Raise your hand if Bill Simpson saved your life or limb or, like me, perhaps your noggin.
E. J. “Bill” Simpson, racer turned driver safety advocate and manufacturer of racing safety gear, suffered a stroke and died this week. He was 79.
In my case, I was in a rally car, and it was upside down. I was riding shotgun in a preliminary event to the POR, the famed Press On Regardless SCCA rally in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I was the motorsports editor at AutoWeek magazine at the time, and since the magazine was sponsoring this special prelim, I got to ride along.
SCCA rally veteran Doug Shepherd was driving in the semi-final round on the gravel road through the forest when we cleared a jump but upon landing, the right-front corner of the specially prepared Toyota Celica smacked a rock that launched us across the road, into the trees and to an upside landing.
As we were hanging upside down in the car, Shepherd asked me if I was OK. I said I thought so, and he said not to unbuckle the 5-point racing harness.
Why? I asked. Because you’ll fall and hurt yourself, he said.
It wasn’t until I was back in my motel room that I noticed the scraped spot on the crown of my Simpson helmet, which marked the location where the helmet had saved my skull from impact.”
I remember laughing, but as a rally veteran, Shepherd was no stranger to being upside down and explained that if you released the belts without proper preparation, you’d tumble down against the inside of the car’s smashed roof and, panicking for bracing, break one or both wrists. He guided me through the safe procedure and we crawled out the driver’s door window, the window on my side seeming to be missing as part of the suddenly modified roofline.
Needless to say, there would be no final round of the event and Shepherd and I went to a local hospital where it could be verified that neither of us was injured and thus we could compete in the POR the following day, he in his regular rally car and me as substitute navigator filling in for someone who was ailing.
It wasn’t until I was back in my motel room that I noticed the scraped spot on the crown of my Simpson helmet, which marked the location where the helmet had saved my skull from impact. Bill Simpson had sent me the helmet, along with one of his Nomex racing fire suits, to use in both the rally and at the Skip Barber driving school I’d done a few months earlier.
Simpson incorporated Nomex into his racing safety suits, gloves and shoes, and to prove its effectiveness, he set himself on fire in Indy’s Gasoline Alley.”
Simpson raced on drag strips, in sports cars and on Indy tracks, including a 13th place finish in the Indy 500 in 1974. He also was an Indy car owner, the first to put a desert off-road racer named Rick Mears into one of those rear-engine machines. Simpson’s eye for talent was impressive; Mears soon moved up to Roger Penske’s team and won the Indy 500 a record four times.
It was a crash on the drag strip the led Simpson into the racing safety business. He broke both arms in the crash when he was 18. During his recuperation, he rented a sewing machine and created an improved version of the parachute drag racers used to slow their cars at the end of the quarter-mile. Eventually he’d design and produce around 200 safety products.
Simpson also produced some safety equipment for NASA, which is how he met astronaut Pete Conrad, who introduced Simpson to Nomex, a temperature-resistant fabric. Simpson incorporated Nomex into his racing safety suits, gloves and shoes, and to prove its effectiveness, he set himself on fire in Indy’s Gasoline Alley.
Yes, he was a showman. But he also was responsible for preventing the death or serious injury of those who used Simpson’s safety equipment, racers at all levels of the sport, from track-day club participants to the professionals racing at Indy, Le Mans or Monaco. And at least one journalist.