John Cooper Fitch, racer; invented highway barrier

Mr. Fitch set a speed record going backward at Lime Rock.
Saratoga Automobile Museum
Mr. Fitch set a speed record going backward at Lime Rock.

NEW YORK — 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, and built his own sports cars.

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 Monday at 95 — put it more simply: ‘‘I’ve always needed to go fast.’’


Sometimes it seemed Mr. Fitch was trying to outdistance time itself. At 70, he set a speed record — for driving backward — reaching 60 miles per hour at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Conn.

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He helped develop the Lime Rock Park racecourse, carving it out of a potato field, and then managed it. His friend Paul Newman raced there. Mr. Fitch lived in Lakeville and died at his home there, having been treated for Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare skin cancer, and respiratory ailments, his son Stephen said.

As a race driver Mr. Fitch lived with his wife, the former Elizabeth Huntley, in an apartment in Paris, a villa in northern Italy, and a house in Switzerland. After the war, he settled in Palm Beach, Fla., and hobnobbed with Orville Wright, Noel Coward, and lots of Kennedys. He and his wife later settled in his family’s 19-room ancestral 18th-century house in Salisbury, Conn.

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.

John Cooper Fitch was born in Indianapolis. His parents divorced when he was 6, and his mother married George Spindler, president of the Stutz Motor Car Co. An amateur racecar driver, Spindler took young John for spins on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He attended military school and studied civil engineering at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania for a year. Answering the call of the open road, he bought an Indian motorcycle and rode it to New Orleans, where he traded it for a Fiat 500 automobile and drove it to New York, stopping only for gas.

In 1939, he used a small inheritance to hop a freighter for Europe and found his way to London, where he fell in love with a ballet dancer and lived with Communist intellectuals in grain barges on the Thames.

Enlisting in the US 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, Mr. Fitch 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 and who went on to skipper the winning yacht in the 1958 America’s Cup race. 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. Other team members were Juan Manuel Fangio and Moss, one of the world’s elite drivers.

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.

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 miles per hour to figure out what worked best.

His wife, Elizabeth, died in 2009. Besides his son Stephen, he leaves two other sons, John and Christopher, and six grandchildren.

In 2005, Mr. Fitch, at 88, went to the Bonneville salt flats in Utah to try to break the land speed ­record for the class of sports car he had driven so successfully many years before. But his car, an invigorated Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing, had engine trouble, and he fell short of his 170-mile-per-hour goal and the record.