At 89, John Fitch still has the itch

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,, 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


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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