The date was October 9, 1949. The place was Owosso, Michigan. In this photo, driver Vern Fritch was about two minutes away from being paralyzed for life when his sprint car flipped over. For most drivers, this would have been the end of the story. For "Flip" Fritch it was the beginning of a new chapter in a racing career that transformed him from an average driver to a unique figure in the history of racing. To hear the rest of the story, read on.
Vern "Flip" Fritch was a special person in my life as he was in the lives of many others. I met him in June of 1962 when I was just 17. It had been less than a year since my father had died suddenly. As for many sons, my dad was my hero and his death devastated me. With his help, I had been making photographs since I was 12. Now, I was determined to become a racing photographer like my dad as a way of being close to him and to the sport we both loved.
I wrote to one of my dad's old friends, Chris Economaki, editor of the National Speed Sport News, and Chris sent me a press pass and encouraged me to submit stories to the paper. But without a pit pass, I would have to do all my reporting and photographing from the grandstand. The USAC midgets were running at Mt. Clemens Race Track north of Detroit the night of June 2, 1962. Vern was there in his hand-controlled station wagon and recognized me. He pulled some strings and somehow got me a Season Pit ID and a Pit Pass. Then, I hopped in and he drove into the infield, pulling up along the front stretch across from the grandstand. Vern told me stories while we watched the qualifying.
I was at the track three nights most weeks that summer and for several summers after that. I had many stories published in the NSSN and some photos. On the nights Flip was there, I would stop by and chat with him. He had great stories and the conversation was always lively. The fact that he was a paraplegic seemed irrelevant to him. Vern was a person who was too busy living to complain.
Vern was elected to the Michigan Motor Sport Hall of Fame in 1982. He was elected to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1997. I never forgot his kindness to me. I am happy to be able to offer this small thank you back to him. Here is as much of his story as I know at the moment.
Vern Fritch was born September 26, 1909 in New Lothrop, Michigan. Fritch grew up in Detroit and attended Northwestern High School there. He was competitive from an early age and in the late 1920's qualified to try out for the US Olympic team in the 10,000 meter run but lacked the money to pay his way to Chicago for the finals and didn't go.
Vern discovered auto racing in 1932 when he struck up a conversation with a young driver named Henry Banks who would to on to immortality as a driver and racing official. He began driving soon after. Apparently, he also began writing racing stories and taking photos about the same time.
Fritch was a busy guy on and off the track. Here is a Fritch photo of Henry Banks losing a wheel at the VFW Motor Speedway in Detroit in 1934. I haven't found much of a record of Vern as a driver but he was active as a car owner as well as writer and photographer.
Vern owned many race cars over the years. This big car has George Witzman at the wheel. Witzman was a poplular and talented driver in the Detroit area. A feature story on Witzman is on my list of projects for the future. I have no idea who the fellow in the white hat is. (Photo by Fritch, of course).
He was by this time writing news articles for the National Speed Sport News along with his well known column, "Round and Round with Fritch".
I haven't found much about Vern's personal life before his accident. This photo taken in the Blixt basement is captioned "V. Fritch & family, May 1940".No names for the wife or children. (Note the wall of racing photos behind the family. A number of them can be found elsewhere on this site.) Very possibly, they were divorced sometime in the early 1940's.
A decade later, newpaper stories described Fritch's secret engagement and ultimate marriage to another woman, his nurse during his hospitalization. What happened to that marriage is also a mystery as Vern seems to have spent much of the rest of his life living alone. Maybe one of our readers can help us fill in the blanks.
There are other details of Vern's life that need to be filled in. In the late 1940's Fritch operated a racing school at Motor City Speedway in Detroit for some period but it is not clear how long that lasted. Vern also did some broadcasting on radio and later television. He is often shown in a photo behind the mike at radio station WABC which is misidentified as being in Detroit (see below). It is actually located in Los Angeles. As the 1940's ended, Fritch was a prominent figure in racing. The reason for his fame was about to change, however.
Having owned race cars since the early 1930's, Fritch was no stranger to the dangers of racing. The caption on this photo reads, "Tommy Chaffee-#68 Turret-Top Ford midget and Flip Fritch #104 - Motor City Speedway-at a session of the Fritch Drivers School-showing the students what NOT to do?"
On October 9, 1949, Vern Fritch suffered a horrible accident at Michigan's Owosso Speedway. Fortunate that he was not fatally injured, Vern was unfortunate to be permanently disabled. The accident was the result of a blown radiator hose on the race car in front of him, with the other car spinning in his path. Fritch went over the other cars axle and flipped sideways over and over, throwing him out onto the track.
Although physically disabled, Flip's spirits were not dampened by his adversity. After 16 months in an Owosso hospital, he returned to racing with a renewed zeal for the sport. While recovering, he met and later married his nurse, Miss Marian Jones.
Here Fritch (now "Flip") is presented with a racing lamp trophy of some kind by his racing friends. The only one I know is Ed Jones, center, a local promoter. (Photo by Al Blixt, Sr.)
After his recovery, Flip went to work helping other disabled racing people by starting the "Disabled Drivers Pool", (DDP). He steadfastly plugged the needs of injured drivers, collected funds and distributed them as needed. So, in place of feeling sorry for himself, he dedicated his life to assisting others in need. The "Flipper" had a favorite saying, "racing takes care of its own."
Reader Dan Ostwick offers his recollection of Flip's generosity to his dad, famous driver Eddie Ostwick in a note that says, "Vern Fritch is the driver that I really remember. After my dad was disabled, Vern always sent the racing paper paid for by the diabled drivers fund." At the end of each column he would recognize those who contributed as little as a dollar to the "DDP".
In a typical "Round N Round" column from March 14, 1951 Flip recognized 38 donors, including Ostwick and other drivers. One recognition read, "Another greatly appreciated Xmas card (with a $50 check) came from that great driver's driver Johnny Parsons and his Lila. And swell people are they too."
Flip is remembered by Marty Little as a character. In a note to me, he recalls, "I don't know much about him personally. I do know that he was a great correspondent and he always used a typewriter. His 'trademark', if you will, was using the back side of old news releases and other paper around the house that was handy on which to write his correspondence."
One of Flip's attributes, his sense of humor, manifested his great spirit and he kept on the upbeat. Even though he was confined to his wheelchair, he never would allow other people to assist him around and in 1959, Vern held the world's record for a hand controlled car, (100.166 MPH) set at Daytona Beach. (Thanks to Dan Ostwick for this photo.)
Vern converted that hand-controlled car back into a a conventional race car and campaigned it in 1963. Shown here, the car was driven by Michigan racing legend Jack Goodwin at Mt. Clemens Race Track. (Photo by Al Blixt, Jr.)
Flip Fritch was a multi-talented journalist. He was widely known for his writing in several racing papers. In 1945 and again in 1948 he was named the winner of the National Speed Sport News Writer's award. Helping new and aspiring writers break into the racing journalism field was high on his list. Among those he helped in the beginning were Bill Seith, John Darveau, and John Sawyer.
Vern also appeared on radio and television. Here he is shown at the mike of radio station KABC in Los Angeles. In the fifties he was to receive his "National Writers Award" on Miami's WVTV television station.
Vern lived his final years in Florida, passing away on August 7, 1978 in Riverview, Florida at the age of 69. Vern loved dirt track racing. He was cremated and his ashes were placed at East Bay Speedway in Florida. Sadly, it appears that his entire collection of racing photographs, stories and memorabilia was lost after his death - discarded by his family according to rumor.
Many thanks to all the folks who contributed information for this feature including Dan Ostwick of Gladwin, MI; Marty Little of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and Bill Foster. Special thanks to Mr. Dick Lee of Grand Rapids, Michigan who sent along several invaluable articles from his collection. I have others who I will be contacting and so you may be seeing updates on this story in the future. Until then, -30-