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John Fitch Exhibit at the IMRRC to Run through 2017 Season      

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John Cooper Fitch racing a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR at Dundrod in Northern Ireland, 1955; teamed with Stirling Moss, the pair would deliver a win for Mercedes. Photos courtesy Daimler Media Archives, unless otherwise noted.

On May 6, the International Motor Racing Research Center in Watkins Glen, New York, opened an exhibit from the personal artifacts of John Fitch. Curated by head archivist Jenny Ambrose, a veteran of the nearby National Baseball Hall of Fame, the IMRCC will run the display through the end of the racing season.

John Cooper Fitch led quite the life, and his credits include accomplished sailor, World War II fighter pilot, racer extraordinaire, car designer, inventor and safety innovator. On the track, following his heroic exploits in World War II (He was one of a few American pilots to shoot down the speedy Messerschmitt Me262 jet-powered fighter-bomber.), Fitch began racing sports cars. He won the first SCCA national driver’s title, the overall win at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1955, three class titles at Le Mans and another in the Mille Miglia.

John Cooper Fitch

Fitch in 1955.

As the co-driver of Pierre Levegh in the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR at the ill-fated 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, Fitch saw up close how dangerous motor racing could be. Upon retirement from competitive driving in the Sixties, Fitch turned to looking for ways to make racing safer. His innovations, such as those sand-filled barrels you see at highway exits to prevent drivers from crashing into the end of a guardrail or concrete barrier, have proved worthy far beyond the race track.

Fitch also tried his hand at designing a car, using the Chevrolet Corvair as the basis for his designs. The Fitch Sprint was a modified Corvair designed to handle with the best from Europe. He also built the one-off Fitch Phoenix, also derived from the Corvair, but a much more ambitious project that included more engine mods and a whole new body. The Indianapolis native, never far from the racing scene, even later in life, died in 2012 at the age of 95.

Fitch Phoenix

With the Fitch Phoenix in 2009. Photo by Daniel Strohl.

There is simply no way to quickly summarize the incredible exploits of John Fitch. Fortunately, he is well remembered and just last year, his sons, John, Christopher and Stephen donated a vast collection of artifacts from their father to the International Motor Racing Research Center in Watkins Glen, New York. This donation added to the center’s previous Fitch artifacts, donated by the man himself before his death.

This display includes trophies, books, racing gear, photos and lots more and is spread throughout the center. Though the Fitch Phoenix may be considered the centerpiece of this collection, visitors should surely check out the other items at the IMRRC. Currently on loan from its current owner, Charles Mallory of Connecticut, the Phoenix will leave Watkins Glen and the IMRCC in early June. But the rest of the exhibit remains through the end of the racing season.

The IMRRC is open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Saturday and is open to both professional researchers and the public alike with free admission. If you travels are taking you New York’s Finger Lakes region anytime this summer, be it for racing or another reason, perhaps a visit to the IMRRC is in order.

For a more detailed look at the life of John Fitch, read Kurt Ernst’s profile from 2013.