• Aug 7th 2006 at 6:55PM
  • 6
We should all lead lives as full as John Fitch.

Fitch, 89 years young, is preparing for an attempt at the land speed record for the F/GT class (2.01L to 3.0L grand touring sport) at Bonneville this October. He first tried to set the record during Speed Week last August, an effort that, though unsuccessful, was captured in the acclaimed documentary, A Gullwing at Twilight: The Bonneville Ride of John Fitch.

Now, just over a year later, Fitch and the 1955 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing owned by Detroit businessman Robert Surna will return to the salt in the hopes of besting the record of 168.721 mph set by Bob Norwood's Ferrari 308 back in 1985. In this weekend's New York Times profile on Fitch, he states that they'd like to set the mark at around 175 mph.

We wouldn't bet against him. It seems that in life, John Fitch only knows how to succeed.

(Continues after the jump. More pics follow as well.)

[Sources: New York Times, RaceSafety.com, Szwedo Productions, Southern California Timing Assoc.]

A P-51 Mustang pilot in World War II, Fitch is credited as being one of the first American aviators to shoot down Germany's Messerschmitt ME 262 jet fighter. Toward the war's end, Fitch himself was shot down and became a POW. Most people would look upon this as an amazing life experience in and of itself, but for Fitch, it was just the beginning.

He then embarked on a storied racing career that saw him join the awesome 1950s Mercedes-Benz factory team, for whom he scored a GT Class win in the 1955 Mille Miglia. Fitch also enjoyed a longtime personal and professional relationship with Briggs Cunningham and a stint as the manager of Team Corvette in 1956 and '57. This is just a taste of his history in racing. To appreciate its full scope, click here to see it laid out in chronological order.

Since his retirement from racing in 1966, Fitch has continued to make his presence felt through his relentless efforts to improve the safety of regular drivers and racers alike. Driven to act following the death of his co-driver, Pierre Levegh, and scores of spectators in an accident -- the worst in racing history -- at Le Mans in 1955, Fitch designed road and racing barriers that are now part of our daily driving landscape. He also continues to develop and promote innovative solutions like his Displaceable Guardrail, Compression Barrier, and Driver Capsule.

The Saratoga Automobile Museum is celebrating his achievements with an exhibit that runs through mid-November. If Fitch succeeds at Bonneville, they'll need to change it on the fly.

It would only be fitting.

Most museum exhibits document a specific time or event in the past. John Fitch's history is a living one, and to accurately tell his story, you'd better be prepared to update it at a moment's notice.

You can learn more about John Fitch at RaceSafety.com.


John Fitch at Bonneville, 2005
John Fitch record attempt at Speed Week 2005John Fitch at Bonneville, 2005

Photo Credits

Page 1: Szwedo Productions
Page 2: Szwedo Productions, Southern California Timing Association

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 9 Years Ago
      The open wheel Mercedes and Auto Unions of the late 1930's were faster than that.
      • 8 Years Ago
      I first saw John in 1946 or so gliding his Taylorcraft float plane in over the trees at the farm in Brewster, NY his stepfather owned. Every weekend there were strange cars with strange names like Cord, and Citroen and Renault, that he would drive up from Inskip in NY. I followed him around like a puppy. At 10 years of age, this man was 12 feet tall to me.
      • 8 Years Ago
      So what happened? A fast Google search has not found out

      My Dad set up a days driving lesson with John Fitch when I was 16 1/2 in 1965 (in the Gullwing we owned from 1955 to 1979 and that Dad and I drove over 190,000 miles) that day at Lime Rock was one of the toughest and best of my life! learning to four wheel drift through the esses at speed... that day of learning has saved my life on quite a few occasions over the last 42 years both on the road and in my career as a pilot... he was so patient with this snot nosed 'rich kid' and such a gentleman all the time... I just finished watching a high def version of the 05 attempt video that I recorded from PBSHD and he has changed so little it is amazing!
      • 9 Years Ago
      Oh, so that's who owned the gullwing Mercedes I captured on the salt last year in this blog entry:


      • 9 Years Ago
      Well, both Mercedes and John Fitch have proved that old is gold !! My salute to both of them.
      • 9 Years Ago
      I just can't believe a car designed in 1955 can stay on the ground at 175 miles an hour. But hats off to the Mercedes design if it does stay planted to the floor without major mods.
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