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Racer and innovator John Fitch dies at 95

Published November 2, 2012

You could call him the ultimate renaissance man of speed. John Fitch was a top notch car racer, yacht racer, race car builder and pilot. Even in the air, Fitch was a speed demon. As a P-51 fighter pilot, he shot down one of the first Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters. Later, he was shot down and spent three months in a P.O.W. camp.

As the first American to drive for the legendary Mercedes team in the ’50s, Fitch’s legacy goes far beyond the realm of motorsport. As an inventor who was impacted by the tragedy at Le Mans in 1955, Fitch took lessons learned in WWII to create safety solutions that are still very much in evidence on today’s roads. Everyone has seen those collections of tethered barrels on the “bull nose” of highway transfer lanes. They are called the Fitch Barrier System. Ever the adventurer, Fitch insisted on “testing” the first version himself. Other creations have included energy absorbing retaining walls to slow down race cars. Equally important as his automotive work were developments such as a spinal traction device which allows patients to move in bed while still keeping tension on a healing spine.

Having driven with names like Moss, Fangio and Kling, Fitch drove machines built by Briggs Cunningham, Mercedes, Cooper, Aston Martin and of course Fitch. The first Fitch Model B was a Ford Flathead powered Fiat 1100 that wore a Crosley body that Fitch raced in 1950. Over the years he built several other racing specials, before producing his own sports cars for consumers. The Corvair based Sprint and Phoenix proved to be quite popular, while Firebird and Toronado based variants were less so.

Never having any inclination to retire, Fitch went to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 2003 and again in 2005 when he was a sprightly 89 years old, to attempt to set a new land speed record in a historic Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. A failing fuel pump both times limited the runs to just 240 km/h. A film called A Gullwing at Twilight – The Bonneville Ride of John Fitch was made about the effort. You can see the trailer below.

Also, Jay Leno had Fitch in the Big Dog Garage a few years ago, where Fitch talks in detail of many of his exploits and achievements.

I come across some pretty neat stuff while I scour the interwebs to fill the Insider Report. Some of it is just too cool not to share, like the ’65 VW Camper tent from Japanese home builder Grandline Works. While this neat indoors tent has nothing to do with home building, the company concept is unique. They build homes with American style garages, so that collectors of American Iron can have a storage space that reflects their choice in wheels. I already have the garage, I just want the tent!

One fast lap of Road Atlanta in a Porsche 911 GT3

As far as racing series in North America go, few offer the close competition and excitement as the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge. The folks at drive rode shotgun with Sean Johnston, while he was in the lead at the season closer at Road Atlanta. There are few things that wake me up in the morning like the sound of a 911 at full song!

Hot Wheels Camaro comes to life

During last year’s auto show circuit, most of the buzz in the Chevy booth surrounded the beefy Camaro ZL1. Unless of course you included the Hot Wheels concept which likely caused more oohs and aahs from even the most jaded media types. The oversized wheels, giant orange track and Hot Wheels logos appealed to the kid in all of us. That concept is now a reality, with the production version being unveiled in Vegas at the SEMA show, which got under way yesterday. Chevrolet designer Dave Ross and Hot Wheels Designer Felix Holst were able to get together and check out their creation in the flesh.

A good number of the YouTube commenters are less than impressed with the level of content, some going so far as to call it an embarrassment. What do you think, are wheels, logos and special paint enough to rekindle your childhood dreams?

Drifting Hurricane Sandy style

Most of the automotive stories surrounding the Frankenstorm involve not driving. Cars that are trapped, cars that are floating away or sinking. Finally I came across one that actually involves driving. As an on-location TV reporter does his thing in Pennsylvania, a driver takes advantage of the cameras to put his (her?) drift skills on display.

Even though the talking head did not approve, I’m thinking it was a pretty clean pass!

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