The Loss of a Racing Safety Legend

The racing world lost a giant on Monday when Bill Simpson passed away at the age of seventy-nine from a stroke that he suffered on Friday. The terms “giant” and “legend” are tossed around rather loosely is sports, many times being a little liberal with the meaning. That was not the case in describing Bill Simpson.

Simpson was a driver and a car owner, although most today know him for his advances in race safety through two companies he founded; Simpson Performance Products and Impact! Racing.

As a driver, Simpson drove USAC Championship (Indy) cars. He started in fifty-two races between 1968 and 1977. He had eleven Top-Ten finishes, with a best finish of sixth at Milwaukee in 1970. He qualified twentieth for the 1974 Indianapolis 500 and finished thirteenth. As a car owner, Simpson gave Rick Mears his very first Indy car ride at Ontario in a four year-old Eagle. Mears finished eighth.

But it was not as a driver or a car owner that Bill Simpson is remembered. It is for his contribution to safety in an era when safety was considered secondary to speed and costs.

He developed the first parachute for dragsters in 1958, something that is considered commonplace today. From there he went on a never-ending pursuit with his company, Simpson Safety Products, to develop and continually improve gloves, shoes, fire suits, helmets and seatbelts.

When he developed the umbilical cords for NASA for use in the Gemini program, it was there that he learned of a DuPont product called Nomex. Simpson developed the first fire suits utilizing Nomex in 1967 and all but three starters for the 1967 Indianapolis 500 wore the suits in the race. Simpson was so certain of his product that he set himself on fire while wearing the suit many times to prove its effectiveness.

Unfortunately, Bill Simpson’s story cannot be told without controversy. When Dale Earnhardt was fatally injured in the 2001 Daytona 500 the investigation said that the Simpson belts had malfunctioned and that this was at least partially to blame for Earhardt’s fatal injuries. Many say that this was unfair and unsubstantiated, but NASCAR needed someone to blame. Bill Simpson became an immediate target for over-zealous NASCAR fans. He received death threats and even had bullets fired into his home.

In the midst of the controversy, Simpson was forced to resign from the company he founded in July of 2001. After a one-year non-compete clause with his old company had expired, Simpson founded Impact! Racing in 2002. Today, a stroll through the IndyCar paddock shows that most drivers and cars wear suits and their accessories; and use seatbelts carrying the name of one of these two companies. Bill Simpson’s legacy is everywhere you look at a race track.

Simpson also sued NASCAR for defamation of character in 2003. They eventually settled out of court in 2004, making many believe that Simpson had been justified with his suit.

Even in his latter years; Bill Simpson never stopped thinking, working or developing to make racing safer. He was a racer at heart and improving the safety of all the participants was always his top priority. To call him an innovator is an understatement. To call him a pioneer is selling him short. He was a giant and a legend in this sport and the racing world is worse off today without him in it. He will be missed.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “The Loss of a Racing Safety Legend”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Simpson saved a lot of lives and he did it while being a bit of a showman. Lighting himself on fire to prove the quality of his Nomex suits was a heck of a stunt, but a stunt that benefitted all of racing as much as it benefitted Simpson’s company.

    He will be missed for sure.

  2. I don’t remember the year, but it was probably the late 70s and Simpson was practicing for the 500. As he was driving down the backstretch he realized he was thinking about business. He pulled into the pits and retired as a driver. He said he realized that if his business meant so much to him that he was not focused while driving at about 200 miles per hour, he needed to stop driving and focus solely of business.

  3. Silly Billy had a fine sense of humor. One of his dragster parachutes had a single finger displayed when it deployed.

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