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.
At 70, John Cooper Fitch set a speed record for driving backward.
Eva Peron, the legendary Evita, kissed him after he won the 1951 Grand Prix of Argentina. His friend George Barker, the poet, described him as “a tall Jack with the sun on his wrist and a sky stuffed up his sleeve.”
Mr. Fitch, a lanky, graceful man who died on Monday at 95, put it more simply: “I’ve always needed to go fast.” ...
As glamorous as his racing life was — Mr. Fitch led Corvette’s first racing team and was the only American to join Mercedes’s 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.
... Speed Age magazine named him Sports Car Driver of 1953.
A test of the Fitch Inertial Barrier, barrels filled with sand that cushion a blow.
Mr. Fitch was soon recruited to join the Mercedes-Benz racing team, which was using victories on the track to help propel the company to a postwar resurgence. ...
The same year, on June 11, 1955 Mr. Fitch was teamed with Pierre Levegh in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race (which Fitch had won in 1953]. 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 Mr. 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. For the highway barrier, he began with liquor crates, filling them with different amounts of sand and then crashing into them himself at speeds of up to 70 m.p.h. to figure out what worked best.
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.