Well Done, Mr. Fitch

An obituary in the NYT:

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.” 

Mr. Fitch, a lanky, graceful man who died on Monday at 95, put it more simply: “I’ve always needed to go fast.” …

 

A couple of years ago, I was reading up on creativity, which seems like a morass of the unmeasurable and barely definable. There`s artistic creativity, technological creativity, and so forth. So, I came up with the idea that one indisputable form of creativity is to invent something useful that could have been invented previously. The best example I could come up with are those garbage cans with increasing amounts of sand in them in front of bridge abutments and other places motorists can get killed. 

I assumed the guy who invented it was probably just some guy doing his job who happened to have a sudden flash of inspiration. Instead, the inspiration turned out to be so spectacular that nobody would believe it if you put it into a movie.

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.

I bet it`s approaching 100,000 lives saved worldwide. 

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. … 

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.