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John Fitch dies at 95; race driver and auto-safety innovator

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John Fitch, whose richly diverse life included being a successful sports-car racer, fighter pilot and auto-safety innovator, died Wednesday. He was 95.

Fitch died at his home in Lakeville, Conn., near the Lime Rock Park racetrack he helped develop in the mid-1950s, of cancer and respiratory disease, his son Stephen said Friday.

The lanky Fitch first gained fame in the 1950s and '60s racing Mercedes-Benzes and Corvettes in the United States and abroad, notably at European circuits such as Le Mans.

At one point, his Mercedes-Benz teammates were legendary drivers Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio, and Fitch later was inducted into several halls of fame, including the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

"I've always needed to go fast," Fitch told the Hartford Courant in 2006.

But perhaps Fitch's more lasting legacy was later developing crash-barrier systems for highways and racetracks, including the ubiquitous yellow sand- or water-filled plastic barrels guarding exit ramps and bridge abutments.

"There is no counting how many lives have been saved by these barrels," AutoWeek reported in 2006.

John Cooper Fitch was born Aug. 4, 1917, in Indianapolis, but despite being driven around the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a youth, he became more captivated by racing sports cars on twisty road courses than on Indy-type oval tracks.

First, though, he was a World War II pilot. It was while flying the P-51 Mustang fighter plane that he shot down one of the highly regarded German Messerschmitt ME-262 jet fighters, although Fitch modestly noted that he did so as the enemy plane was taking off.

Fitch later was shot down himself, spending the last months of the war as a prisoner. He then turned his sights to racing.

He was an early champion in the Sports Car Club of America, and in 1953 co-drove the winning car in the 12-hour Sebring endurance race in Florida.

Fitch later joined Mercedes-Benz, and one of the highlights of his career was winning the GT production-car division at the Mille Miglia endurance race in Italy in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL in 1955.

Fitch was "a true gentleman and an outstanding driver," Mercedes-Benz spokesman Geoff Day said in a statement.

Also in 1955, Fitch was paired with driver Pierre Levegh for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which turned to horror when their Mercedes-Benz, with Levegh at the wheel, crashed into the crowd, killing Levegh and more than 80 spectators.

Fitch later raced early versions of the Chevrolet Corvette and other sports cars through the mid-1960s. He also developed the Fitch Phoenix, a unique sports car based on the old Corvair and, even in his 80s, Fitch attempted to break speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

But the Le Mans disaster had spawned Fitch's interest in crash safety that preoccupied him for decades.

In addition to his work on crash barrels, "he holds a number of patents for safety equipment including soft walls and sliding barriers for race tracks, and a shelf full of safety awards," the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America noted.

Speaking of his safety efforts, Fitch told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2003 that he "was a war-time bomber pilot and a fighter pilot, and I was involved in some fatal events. This is payback in a way."

Besides his son Stephen, Fitch is survived by sons John and Chris and eight grandchildren. His wife, Elizabeth, died in 2009.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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