Obituary: John Cooper Fitch / Race driver invented highway crash barrier

Aug. 4, 1917 - Oct. 29, 2012

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He seemed bathed in golden sunlight, this John Cooper Fitch, who put on goggles and a polo helmet and drove racing cars as fast as anybody in the world, including his sometime partner, Stirling Moss. He shot a newly introduced German jet from the sky in World War II, raced yachts, built his own sports cars.

Sometimes it seemed Mr. Fitch, who died Oct. 29 at 95, was trying to outdistance time itself. At 70, he set a speed record -- for driving backward, reaching 60 mph at Lime Rock Park, the track he helped build in Connecticut.

As glamorous as his racing life was -- Mr. Fitch led Corvette's first racing team and was the only American to join Mercedes' fabled stable of drivers -- his greatest achievement can be found on public highways. He invented the Fitch Inertial Barrier, a cluster of plastic barrels filled with varying amounts of sand that progressively slow and cushion a car in a crash. Devised in the 1960s and commonly positioned at exit ramps and abutments along interstates, the barrier is believed to have saved more than 17,000 lives.

His patent for that invention is one of 15 he owned, most of them for safety improvements for motor racing and driving on highways.

A college dropout, Mr. Fitch said he had learned just enough engineering to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish. His genes could not have hurt: An ancestor invented the first plow on wheels during the Revolutionary War, and his great-great-grandfather John Fitch invented the steamboat.

A grandfather, Asa Fitch, made a fortune from Fitch's Chewing Gum, which he invented in his kitchen. His father, Robert, was an early builder of horseless carriages in Indiana.

John Cooper Fitch was born in Indianapolis on Aug. 4, 1917. His parents divorced when he was 6, and his mother married George Spindler, president of the Stutz Motor Car Co.

He attended military school and studied civil engineering at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania for a year.

Enlisting in the Army Air Forces in 1941, he went on to fly a P-51 Mustang and shot down a German Messerschmitt Me 262, the first operational jet fighter, as it was taking off. He was later shot down himself and spent three months in POW camps.

After the war, as a member of Palm Beach society, he started racing yachts.

Mr. Fitch had fallen in love with sports cars when he saw a race in England, and after briefly selling them at a Mercedes-Benz dealership he opened in White Plains, N.Y., he began racing an MG roadster on Long Island. In 1951, he won the Argentina race in an Allard sports car powered by a Cadillac V-8 engine and went on to win 12 of 13 races in the United States. The Sports Car Club of America anointed him its first national champion.

He soon caught the attention of Briggs Cunningham, a wealthy sportsman who was a dominant force in sports-car racing. In 1953, Mr. Fitch won the second 12-hour endurance race in Sebring, Fla., in a Chrysler-powered car designed by Cunningham. Speed Age magazine named him Sports Car Driver of 1953.

Mr. Fitch was soon recruited to join the Mercedes-Benz racing team. Mr. Fitch teamed with Moss to win the Royal Automobile Club's Tourist Trophy in 1955 in Northern Ireland.

The same year, on June 11, Mr. Fitch was teamed with Pierre Levegh in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Ten minutes before Mr. Fitch was to take over the car, it went out of control, veered into the crowd and burst into flames, killing Levegh and more than 80 spectators in the most catastrophic accident in motor sports history.

The horror of the crash motivated Mr. Fitch to develop safety barriers, including one for the walls of racetracks to deflect a car and soften its impact.

In addition to saving lives, the Fitch Inertial Barrier -- typically consisting of yellow sand-filled plastic barrels -- saves an estimated $400 million a year in property damage and medical expenses, the National Science Foundation says.

Mr. Fitch also invented, for race cars, a troughlike seat with helmet to reduce brain injuries and an apparatus for hospital beds to relieve disk pressure while allowing freedom of movement.

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