If you take every risk offered, if you break world records, if you meet luminaries wherever you go, and if you’re credited with saving thousands of lives, you still won’t live as full a life as John Cooper Fitch.
A few highlights from his New York Times obituary:
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.
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.
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.