John Fitch was something of legend in northwestern Connecticut. He was a college dropout and sometime inventor whose his great-great-grandfather and namesake is credited with inventing the steamboat. In 1939 Mr. Fitch hopped a freighter for Europe, according to his 2012 obituary in The New York Times, and in 1941 he enlisted in the Army Air Forces. Flying a P-51 Mustang, he shot down a German Messerschmitt Me 262, the first operational jet fighter, and later was shot down himself and did time in P.O.W. camps. He even skippered the winning yacht in the 1958 America’s Cup race.
Mr. Fitch was also a race car driver, and a famous one at that. He and his wife lived in various places in Europe, then moved to Palm Beach, where they “hobnobbed with Orville Wright, Noël Coward and lots of Kennedys” before settling down in Connecticut, where he played a major role in establishing Lime Rock Park, the renowned race track in Lakeville. That’s where he set a peculiar record in 1987, driving the winding course backward at 60 miles per hour, at age 70.
(An aside: I met Mr. Fitch once, back in the 1970s, at his HQ in Lakeville. He took me back in the shop and pulled the sheet off his brainchild, the 1966 Fitch Phoenix — a beautiful, Italian-bodied, Corvair-powered prototype sports car that, sadly, never went into production. The one-and-only prototype was sold in 2014 to some guy from Greenwich, for $253,000.)
But a much darker event, back in 1955, seems to have set his inventive mind to work on motor safety, both on the race track and on the highway. As he waited to take over from his co-driver, Pierre Levegh, in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, there was a chain-reaction collision that sent parts of Levegh’s car into the stands, killing 84 people. This, the worst catastrophe in motor racing history, caused Mercedes-Benz to discontinue racing for more than three decades.
It also caused Mr. Fitch to focus his attention on safety. From The Times:
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.
All of which is a very long way of suggesting that those yellow barrels we all see on the highways might be a solution to the problem of cars that keep crashing into the Hop Haus in the center of Plantsville, four of them since 2017 and one just the other week.
Lacking any cogent ideas from the state on how to solve this problem (Route 10 is a state road), the building’s owner is about to throw up her hands and install concrete posts or bollards for protection from these unguided, two-ton missiles that tend to strike late at night.
Or maybe a few of those Fitch barrels would work. (They wouldn’t have to be yellow, since tarting up the village center seems to be a goal of the town.) Or maybe a berm made of good old dirt, which could be planted with pretty flowers. Or maybe bigger signs, or more flashing lights.
There must be something that’ll work.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.