Racer and safety pioneer Bill Simpson dies at 79

Images courtesy of Steve Shunck

Racer and safety pioneer Bill Simpson dies at 79

Industry

Racer and safety pioneer Bill Simpson dies at 79

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He made safety part of the racing vernacular, but lived his life on the edge. He started in drag racing and spread his knowledge to IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula 1. He pissed people off hourly, yet shared a drink with them before the sun went down.

He set himself on fire to prove a point, and saved countless lives with his innovations. He took a sucker punch from NASCAR, and retaliated with a haymaker in court. He drove in the Indianapolis 500, yet was much more successful out of the car. He was an orphan that embraced fatherhood, although he wasn’t that great of a husband.

E.J. “Bill” Simpson was a pioneer in motorsports safety, a self-made millionaire and a stubborn character that answered to no-one.

Simpson, who died Monday after suffering a massive stroke last Friday, did a little bit of everything during his 79 years. He drove dragsters and Indy cars, started a safety business in his garage that grew into an empire, and helped reduce the death rate in all forms of racing.

“Not a lot of people know this but Bill was an orphan that had nothing, and turned his life into something special,” said Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, the drag racing legend who was one of Simpson’s best and oldest friends. “He did so much, and saved so many lives with his innovations.

“He was the original rags-to-riches story, but he had a big heart and cared about people. Of course he wasn’t real tactful, and we had our differences over the years, but I loved the guy.”

Born in Hermosa Beach, Ca., Simpson started drag racing in the late 1950s and broke both arms when he was 18 years old. That led to his initial safety idea of mounting a parachute behind the car to slow it down, and soon enough it was adopted by the NHRA. But his big breakthrough came in the 1960s, when astronaut Pete Conrad introduced him to a fire-retardant material called Nomex. Those were the days when IndyCar, NASCAR and F1 drivers lost their lives to fire at an alarming rate because they either drove in a T-shirt or a uniform that was dipped in a chemical to give minimal protection. Simpson began cranking out Nomex suits, and by 1967, 30 of the 33 starters at Indy were wearing them.

“We never, ever thought about safety, and I didn’t chase Bill Simpson, but thankfully he chased us and made us think,” said Bobby Unser, whose career began in the lethal ‘60s. “Nobody paid any attention to him at first, but then we had to take a serious look at him because he was so smart.

“The things he was doing changed racing, and he was the best in the world. He did more for racing safety than anyone. He was the man.”

Adds Prudhomme: “We were wearing Levis and leather jackets, and he saved my ass a time or two with his Nomex suit.

He showed up at Indianapolis in 1970 with long hair, a fu manchu moustache and an old car, but finally made the show in 1974. He was public enemy No.1 with USAC because of his combative attitude, and drew its ire when he set himself on fire in Turn 1 once to prove the effectiveness of his latest suit. He also kept the USAC charter plane waiting for over an hour in Argentina because he was trying to sweet talk a young lady into flying home with him. They eventually got married.

Still, as much as he enjoyed driving, the safety side of racing was his passion. From suits, Simpson branched out into gloves, shoes, seat belts and helmets. Simpson Safety Products were used worldwide, and his reputation grew alongside his bank account. His equipment was on display all over the world, and he was constantly upgrading it. But in 2001, his pal Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash at Daytona that changed the course of Simpson’s life.

Despite the fact Earnhardt used a seat that was anything but safe and was notorious for loosening his seat belts during a race, NASCAR blamed Simpson seat belts for the death of NASCAR’s biggest star. His life was threatened by fans, and he resigned from his company. “The Earnhardt thing broke his heart, took him down to his knees,” recalled Prudhomme.

But it didn’t deter his will to prove NASCAR was merely looking for a scapegoat, so he sued the sanctioning body for defamation of character in 2003. “Those people declared war on me but they didn’t know what kind of a fight they were in for,” he said in a 2004 interview. “Everyone who has ever dealt with NASCAR has acquiesced to them because they think they’re bulletproof and nobody will stand up to them. They brought me my knees like nobody else has ever done. But I’m a pretty mean son of a bitch, and they f%^&$% with the wrong guy.”

The $9 million suit was settled out of court, and while terms were never divulged, Simpson always smiled when asked how he did.

Another thing that always made him smile was the mere mention of Rick Mears. Simpson took him out of desert racing and into an Indy car in 1976, and then watched the kid from Bakersfield, Ca. blossom into one of Indy’s greatest champions. He kindly sold Rick’s contract to Roger Penske.

“I didn’t know anything about Indy back then and I didn’t realize what a leader Bill was in the safety industry,” said the four-time Indy winner. “I didn’t know his history, but as time went on I could see what he did to forward its progress. Obviously, I’ll always be thankful for what he did for my career, but I grew to appreciate what he’d done for the sport as time went on. He was the leader in safety, and the guy everyone looked up to in safety. He was big on safety, but didn’t mind taking risks on how to improve things.”

Simpson was married three times and loved picking fights in bars, but fathered two sons, Jeff and David, and enjoyed sailing on his boat in Mexico almost as much as whiskey.

Unser recalls almost getting into a fight in Gasoline Alley with Simpson while The Snake spent many nights with the “wild man” trying to keep him out of bar fights.

“Bill was a hippie when I met him and a cranky old guy most of his life, but he went from a nobody to the top of the heap,” said the three-time Indy winner. “He worked hard and had a good mind – it didn’t go where the normal mind went. Now, he was a hard-head and I’d get mad at him, but then he would do something really good, which was often, and we’d like him again. He’d piss people off one day and save a bunch of lives the next. That was Bill Simpson.”

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