John Fitch, driving Corvette, en route to victory at Le Mans in 1960. (Chevrolet)
John Fitch, accomplished racer, decorated World War II combat pilot, inventor and track manager, died early Wednesday at his home in Lime Rock, Connecticut.
Fitch, who celebrated his 95th birthday Aug. 4, had been in failing health in recent months. His cause of death was listed as a form of skin cancer.
Though born in Indianapolis, home of the famed 500-mile race, Fitch never expressed an interest in oval-type racing. His first passion was actually for flying airplanes, and he volunteered for the Army Air Corps in 1941. He served in northern Africa, and Europe, flying bomber escort missions. He was shot down late in the war, and spent time in a Nazi prisoner of war camp.
In an odd twist of fate, barely seven years after his release, he was driving sports car professionally for the German Mercedes-Benz team. He was a teammate during the 1955 Le Mans endurance race with Pierre Levegh, who crashed into the crowd, killing 80 people. The tragedy inspired Fitch to work on developing safer motoring systems, including sand-filled impact attenuation barriers.
Earlier in his racing career, he had driven for the team of American sportsman Briggs Cunningham.
Though Fitch won a number of races and class championships in his long driving career, he listed among his favorites a grand prix victory in Argentina, after which he earned a winner’s circle kiss from Eva Peron.
He won important races at tracks such as Elkhart Lake, Watkins Glen and Sebring. In 1960, he and co-driver Bob Grossman drove a new Chevrolet Corvette to an improbable class victory at Le Mans.
Fitch was feted at Le Mans in 2010, with a lap of honor in the same Corvette he had driven to victory 50 years earlier.
Fitch lived for some 56 years in Lime Rock, where he was named the local race track’s first general manager – a position in which he served for many years