By DOUGLAS MARTIN
A version of this article appeared in print on November 1, 2012, on page A22 of the New York edition with the headline: John Cooper Fitch, Glamorous Racer With a Flair for Danger, Dies at 95.
John Cooper Fitch racing in the 1952 Seneca Cup. "I've always needed to go fast," he once said. Photo via Saratoga Automobile Museum
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."
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, the track he helped build in Connecticut.
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, Noël 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'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.
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 notable exception is his patent for a system for steering hot-air balloons.
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 Company. An amateur racecar driver, Mr. 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 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 P.O.W. camps.
After the war, as a member of Palm Beach society, he started racing yachts. He liked to tell the story of how he met the Duke of Windsor at one soiree: they were relieving themselves on a bush at the time. The duke became a friend.
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, 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 Mr. Cunningham. Speed Age magazine named him Sports Car Driver of 1953.
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. Other team members were Juan Manuel Fangio and Mr. Moss, one of the world's elite drivers. Mr. Fitch teamed with Mr. 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 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.
A test of the Fitch Inertial Barrier, barrels filled with sand that cushion a blow. Courtesy Saratoga Automobile Museum.
Mr. Fitch also invented, for racecars, a troughlike seat with helmet to reduce brain injuries and an apparatus for hospital beds to relieve disk pressure while allowing freedom of movement.
In the 1960s, as a consultant to General Motors, Mr. Fitch designed gear to modify the Chevrolet Corvair, a compact car with an engine in the rear, to create a sportier touring car called the Sprint. As many as 100,000 were sold. He then designed a true racing car, the Phoenix, modeled on the Corvair. Only one prototype was built before Chevrolet abandoned the Corvair altogether for safety reasons in the face of opposition from the consumer advocate Ralph Nader. But the look of the Phoenix was said to have influenced that of the Corvette Stingray.
After Mercedes left racing in 1955, Mr. Fitch led Chevrolet's mid-1950s effort to make the Corvette a serious contender in racing. He began by setting a land speed record for the car's class at Daytona Beach in Florida, exceeding 145 m.p.h. He raced competitively until 1966.
Mr. Fitch helped develop the Lime Rock Park racecourse in Lakeville, Conn., 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.
Mr. Fitch developed automotive products like a gasoline additive and formed companies to market them. He was named to a half-dozen automotive halls of fame. He commented on automotive issues, noting in 1997 that the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash might have been prevented had Parisian traffic engineers installed a guardrail.
Mr. Fitch's wife, Elizabeth, died in 2009. Besides his son Stephen, he is survived by 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-m.p.h. goal and the record.
In the blur of motion that was his life, Mr. Fitch could be philosophical, as he was when an interviewer long ago asked him why men feel driven to drive fast. "I suppose we have this hero impulse," he said.