Among the artifacts of daily life so ordinary that they give no hint of their extraordinary origins are the yellow, sand-filled crash cushions found on highways in all 50 states. It’s unlikely that many motorists give them a second glance, let alone wonder how they came to be fixtures of the American roadway, but if they looked into it, they’d find that the story of the Fitch Barrier and its inventor, John Fitch, is as colorful as the barriers themselves.
Born in 1917 to a wealthy and inventive family (his great-great grandfather was an inventor of the steamboat), John Cooper Fitch studied civil engineering at Lehigh University before dropping out to travel the eastern U.S. and Europe by motorcycle. Sailing and airplanes were early interests, and after an unsuccessful attempt to join the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of World War II, he joined the US Army Air Corps in the spring of 1941. Flying the A-20 Havoc bomber and P-51 Mustang fighter, Fitch was one of a handful of pilots (including famed test pilot Chuck Yeager) to shoot down a German Me 262 jet fighter. Later, shot down by ground fire, he ended the war in a German prison camp.
|Fitch and the Cunningham C4R
After the war, Fitch found his niche in sports car racing, parlaying impressive driving skills into a successful career with legends like Briggs Cunningham, Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio. He successfully managed the Corvette racing program in the late ‘50s, and between 2003 and 2005, in his late ‘80s, drove in land speed record attempts at Bonneville in a 1955 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, the type in which he’d won the GT class at the 1955 Mille Miglia. He designed several racing and sports cars, including the highly regarded Fitch Sprint and Fitch Phoenix, both based on the unfairly maligned Chevrolet Corvair.
|June 11, 1955 - the Le Mans Disaster
It was the infamous 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, however, that provided the pivotal moment of Fitch’s life and career. During the race, another driver swerved in front of teammate Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, launching it into an embankment, ejecting Levegh, and propelling the flaming wreckage into the spectator stands. Levegh and more than 80 spectators were killed, and nearly 180 more were injured. The Le Mans disaster, to this day the worst racing accident in history, was caused by a racetrack inadequate for the speeds of the day and having little or no crash protection for drivers or spectators. Although Fitch continued driving professionally until 1966 and in vintage racing for years afterward, he remained greatly affected by that horrific day at Le Mans, and realized he could make his greatest contribution to society through the promotion of automotive safety.
Fitch became a prolific inventor, patenting crash cushion and barrier systems for racetracks and highways, fuel, emissions, and brake products for cars and trucks, and safety improvements for cars and occupants. He devised cushioned racetrack walls and guardrails with deformable cylinders, and designed a race car helmet restraint that anticipated the modern HANS device for preventing fatal neck and skull fractures.
|John Fitch testing early crash cushion prototypes in a '60 Chevy
The engineer in Fitch knew that reducing the severity of crashes required dissipating energy and increasing the time of deceleration of the crashing vehicle. He built the first prototypes of what would become the Fitch Inertial Barrier from sand-filled liquor barrels, testing them himself in his own driveway at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. Fellow race legend Sam Posey recalled, “He had these barrels arranged. It's freezing cold, and John gets the car warmed up and charges toward these barrels. At the last second he throws himself down on the floor of the car. He crashes into the barrels. Sand everywhere. Just a huge mess. And John emerges, grinning like a sonofabitch."
Now, of course, Fitch Barriers are found on highways across America. No one knows how many lives they’ve saved in the decades since their adoption in the late ‘60s; the most commonly cited figure is almost 20,000. The value in human life is of course incalculable.
John Fitch died in 2012 at the age of 95, having lived a storybook life. He’d traveled the world and moved easily among the powerful and famous, receiving a trophy and kiss from Eva Perón, and befriending the likes of the Kennedys and the Duke of Windsor. But it was his legacy of automotive safety that he valued most, and he counted as his greatest accomplishment the familiar yellow barrels that bear his name.
|Fitch with the Fitch Sprint and Fitch Phoenix at Lime Rock, Connecticut
|Fitch and the Gullwing at Bonneville