Our special Friday Forum guest blogger/video producer Michael Brown (below) remembers racecar driver John Fitch (bottom photo) as his "most unforgettable character," here in today's post:
Many years ago, I frequently enjoyed the Reader's Digest features called My Most Unforgettable Character. I hadn’t thought about that in a long time. In fact, I hadn’t thought about it at all until John Fitch died at age 95 in the early morning hours of Oct. 31. He passed away in his home state of rural Connecticut ... in the middle of howling Hurricane Sandy. It would be so like John to pick that time to depart; one final squint into the glare of an amazing life.
John was well known in the car community, and for good reason. In the past he had designed cars, built cars, developed ways to make cars safer, and, of course, he had raced cars. Perhaps more than anything else, that’s how John made his name.His exploits as a World War II hero, inventor, patent holder, race track manager, race team manager and more, all have been widely chronicled in the days since his death.
We contributed to that with a short video tribute. I’d be the first to admit that eight minutes could hardly do him justice.
I’ve said several times in recent days that my biggest regret in meeting John Fitch was that I didn’t meet him earlier in my life. I only knew John about three years. We met when my crew and I were in production of a feature-length documentary in which John would play a major role. The Quest grew out of Corvette enthusiast Lance Miller’s desire to fulfill the wish of his late father, Chip Miller. The elder Miller had acquired and restored the historic #3 Corvette which had raced at Le Mans in 1960.
John Fitch, along with Bob Grossman, was the co-driver of that car which made history that year by winning its class and placing 8th overall. During a several-hour rainstorm which began not long after the 1960 race began, most of the drivers slowed down on the oil- and rain-slick pavement. John Fitch sped up. That was symbolic of how he approached life — full throttle. When John learned that Lance was taking that #3 car back to Le Mans for the 50th anniversary of its win, John said, he wanted to be behind the wheel. And he was.
At age 92, with Lance Miller at his side, he did indeed drive that car in a ceremonial lap around the 8-plus-mile Le Mans track. I equated "ceremonial" with "parade." rel="lightbox350708" But not John. On the Mulsanne Straight, he hit almost 90 mph a couple of times. Our onboard cameras caught a smile on John’s face as big as a French sunrise in spring.
A year ago, I enjoyed a three-hour, non-stop interview with John at the country home he bought more than 60 years ago. We talked about all facets of his life. He was polite, as always. But he was clearly frustrated. He was anxious that the clock was ticking; his health was failing, and at age 94, he still had so much he wanted to do. There was just never enough time.
John bared his soul to us. He admitted that his career took him away from his three sons far more often than he should have allowed when they were growing up. "I never took them camping," he said with obvious regret.
But when I asked him about his late wife, Elizabeth, his eyes lit up. He became the most animated he’d been in the whole interview. "Fabulous woman," he blurted out, "fabulous woman!"
During his incredible time on this earth, John Fitch traveled across much of it. He associated with kings, dictators, movie stars, political dynasties ... and racing celebrities, which he also became.
I was privileged to observe that celebrity in Europe. Hundreds of race fans, many of them born decades after John Fitch last drove a racecar professionally, treated John as if he were a rock star. I never saw him refuse an autograph or decline to pose with a fan.
He was a complex, yet unique individual. He carved out his own special niche in a life that fell only slightly short of a century.
He was my most unforgettable character.
Thank you, Michael! Michael Brown is a video producer and director and heads his own small studio in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. His documentary film, The Quest, was released in 2011. A former anchorman, reporter and talk show host at the ABC affiliate in Dallas, Brown is also a long-time Corvette and classic-car enthusiast. His collection has its own website (www.hookedonvettes.com). Brown has been married for 44 years to bestselling novelist Sandra Brown (www.sandrabrown.net).