Scotland and Wales and then returned home when Germany invaded Poland and Europe descended into a nightmare. He purchased a sailboat, became a volunteer for the Coast Guard anti-submarine watch and sailed all over the Gulf of Mexico.

Fitch enlisted in the US Army and was sent to flight training to be a pilot. Six months later the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States was at war. He flew fifty missions bombing German target, was a test pilot and trainer. With his rakish good looks he dated frequently and had many affairs. He flew a German jet and even shot one down. He was shot down inside Germany and became a prisoner of war and months later he was liberated by General George Patton’s 3rd Army. The war ended and he had led an entire life in 28 short years. After the war Fitch returned to Florida and while there he met Kathleen Kennedy and for a while they were a twosome. At the Kennedy compound Fitch met Jimmy Doolittle, Edward VIII, the former King of England and John F. Kennedy, the future President of the United States, among others. Kathleen died in a plane crash in 1948 ending any possibility of a relationship. John moved back to New York State where he found work and married Elizabeth Huntley.

He opened up his own MG dealership in 1949 and began competing in road course racing with Elizabeth on his crew and as a spotter. He added Jeeps to his inventory list and continued road racing against the best of that era, including; Miles Collier, Briggs Cunningham, Tom Cole, Phil Walters, Luigi Chenetti, George Rand, Jim Kimberly, Bill Spear, Fred Wacker, Bruce Stevenson, Phil Waters, Peter Walker, Stirling Moss, Peter Whitehead, Phil Hill, Irving Robbins, Alberto Ascari, Robert Manzon, Jack McAfee, and many others.

In 1950 he and Elizabeth moved to Connecticut, where they would live the rest of their lives. That same year he raced in the first Sebring race in Florida and won his class. The next year he won the first ever Formula III race held in America and multiple class wins in other road course events. He won the 1951 Formula 1 race in Buenos Aires, Argentina in a borrowed Allard and set the course lap record. He met Juan and Eva Peron and was feted for his win. Fitch was invited to join the Briggs Cunningham racing team in 1951. As he left for Le Mans, his first child, a son was born. At Le Mans he finished a respectable 3rd with co-driver Phil Walters. Back home in the US he won at Elkhart Lake, was second at Watkins Glen and first at Palm Beach. At the end of the year he had won the first ever SCCA National Championship and cemented his place as one of America’s best road course and sports car drivers.

If 1951 hadn’t brought him enough accolades, Fitch also participated in that year’s Carrera Panamericana Road Race in Mexico. The race started on Mexico’s southern border and went northward all the way to the Rio Grande. It was a six day race over 2000 miles, with rest stops at night. In 1952 Fitch raced in the French Le Mans endurance race and at Nurburgring, Germany, against the best Porsche cars in the world. He won at Elkhart Lake and set a record. At Watkins Glen a boy was killed when a car skidded out of control and the stewards decided the crowds were too difficult to control and cancelled the event. He won at Turner Air Force Base and was personally congratulated by Air Force General Curtis LeMay. That November he entered his second Carrera Panamericana Road Race. The race lasted only five years before it was cancelled as too dangerous for drivers and spectators. It was one of the most grueling races ever staged and simply to last the entire course was a victory in itself. Engine trouble had ended his first attempt; Fitch was determined to do better this time around.

The Panamericana was more than an endurance or speed contest. The roads were treacherous, the spectators lined the road and often would drive their cattle in front of the cars to be killed, and then demand money for the dead animals, from government officials. Cars skidded off the road killing drivers and spectators. The jungles were hot and the mountains were cold. It tested the mettle of the world’s best drivers and machines. Fitch finished the race this time in fourth place. In 1953 Fitch competed in the Monte Carlo road rally. This was a four-day, 2000 mile road rally starting with check points in Glasgow, Lisbon, Munich, Oslo, Palermo, Stockholm and ending in Monte Carlo. Returning to the US he raced at MacDill AFB in Florida, which he won, with Phil Hill in second place. The Cunningham team along with Fitch also won at Sebring. Fitch entered the Italian Mille Miglia in a Nash-Healey, which he found insufficient to do well in the race, but a very comfortable car to tour around in the Italian countryside.

I normally don’t go into so much detail in a book review, but Fitch led such an exciting life that it’s hard not to tell you his every adventure. My purpose as a reviewer is to tell the potential reader whether this is a quality-made book and if I would recommend its purchase. The public needs to know if the book is well crafted and will last and more importantly, if it is interesting and fulfills a need. The Amazing Life of John Cooper Fitch is a nicely done book from the standpoint of construction. But it is also a fine read. There are more chapters, including the Indianapolis 500, 1953 Le Mans, Reims, the Alpine Rally, Grand Prix racing, Monza, 1953 Mexican Road Race, THE RACERS movie starring Kirk Douglas, 1955 Mille Miglia, Targa Florio, the Corvette connection, Lime Rock Park, the Briggs Cunningham D-types, Sebring, Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Fitch Sprint (Corvair), and his last races.

Even after John Fitch retired from racing his creative mind kept busy. He developed the Fitch Inertial Barriers, a design for barrels that cushion the shock of a crash and which are found on freeways and race tracks around the world. His racing feats are enough to keep his memory alive, but the lives that he has saved is probably his greatest achievement and one that he may have felt was his best contribution to humanity. He also created and patented the Fitch Compression Barriers, the Fitch Displaceable Guardrails, and the Fitch Driver Safety Capsule. While Fitch was finished with competitive racing the world of racing wasn’t finished with him. Numerous accolades and honors came to him over the years and he was inducted into many honorary programs. He was invited to the Goodwood Festival in England as an honored guest. Fitch went to the Bonneville Salt Flats to try for a record in Bob Sirna’s 300 SL.

I think the greatest honor John Fitch ever received was the friendship and good humor of his friends in racing. He made many trips to California to attend events with the Fabulous Fifties, a group of the greatest men and women who ever raced sports cars on the world’s most daring and thrilling road courses. They were a special breed of racers, which we will probably never see again. Seeing Fitch with Art Evans, Bob Bondurant, Dan Gurney, Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, Dick Guldstrand, Jim Hall, Ruth Levy, Carroll Shelby, Bill Pollak, Ken Miles, Parnelli Jones, Ed Hugus, Chuck Daigh and many more is a road racing fan’s greatest joy. I enjoyed the book immensely and I recommend that you add it to your library.

 

Gone Racin’ is at [email protected].