John Fitch isn’t as much of a household name as Stirling Moss or Juan Manuel Fangio, but he’s a racing legend and a hell of a guy in his own right. He’s been thrown in a POW camp, kissed by Evita, won his class in a Mille Miglia, designed five cars, and even invented those yellow barrels full of sand that keep people from ramming the ends of guard rails on the highway. At 92, he’s refusing to come in second to his competitors, even in the endurance race of life. He still lives within spitting distance of Lime Rock, one of his favorite courses, in Connecticut. Because he’s more of a storyteller than a question answerer, we’ve switched up the normal Q&A format, bringing you instead a series of thoughts and statements from a long life behind the wheel.
-My first racecar was an MG TC. It was horrible. Solid axle up front, solid axle at the rear, and a very loose body. But it did look good.
-I raced for Briggs Cunningham at Le Mans in 1952. In the pits afterwards, I congratulated Rudi Uhlenhaut on the success of his improbable racecar (the original Mercedes-Benz 300 SL), which he conceived using sedan parts. He invited me to come drive it at the Nurburgring. That’s how it started.
-Seven years after I left a German POW camp, I was running races for Mercedes-Benz.
-That Cunningham should have won Le Mans that year. It was the fastest car out there. But engine trouble related to the octane of fuel put us out of it.
-The 300 SL was a terrible concept for a racecar. With all of its parts borrowed from a sedan, it was far behind on power, and its solid rear suspension was no good. We cheated that by adding straps. We lost a lot of travel, but it made it a much better race car. The car didn’t win because it was fastest, it won on durability.
-We also won by not crashing cars. I could have been doing some legs of La Carrera Panamericana at 160, but I took them at 120. I was saving the car so it could run the next day. That’s what [Alfred] Neubauer appreciated. I could have been faster, but I could have also not finished. We were smart about it. Sure, we were all going at 10/10ths, it’s just that some drivers took it even further. They got injured or even killed.
-You couldn’t pre-run the Panamericana. It was too long. You just had to be careful. If you blew a corner, you were out of the race.
-The biggest problem was tires. If I wouldn’t have had tire problems, I think I could have won the whole thing. But we were changing tires constantly. I chose my co-driver not on navigation skills, but how fast he could change a tire. We could do one in a minute and forty seconds.
-The people (spectators) were crazy. We’d come into places like Mexico City, and they’d crowd the streets as we were coming in. They didn’t leave a path. There were, at times, some moral dilemmas involved…
-I averaged the last leg at 135 mph. It set a record, but it was too little too late.
-I raced in a special Grand Prix in 1951 in Argentina for Juan Peron, who enjoyed auto racing. I was given the trophy and kissed by Evita Peron, shortly before she died of cancer. No one knew she was sick.
-Picking a favorite racecar could mean two things. There are good racecars to drive, and there are good race cars for winning. My favorite for winning was the 300 SLR, because it was so durable.
– I once crashed a 300 SLR tail-first, pretty bad, and just kept on driving. We averaged the same times as before it was crashed. Turns out one of the spare tires in the rear absorbed most of the impact.
-I was given an Allard early on as a racecar, but it was wrecked. We didn’t have any frame-pulling machines then, so I chained the damaged corner to a tree and gently pulled that corner back into place. That’s how we did things then.
-I can’t appraise the SLS unless I get it on a circuit. Hopefully one I know, like my home circuit at Lime Rock. (This is in the works, care of M-B USA, and we hope to hear more -Ed.)
-I don’t expect much out of my road cars. I have a Mercedes 240. It’s a good car.
“Racing With Mercedes” by John Fitch (out of print)