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.
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."
Fitch, a lanky, graceful man who died Monday at 95, put it more simply: “I’ve always needed to go fast."
Sometimes it seemed Fitch 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 — 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 notable exception is his patent for a system for steering hot-air balloons.
A college dropout, 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. 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.
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.