John Fitch and the 1955 Le Mans Tragedy: Making Something out of Disaster

“The act of creation saves us from despair.”

On 11th June 1955, there occurred at Le Mans the worst disaster ever to befall motor racing. Pierre Levegh collided with Lance Macklin and his Mercedes departed the circuit – its disintegrated remnants rained down upon a heaving grandstand. Levegh was killed, along with eighty-three spectators.

There recently seems to have been too many disasters; some preventable, some malicious. Haunting images of worst-case scenarios realised play out continually in front of us, it seems. In the empty shells and cordoned-off zones of disasters past, there lingers a feeling of pointlessness, of lives extinguished without reason, without meaning, too damn early.

What did you have left to give us? Could you still be here had we done anything differently? In some ways, it feels like a hunger, an internal amputation, a curse of circumstance and a complete loss of power. This inert pain loiters within, and its eviction requires a strength beyond comparison.

This current feeling draws me now to the story of the Le Mans disaster, and to Levegh’s teammate John Fitch, whose reaction to the accident saved thousands of lives. Motor racing has always housed those who view safety concerns and regulations with contempt, believing them to somehow dilute the thrill of the spectacle.

The early days were especially foolhardy, littered with carnage and the ghosts of dead drivers lying at the feet of reckless racers and gold-hungry promoters. However, as long as there have been fatal incidents, there have been those – often drivers themselves – who campaigned against repetitions.

Prelude and Disaster

Pierre Eugène Alfred Bouillin was old school. He was inspired by his late uncle who died before he was born, a victim of the earliest, deadliest days of motor racing. Pierre took on his uncle’s anagramed surname, Levegh, both in tribute and as a statement of his pedigree and style.

When he was not behind the wheel, he could be found playing tennis, or ice hockey, and was proficient at both. In 1955, he was 49 years old, and had clocked up more Le Mans miles than anybody else still racing. In the 1952 event he spent 23 hours behind the wheel himself in a self-modified Talbot, and nearly won – denied only by a broken crank.

In 1955, Mercedes selected Levegh to partner John Cooper Fitch in the third Mercedes 300 SLR tipped to take Le Mans by storm. It was moulded from magnesium alloy and notable for its massive air brake at the rear, added because the car was too fast to be slowed by standard brakes alone.

The Mercedes SLR 300 at Le Mans, 1955. No. 19, Fangio/Moss. Note the air brake activated at the rear. Source:

On the 11th June, Levegh was racing well and would shortly pull into the pits and hand Fitch the vehicle. On the Tribunes Straight, leading car Mike Hawthorn turned sharply toward the pit-entry, effectively brake-testing the lapped Lance Macklin.

Levegh, catching the pair, had not enough time to evade Macklin’s Austin-Healey, but spent his last moment alive giving a “slow” signal to the following car, team-mate Juan Manuel Fangio, likely saving his life. Fangio lived for another forty years. Macklin veered toward the unprotected pit-wall, and four people were seriously injured, run down by the runaway Austin Healey. Macklin, fortunately, escaped unharmed.

Levegh is launched into the air off the back of Macklin’s car. After capturing this image, the photographer took cover. Source: Pinterest.

Levegh’s car launched upwards and left, careering into a concrete staircase and exploding. The Mercedes’ mighty engine, radiator and suspension sliced through the packed grandstand, massacring eighty-three onlookers, many of whom had been stood on tables and chairs just to catch a fleeting glimpse of the sportscars as they flew by.

Levegh was thrown from his vehicle, dying on impact. The rest of his mangled Mercedes ignited and its magnesium bodywork burned uncontrollably for hours. The race was forced to continue beside the SLR inferno, this white-hot monument to the agony of that afternoon, so that emergency services were not hindered by hundreds of thousands of exiting spectators.

After the fire. Source: Jalopnik

Calm Amongst the Chaos

John Fitch was behind the pit-lane with Pierre’s wife Denise when they heard the explosion. Fitch went outside to investigate, and came across the injured left by Macklin’s car. He tended to them. He then spotted Levegh’s burned corpse lying on the track, where it lay exposed for too long until a Gendarme covered it with a banner. Fitch returned to Denise.

“It was Pierre. He is dead. I know he is dead,” said Madame Bouillin, before Fitch could deliver the news.

He then rang home, to inform his family that he had not been behind the wheel of the fated No. 20 Mercedes, as some initial reports had suggested. It was now that Fitch caught word that the death toll had already climbed to 64. It was the first time he became aware of the scale of the disaster. In response he asked Rudi Uhlenhaut, the SLR’s designer, to insist to the Daimler-Benz board that they withdraw the remaining silver arrows from the race.

Within moments of the disaster, Fitch had already begun to work towards mitigating future catastrophe. The race had been billed as World War Two on the track. England’s Jaguars taking on the Deutsche Silver Arrows on French soil.

It was just ten years after Hitler, and France’s war wounds were still raw. “There were still guard towers from prisoner-of-war camps at the edge of the track,” remembered Fitch. “You could see them.” French motorsport aficionados knew of the close relationship Daimler-Benz had cultivated with the Nazis, and of the nightmares they had contributed to the Fuhrer’s demagoguery.

The accident had sent the unscathed SLR, driven by the legendary pairing of Fangio and Stirling Moss, into an unassailable lead. Fitch imagined the sight of a German car taking the victory in front of a grandstand stained with French blood, and knew that the Gallic anger would reverberate far beyond the racetrack. Uhlenhaut and team boss Alfred Neubauer agreed, and six hours later so too did the Mercedes bigwigs. At 1.45am, Fangio was called in to retire.

Hawthorn, with Ivor Bueb, eventually won comfortably. It was a muted celebration, but Hawthorn’s smile as he guzzled the champagne, it is said, was enough to meet the ire of the French L’Auto Journal. “To your health, Mr Hawthorn!”

Celebrating victory at Le Mans with Mike Hawthorn. Source: WordPress

Champion of Safety

Many people realised after Le Mans that motor racing had become too quick too fast – safety standards had not developed at the same pace. Numerous nations banned circuit racing – in Switzerland, the embargo exists to this day. The fatal kink at Le Mans that had sent Levegh on his lethal trajectory was removed, and the grandstand was demolished and rebuilt. However, until the mid-1970s and the advent of Jackie Stewart’s trade union for drivers, the GPDA, safety improvements trickled through at a dreadful pace.

“The Le Mans crash affected me, as it did everybody, but me probably more so” recalled Fitch. He believed Hawthorn “caused the accident, but he did not cause the tragedy.” Levegh’s accident, and the seeming fatal inevitability of such a crash, weighed on his mind. “I worried about it for years: how do you stop an errant vehicle from high speed in a very small space without killing the occupants?”

Fitch came to racing from an engineering background. Back then, drivers were far-removed from today’s ultra-pro baby racers, who are often placed in karts before they can walk, identified by temper tantrums on track and Instagram fun in press conferences.

Yet, then as now, the rich kids dominated the scene, exemplified by Hawthorn, who always raced in a bow tie – the public school boy with failing kidneys, hard-driving, hard-drinking – determined to live life as quickly as possible, untied by responsibility.

Others grew up with oil in their blood, coming from families of mechanics, engineers or vocational drivers. There were more women involved in the highest levels of motorsport then – Lella Lombardi, the only woman to score points in F1 (Austria 1975), learned to drive in Piedmont in her butcher father’s delivery van.

John Fitch was a bit of both. He had an ancestral engineering pedigree. His great-great grandfather John had invented the steamboat. His step-father ran a motoring company, and Fitch loved engineering from a young age. He served as a fighter pilot in the Second World War, and was shot down in 1945 (his own fault, he claimed), spending the rest of the war in a PoW camp.

He loved to go fast, but not to the point of abandon. “It’s life condensed,” he once said of racing. He was never interested in what speed he was going at, but instead in remaining in control at the limit for as long as he could hang on. That was the challenge he loved. The element of danger was of less interest to him.

His problem-solving brain sparked into life as soon as Levegh crashed. Helping the injured, demanding Mercedes withdraw, maintaining control at the limit of a most testing period. After the crash, he threw himself into developing vehicle safety standards, both in motor racing and on the streets – motivated by the memory of his team mate, of those who had died having come to watch them race, and the idea that any death behind the wheel is one too many.

In the 1960s he began working on the Fitch Inertial Barrier. These are unremarkable things, unassuming little yellow barrels filled with sand, usually found on American asphalt at highway exit points. He was inspired by the anti-strafe barrels he used to protect his tent from aerial fire during the war, and began by filling old liquor crates with various amounts of sand, before driving into them at 70mph.

fitch barrier testing
Testing the Fitch Barrier. Source: New York Times

Fitch’s self-described “hero impulse”, alongside his selflessness, led him to crash-test his invention himself, taking the risk for any design flaws upon his own shoulders. At the end of the decade the Fitch barrels were introduced onto US roads, and are now in use in every state. They are credited with saving over 17 000 lives, and saving over $400m-a-year – largely medical expenses.

Hero Impulse

Fitch continued to invent until his dying days. In motor racing, many drivers are killed due to basilar skull fractures, caused by a whiplash effect at the moment of impact, where the body is held in place by seatbelts, but the head is not.

Many famous drivers met their end this way, notably Roland Ratzenberger and Dale Earnhardt (who infamously refused to wear the necessary protective gear). Fitch created the Full Driver Capsule, a full body system that aimed to prevent such deaths through holding both the head and the torso in place during a rapid deceleration. A similar contraption, the HANS device, is now mandatory in most major auto racing series.

After the “Weekend from Hell” in Imola, 1994, Fitch was creating again. Responding to the deaths of Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, Fitch designed and patented the Fitch Displaceable Guardrail, designed to capture and cushion a car on impact and absorb the energy of the collision, which would ensure a more controlled deceleration and avoid the car bouncing back across the circuit, as Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey had done all those years before.

Fitch barriers
Fitch Barriers. Source: Wikipedia

Fitch did not just stick to roads and circuits – his many inventions included a cervical spine traction device. His fifteen patents largely had one thing in common – they were responding to disasters, accidents and atrocities. After 9/11 he worked on the Fitch Survival Vehicle (never completed), which would theoretically enable escape from similar situations.

Incidents which disturbed him were transformed into opportunities to create something that might prevent or mitigate another occurrence. Regardless of whether a disaster was born of malice or cruel coincidence, Fitch believed that within engineering existed the tools for society to reduce the potential impact of future atrocities. Fitch’s efforts began in earnest after Le Mans 1955, but he himself saw his safety advocacy as rooted in his wartime experience.

In Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose notes that so many of the US 101st Airborne, upon returning to the United States, worked in teaching or construction – jobs that create and provide. Likewise Fitch was motivated by dedicating his life to safety in response to the agony of war.

“I was a wartime bomber pilot and a fighter pilot and I was involved in some fatal events…this is a payback in a way.”

John Fitch died in 2012, aged 95, 57 years after his teammate Pierre Levegh had perished. It can be said that by the end his heroism was no longer an impulse, but a fitting description of a man who refused to be derailed by dark moments that threatened to envelop in despair all who lived through those days. A man who refused to let lives lost through disasters be lost in vain.

“May your strength give us strength.”