REMEMBERING JIM FITZGERALD : He Loved the Life of Racing Cars

Times Staff Writer

Either way you say it, among the racers he loved, Jim Fitzgerald was a gentleman--and a gentle man.

Bob Sharp, who builds and owns the cars that Fitzy drove with actor Paul Newman, probably summed up Fitzgerald's philosophy as well as anyone when he said: "He was a man who wanted to race forever."

Fitzgerald, 65, was the oldest driver in a major racing series when he was killed Sunday during a Trans-Am sedan race on the St. Petersburg Grand Prix downtown street course. The Nissan 300ZK Turbo he was driving clipped a concrete barrier on the third lap and spun across the track into another barrier. The car, estimated to be traveling between 80 and 100 m.p.h., hit broadside on the driver's side. Fitzgerald had started in 12th position and had worked his way up to ninth.

An autopsy determined that Fitzgerald, the winningest driver in Sports Car Club of America history, died instantaneously of a broken neck. The race was the last of the season.

Newman, who had been Fitzgerald's teammate on the Newman-Sharp team since 1984, was running fifth in the same race when the accident occurred. When he was told of his teammate's death, Newman said he would remain in the race and dedicate it to his old friend.

Newman then sat in his car for 45 minutes while the emergency workers attended to Fitzgerald and the damaged fencing was repaired. But when the race was resumed, Newman's car would not start.

Newman left immediately for his home in Connecticut and would not comment on the incident.

"Paul said he wants to keep his thoughts to himself at this point," said Peter Slater, team manager.

Fitzgerald, at 65, and Newman, 62, were the oldest driving partners in motor racing.

Fitzgerald, who was also chief driving instructor at the Road Atlanta Drivers Training Center, often discussed his attitude toward racing.

"I peaked at 60, then I leveled off," he said with a wide smile while at Riverside last June to drive in a Winston Cup stock car race. "Age is relative to what you're doing. If you think you're old, you'll feel old. Me, I think I'm still a kid, so I feel like a kid.

"I get tired of the writers who use the words grizzled veteran. They never say classy and some even say fat. That really hurts. They just think I'm fat because my suit is loose.

"Seriously, all of us go through the aging process and listen to people tell us you can't do that, but that's nothing but straight-on bull. You can do anything you want. All you have to have is desire."

Fitzgerald won his first national championship in 1955 in a go-kart. Last year, 31 years later, he finished second to Newman in the SCCA national championship runoffs at Road Atlanta and also won four GT-1 events in the Newman-Sharp turbo-charged Nissan.

Between those two milestones, he won more than 250 races in SCCA. In the early 1960s, Fitzgerald lived in San Bernardino and won a number of races while driving a Morgan and a Datsun in Cal Club events.

The jovial Clemmons, N.C., resident always said he liked the present better than the past.

"The old days were fine, but the new days, with the new cars and the new technology, are finer. The thrill of driving one of these cars is absolutely unbelievable. It can go 175 at Riverside or 200 at Talladega without blinking.

"It's a sensation that's hard to describe, and even harder to let go of."

Fitzgerald's most memorable win occurred in the 1984 SCCA national championships. His Nissan was leading in the GT-1 final when a cloudburst flooded the hilly Road Atlanta course. Sixteen of the 18 cars slid off the course and down a ravine, piling one on top of another. The race was called at that point, and Fitzgerald was declared the winner because he was the first one off the course.

Fitzgerald and Newman became pals after meeting in 1972 at Road Atlanta.

"We were all sitting around after the races, drinking beer and eating popcorn in a hotel room, and Paul and I just hit it off. I guess it was because we spent most of the time needling each other. A lot of people are afraid to give Paul the needle, because they think he's a famous actor, but to me he's just another guy hooked on racing."

When Newman produced the movie "Harry and Son," he cast Fitzy in the role of a crane operator who had to stand up to Newman after taking his job. Fitzgerald loved to recall the incident.

"Every time I had a line, I forgot it. To make sure I knew what to say, Paul finally printed the lines on his chest."

The scene ending up on the cutting room floor.

Newman and Fitzgerald remained close friends for 15 years, either racing against one another or as teammates.

Newman said recently: "I keep Fitzy on the team because when he's around and people keep asking me why I'm still racing, I tell them to ask the fat guy over there, he's older than I am."

Services will be held Thursday in Clemmons, where Fitzgerald lived with his wife, Mary Lou.

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