On December 16, the racing world lost Bill Simpson. After suffering a stroke on the 13th of December, Bill was admitted to IU Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and passed three days later. He was 79 years of age.
Bill’s contribution to motorsports was undeniable, as the name Simpson became synonymous with safety.
His start in racing came as a driver, piloting drag cars in southern California. In 1958, at age 18, he was involved in a serious on-track accident resulting in fractures to both arms. It was the catalyst for his life-long mission to improve safety, starting with a parachute to slow down drag cars at the end of each run – his technological advancement is still commonplace today.
In the meantime, he would continue to race, piloting dragsters while also competing in formula SCCA cars, and eventually Indy cars, including a shot at the 1973 Indy 500. But, his safety business had become his priority.
Astronaut Pete Conrad introduced Bill to DuPont’s temperature-resistant Nomex, which was used by NASA, and Simpson began utilizing the fabric to develop racing suits. It was in May of 1967 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that he allowed some fellow racers to set him ablaze while wearing one of his Nomex suits in order to demonstrate its ability to protect the wearer from fire. The result of that daredevil demonstration was 30 of the year’s 33 Indy 500 starters wearing Simpson’s suits.
In addition to advancing suit technology, his line would also include such items as improved helmets, gloves, shoes and belts which have also saved countless lives.
Yet, ironically, following the death of Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona International Speedway in 2001, NASCAR’s follow-up investigation resulted in blame being placed on Simpson – with a claim that the Simpson safety harness used by Earnhardt had failed. Simpson sued NASCAR for defamation in 2003, and the case was eventually settled out of court.
In July of 2001, Simpson left the company that bore his name. A year later, he launched Impact! Racing. In 2003, he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. He sold Impact! in 2010, and in 2014 was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame.
We often lament the loss of the true characters of our sport. Well, Bill was a larger-than-life true character. He could be fun. He could also be a curmudgeon. At the 2002 PRI trade show, while we were getting caught up in the Impact! booth that was debuting his new product line, I made the mistake of congratulating Bill on his new company. “Congratulations for what?” he snorted. “I was supposed to be sitting on a beach collecting a big consulting fee from my own company right now! Instead, I’m starting all over again!”
But, above all, he was always serious, and passionate, about the issue of safety. I remember a discussion Bill and I had years earlier about a media campaign he was launching. The ads took aim at low-buck helmets that some companies were marketing to drivers getting their start in the lower divisions. The line he was using was something to the effect of, “If you have a $200 head, then go ahead and wear a $200 helmet.” It was classic Bill. As we continued our discussion that day, he segued to the low-buck “beginner race suits” that some companies also marketed to the same new racers.
“What the hell is a ‘beginner’s suit’ supposed to be?” he exclaimed. “Does a beginner wreck differently than someone whose been racing for years? And, who’s more likely to wreck and need a good suit, the guy that’s been racing for years or the beginner? It’s just stupid!”
His logic was sound.
Simply put, Bill Simpson forever changed every discussion regarding racing safety. And, he spent his life working to help keep each of his fellow racers – his friends – from dying in a race car. Rest in peace, Bill. You will be missed.