VIR History - Jim Fitzgerald

JIM FITZGERALD - by Phil Allen (with special thanks to Mary Lou Fitzgerald, Charlie and Mary Jo Fitzgerald Busa, and Keith and Penny Hege)

   rb-6904-22.jpg (188327 bytes)  Virginia International Raceway fans will remember Jim Fitzgerald in a variety of ways. As VIR’s “Hometown National Champion”, he brought home SCCA titles in 1970 and 1984. As The Sports Car Club of America’s all time most winning driver, he earned victories in more than 350 SCCA Nationals including an overall win in the last National held before the track closed, making him the most current VIR winner from April 1974 until August of 2000. As a driving instructor, he left a lasting impression on all of his students from hopeful beginners to celebrity racers and box office stars. As a fierce competitor, he will be remembered as a driver who thrilled both fans and himself by pushing himself and his equipment to limits never before seen at all levels of competition. As a friend of racing and racers, he was always ready to go “the extra mile” to help a promoter with a television reporter or a fellow competitor needing help or advice with a problem. Amiable and approachable, ‘Fitzy’ was a friend to all who came in contact with him, proving that graceful winners do exist.

     Fitzgerald started his racing career as a champion, winning a go-kart national championship in 1959. The following year he purchased an Alfa Romeo and drove it on the highways to SCCA races throughout the East Coast, taping up the headlights and removing the windshield at the track. He won his first race, beginning a career that may never be equaled in SCCA history.  As a Western Electric engineer, he and his family saw frequent transfers and moves about the country. While living in California he purchased a Morgan ‘ for his wife Mary Lou’. Her daily transportation became his weekend racer. He was so successful against the factory-sponsored Datsuns on the West Coast that they decided to encourage him to join them. In 1966 he was given a race-prepared Datsun 1500.

  neg52-01.jpg (116985 bytes)  1967 saw another job transfer and Fitzgerald’s introduction to VIR. He arrived in North Carolina with his newly acquired racer on a trailer and soon met his future crew chief Keith Hege. Fitzgerald and Hege made their first appearance at VIR in October of 1967 and took home a class win in G Production. VIR entry lists in 1968 and 1969 report that the Clemmons North Carolina team was SCCA Southeast Division Champion in 1968 in both D Production and G Production.

     The Racing Division at Datsun was soon to replace the smaller displacement G Production car with a pair of race prepared Datsun 2000 cars for Fitzgerald to campaign in both D and C Production.

     Despite a record number of wins in SCCA competition, Jim Fitzgerald will probably be best remembered at VIR for a race that he did not win. In April of 1970 VIR was host to the most hotly contested C Production race of the year. With sales competition strong among the manufacturers for the American production sports car market, factory support of the popular SCCA production class was at an all time high. Fitzgerald was the East Coast Datsun representative with entries in both D Production and C Production. Pete Brock arrived from El Segundo California with a fully sponsored Datsun 2000 he had prepared for John Morton who eventually won the SCCA C Production Championship that year. A strong Porsche challenge was led by reigning National Champion Peter Gregg in his Brumos Porsche 911.

     Fitzgerald’s day began in the D Production class race during a heavy downpour of rain. He jumped into an early lead and by the finish had lapped the entire field! Because of the importance of the factory showdown in the feature race for C Production, he and Hege had mounted their only set of rain tires on the D car and left the C car without wheels on jackstands in the pit lane. After his runaway victory in the earlier race, he changed wheels and moved to the grid for the feature in fourth place. When the green flag dropped he continued his charge from the previous race and was in first place by the end of lap one. As Hege describes it, “he was gone”. By lap five he had a 34 second lead over the second place car. That lead proved to be his downfall as he was the first to come upon a backmarker’s spilled oil in turn twelve. With no warning he soon found himself axle deep in mud on the outside of the track. Peter Gregg won the race.  Fitzy enjoyed a successful season and took the D Production title at Road Atlanta. The SCCA record books show 1970 as the year of Jim Fitzgerald’s first National Championship but VIR fans remember the year they enjoyed the most exciting drive ever seen.

   April 1973  Campaigning 2000 roadsters in two classes came to an end with the evolution of Datsun’s line of cars. With the introduction of the classic ‘Z’ car in 1970 there was no need to support and promote the 2000 roadsters . Through Bob Sharp Racing in Wilton Connecticut Fitzgerald took delivery of a race-prepared 240Z bearing chassis serial number 6. This same chassis with many factory-supplied updates and improvements became a 260Z and later a 280Z. Fitzgerald owned, prepared and raced it until he became a team driver for Sharp in 1984.

  April 1974   As a 260Z, chassis number 6 became the last feature race winner at VIR from 1974 until the track reopened in 2000. At the final SCCA National before the track closed Fitzy attempted to recreate his 1970 race day. He used his old D Production roadster to set a new class lap record of 2:19.5, over 5 seconds under the old record. A problem with fifth gear cost him a win, but in the feature race he took home first place in C Production with another lap record.

     Retirement from Western Electric in 1980 was the beginning of a new career. Long considered one of the best and most respected instructors at area SCCA driver’s schools, Fitzy’s helpful personality left an impression on many students. WRAL-TV Newscaster Tom Lawrence remembers being thrilled at being assigned to Jim at his first school. “He was patient, making suggestions. He watched, followed, led and did all he could to coax me to my limit. I remember the smile, the skill, the gentleman. And I shall for a long, long time.”

     His skills and reputation as an instructor led to a position as chief instructor at the Road Atlanta Driving School beginning when he retired from Western Electric. There he taught a range of students, from curious thrill-seekers to aspiring professionals. He also developed lasting friendships. As Keith Hege says “Fitzy never met someone he didn’t know.” He prepared many NASCAR veterans for their twice a year road races at Watkins Glen and Sears Point. Along the way he taught and became close friends with car owners Richard Childress and Rick Hendricks.

     In 1972 Fitzgerald met actor/racer Paul Newman and they became fast friends according to legend ‘over a case of beer and a bowl of popcorn’. Their friendship became stronger over the next fifteen years. At a recent gathering at the home of Jim’s’daughter Mary Jo Busa and her husband Charlie they joined Keith and Penny Hege and Jim’s wife Mary Lou in remembering the good times and the friendship. Fitzgerald would stay at Newman’s house when in the Northeast and there he found out that the Newman cook could not prepare pinto beans ‘southern-style’ That led to regular ‘bean cooking days’ in North Carolina so that they could be shipped to Connecticut. Newman convinced Fitzgerald to take a small part in one of his movies but his screen debut ended up on the cutting room floor. He brought fellow actor Tom Cruise to the school but Cruise didn’t have the time or inclination to become as accomplished a driver as Newman.

     Fitzy also established a friendship with actress Marsha Mason who was a student at his school and a regular ‘visiting crew member’ at Bob Sharp Racing.

     During the early 80’s Nissan began to consolidate their racing projects and Fitzgerald gave up preparing his own car and became a full time driver for Sharp Racing with full factory backing as a team with Newman. In 1984 he raced a 280ZX in SCCA Nationals and qualified for the National Championship title race at Road Atlanta. Receiving a new 300ZX Turbo for the Atlanta race he won his second National Championship. He and Newman ran full seasons of Trans Am and GT-1 in 1984 through 1986 with Newman taking the GT-1 title in 1985.

     In 1987 Fitzgerald and Newman raced exclusively in the professional SCCA Trans Am series. In the final race of the season at St. Petersburg, Florida Fitzy skidded into a concrete barrier on the third lap and lost his life. He died at age 65 on November 8, 1987. He would have been 66 on December 1. His age was his best kept secret, concealed by his love of life, his love of racing and his love for the friendships he made every day. Comments after his death included “ I never met a man who had as good a time living”. “ Never too busy to let a friend know he was important”

     Marsha Mason wrote in a letter to Bob Sharp that Sharp shared with Jim’s wife Mary Lou. “Gosh, I miss him- I’ll always love old Fitz, that’s for sure”

     His friend Paul Newman delivered a eulogy at the funeral. “He left a big impact on me and all I know is wherever he is, he has a helluva ride.”

April 1974 race report by Gordon Warren And Bill King -

The big iron feature race was, for a change, the real feature race. Jim Fitzgerald in the Bob Sharp Racing 260-Z set out in practice Saturday to give his first driving lesson as part-owner of the newly-formed Fitzgerald-White School of Motor Racing located at VIR. The lesson turned out to be "what- to- do- while- porpoising- through- a- rutty -field- with- your- throttle- stuck- open- and- your- steering- broke- all- to- hell." These shenanigans caused the Fitzgerald Team to do an all-nighter back at the Clemmons, N.C., garage putting the front of the Z-car back where it was designed to be. Since Fitzgerald had not completed any qualifying laps, the next problem was where to grid him. In a decision that seemed infinitely fair, he was placed in the middle of the eighteen car pack, behind all but one of his C Production competitors. Fitzgerald complained that the spectators were being robbed of a good race by sticking him so far back. As it turned out, gridding Fitz dead last would have been best for the spectators. When the flag dropped, the 260-Z shot from the fifth row through several holes seemingly narrower than the car into fourth place going into the first turn. On lap three, he came by just in front of John McComb's Group 44 TR-6 and just behind Doug Mills' leading Camaro. Nipping past Mills at the hairpin, Fitz set sail. McComb's only chance was to get around the Camaro quickly, and he wasted no time in doing so, although some body work on both cars was wasted in the process. But Fitzgerald was not to be caught this day, especially by a VIR newcomer, even one as skilled as John McComb. It takes more than a couple of practice sessions to learn this 3.2 miles. Fitzgerald's drive earned him a new CP lap standard at 2:16.4.